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Will Jail Time for a Poacher Help Save the Grizzly Bears of the Northern Rockies?

On May 27, Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch rocked the grizzly bear world in an unprecedented sentencing of a man to six months in federal prison for poaching a threatened grizzly bear in the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem last year (link). While the fine of $5,000 was stiff but not unusual for violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), jail time is unheard of as a penalty for any infraction on imperiled species, let alone grizzly bears.

Never before has there been a louder message to would-be poachers that federal officials are taking their duty to protect endangered species seriously. With poaching the leading cause of grizzly bear deaths in the Cabinet Yaak, Judge Lynch’s sentence has major implications for this population of bears that is teetering on the verge of extinction – and for every other remaining grizzly bear population in the lower-48 states.

The facts of this case show that the killing was not in self-defense, but rather for sport. According to court documents, Shaloko Katzer, 26, of Mead, Washington, was camping with his family at Yaak Falls Campground on May 22, 2015. He and his brother were told that a grizzly bear was headed to the campground. A few minutes later, Katzer and his brother saw the bear, retrieved guns and fired two rounds near the bear. The bear retreated, but Katzer and his brother pursued it. Katzer fired at the bear with a .45 pistol. An investigator found that the .45 caliber bullet that killed the bear came from Katzer’s gun.

What was particularly unusual about this case was that Judge Lynch went beyond the recommendations of prosecutors in his addition of prison time to Katzer’s sentence. Federal prosecutors could not recall another time when a violation of the Endangered Species Act had resulted in prison time.

This from Judge Lynch in the court transcript: “You went out of your way to kill this bear. But the most important thing is this is going to stop. And, unfortunately, you may be the first example, but the unnecessary killing of these threatened species is going to stop. And you, sentencing you to this is necessary to deter all those individuals who might undertake or engage in the same conduct of I guess what they might consider a sport (link).”

Got the message?

Enforcing the ESA Saves Bears’ Lives

Katzer was found guilty of violating the ESA’s prohibition against “take” of federally listed species, which means harassment or malicious killing. By contrast, killing in self-defense is deemed legal. Even with the legal protections in place, it is stunning how commonly grizzly bears are poached, particularly in this remote corner of northwest Montana.

The problem is far deeper than a few thugs in campgrounds. Poaching is rooted in the culture (shall we say redneck?) that dominates this part of Montana, and is facilitated by the easy access of roads, many built for the purpose of logging this land’s big trees.

But poaching here is still less likely than would be the case without ESA protections. With the threat of financial penalties and jail time, the ESA has undoubtedly prevented some malicious killing of grizzly bears. In fact, one  scientific analysis showed that that if people had continued being as lethal as they were prior to when grizzly bears were given ESA protections in 1975, grizzlies would have almost certainly been relegated to isolated enclaves centered on Glacier and Yellowstone Parks (link).

Particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and other agencies were flush enough with resources to send enforcement agents far into remote backcountry areas. Some who might have otherwise engaged in “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut up” behavior were certainly looking over their shoulders. Although the days of law enforcement officials on horseback in the Wilderness are largely over, Lynch’s ruling has served as a helpful reminder that the laws are still on the books, with consequences.

Lynch’s decision also reminds me of the case of the Sawtell female, the most prominent poaching incident in the history of Yellowstone…

Saga of the Sawtell Female

The highest profile poaching conviction that I can remember in Greater Yellowstone involved the “Sawtell female” (named for the peak in Idaho’s Centennial Mountains). This innocent bear and her cub were shot by an elk hunter named Dan Walters in 2002 (link). The radio-collar that was being used by researchers to monitor her was cut off and buried. Walters’ friends also tore out the female’s ear-tag in an effort to help with the cover-up. One of this cabal, an Island Park contractor named Tim Brown, was later quoted as saying, “We don’t like grizzly bears, we don’t want grizzly bears around here.” (link). Walters was fined $15,000.

This case was a very big deal at the time because Sawtell was the first female to have set up shop on the eastern side of the Centennial range following a major habitat restoration program designed to heal the wounds left from decades of destructive road-building and clearcutting on the Targhee National Forest. In fact, the Forest Service’s massive clearcuts abutting Yellowstone National Park’s west boundary can still be seen from the Moon.

We were all rooting for Sawtell and her cubs when this shy female was first discovered by researchers in the late 1990’s. And, despite her sad story, some females have set up house-keeping in the Centennials, with the promise of helping to reconnect Yellowstone’s grizzlies to populations of bears farther north in Idaho, the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem of Montana, and ultimately Canada. More on this later.

Lynch Helps Cabinet Yaak Grizzlies, Perhaps in the Nick of Time

We are all rooting for grizzly bears in the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem to make it too. Frankly, Judge Lynch’s opinion feels like divine intervention for these beleaguered bears.

Grizzly bears here in this remote and somewhat obscure ecosystem are on the razor’s edge. There are perhaps only 30-50 of them left in the US part of this ecosystem that straddles the Canadian border. These facts were not lost on Judge Lynch, who noted at the sentencing hearing:  “And I would point out, where you killed the bear, there is probably 46 of them left in existence.”

The ecosystem’s northern part, the Yaak, is almost completely severed from the Cabinet Mountains immediately to the south, with very little movement of bears in between. Sadly, there is no designated Wilderness in the Yaak, and the Cabinet Wilderness is not only tiny, but also long and skinny, which makes it easy for people to access even the farthest reaches of these scant wildlands.

Importantly, no portion of this ecosystem is protected by a National Park, which is why you may have never heard of the place. That matters, because in Yellowstone and Glacier, and (for some portion of the year) Grand Teton Parks, grizzly bears are protected from people with guns. This simple fact has made a huge difference to recovering grizzly bears.

In addition, as I earlier noted, much of the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem is hammered by logging roads.  The Canada side of the ecosystem is pretty beat up too – making bears more or less isolated from larger populations on all sides.

Prospects are so bleak that the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has resorted to dumping grizzly bears from the healthier Glacier population into the Cabinet Yaak to prevent the population from winking out. Still, out of 17 grizzly bears that have been reintroduced over the last 15 years, only one bear of either sex has been known to contribute genes to the population.

All is not lost, however, for the habitat is incredibly lush and productive, with berries that Yellowstone grizzly bears could only dream of.  There is hope, if the thugs stop killing bears, as the ESA requires — and as Lynch is rightfully demanding.

But there is more to recovery, and that gets back to Yellowstone and the bigger picture.

Yellowstone and Cabinet Yaak Grizzly Bears Need Each Other   

We tend to talk about the Greater Yellowstone, Cabinet Yaak, and Glacier, as if they are separate grizzly bear planets. They aren’t. They represent bears in simply the last bits of land where grizzly bears survived when the FWS got around to listing them in 1975. In total, these ecosystems represented the last 1% of the habitat where bears had lived, in what had been one more or less contiguous grizzly bear population that stretched from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast.

Grizzly bear geneticists and other experts tell us that Yellowstone bears will be forever unhealthy if they stay isolated in their current ecological island. Cabinet Yaak grizzly bears cannot stay isolated either if their future is to be ensured. All must be connected to each other and to larger populations in Canada. The government knows this, but it is too darn difficult to talk about such a big vision in such a mean-spirited, anti-science, political climate.

Many experts say that for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears to connect with bears elsewhere, the best route is through the Selway Bitterroot ecosystem north through, yes you guessed it, the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem.  This means that grizzly bears must be recovered in the vast Selway Bitterroot ecosystem, which scientists say could support 600 or so grizzly bears.

The lynchpin for recovery is the largest grizzly bear population centered on Glacier Park, with perhaps 900 or so bears.  Although only four grizzly bears are known to have moved from this ecosystem to the Cabinet Yaak and stay there, more could do so in the future if habitat is protected and bears are not killed. Grizzlies are moving south towards Yellowstone, and into the north end of the Selway Bitterroot recovery area. They are also moving east, recolonizing prairie habitat.

Grizzly bears are showing the way to recovery with their paws. From Yellowstone, bears are moving further west along the Centennial Range (west of where the Sawtell female lived) towards the Selway Bitteroot. Individuals have moved south from the Cabinets as well. They are connecting on their own, if we don’t kill them.

Of Delisting and Law Enforcement

It goes without saying that Judge Lynch’s sentencing would never have happened if grizzly bears in the Cabinet Yaak were not federally protected – and if the matter were left up to the states. If grizzly bears in Yellowstone are delisted, and authority for management divested to the states, there will never be another conviction such as the “Sawtell female” either.

The FWS is gearing up to delist Glacier ecosystem grizzly bears in the next few years too. But if grizzly bears are delisted and hunted on the periphery of this ecosystem – the very “heart” of recovery — dispersing bears vital to all other ecosystems will be killed. Prospects for connecting our current hodgepodge of mostly-isolated grizzly bear populations, and thus achieving recovery, will be doomed.

Why? Because the states are fundamentally unsympathetic to grizzly bears and other large carnivores, seeing them as competitors for big game that they could otherwise profit from by selling hunting licenses. For example, under post-delisting plans, state plans to reduce Yellowstone population significantly if not catastrophically by hunting, and Wyoming plans to all but eliminate bears in some areas at the behest of ranchers.

According to the recent proposed rule to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, the states in this region have failed to prosecute 22 cases confirmed by the FWS as poaching between 2003 and 2014—even with ESA protections. Why should we have any faith that the states will prosecute poachers after delisting?

As the FWS grinds its ways towards delisting in Yellowstone and Glacier, Lynch has yet another opportunity to sentence a poacher – this a thug in the Glacier ecosystem who committed his crime in an important connecting landscape on the ecosystem’s west side.

What’s Next for Judge Lynch?

Judge Lynch will soon sentence Brian F. Charette, 42, of Ronan, MT. Lynch found Charette guilty of unlawful taking of a grizzly bear. On May 11, 2014, Charette shot a grizzly bear that he claimed had been chasing his horses (link). Charette knew the bear was a grizzly and did not have a permit to kill it.

Lynch’s sentences come at a critical time, as poaching continues at an alarming rate. On June 4, a grizzly bear was poached in the Centennials and its body buried just miles from where the Sawtell female was killed – a reminder that the Shoot, Shovel and Shut up culture is alive and well (link). This is the second grizzly bear to be poached in Greater Yellowstone so far this year, and at least two grizzlies have been maliciously killed in the Glacier ecosystem– and this is early summer. The cases are under federal investigation.

The ESA has teeth, and for grizzly bears and other imperiled species that depend on its safety net, teeth are a damn good thing. Lynch’s decision creates new hope for Cabinet-Yaak’s grizzly bears — and for recovery of the species in Yellowstone and everywhere in the lower-48 states. But only as long as grizzly bears remain on the endangered species list, and enforcement of the ESA is taken seriously.

More articles by:

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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