No charges after Wyoming grizzly feeding investigation - East Idaho News

No charges after Wyoming grizzly feeding investigation

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JACKSON, Wyoming (AP) — On a Friday afternoon last October, game warden Brian DeBolt and federal special agent Steve Stoinski drove to the Solitude Subdivision in response to a report of a resident feeding grizzly bears.

Arriving at the home in the neighborhood near Jackson Hole Airport, the law enforcement officers immediately saw evidence confirming the allegations. Grizzly 399 and her four cubs were in the yard as they pulled up.

DeBolt, with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and Stoinski, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, watched as a woman standing in the yard talked on a cell phone. She appeared “very excited” about the famous grizzly family’s presence, the officers reported, according to documents obtained by the Jackson Hole News & Guide through a records request.

The five bears, meanwhile, stood clustered near a deck, eating molasses-enriched grain from a black tub and out of hollow stumps of wood. “Numerous” birds and squirrels joined in feeding “right alongside” the bears at the Bambi-esque scene, the officers observed.

As the resident approached the grizzlies famously habituated by their upbringing in Grand Teton National Park, she greeted them by saying: “Hi babies, hi babies!”

Concerned for her safety, the officers asked her to not move any closer, the News & Guide reported.

“Oh come on!” the woman retorted. “You people are a bunch of (wimps).”

The woman later told officers she had “an aura” that both allowed her to communicate with animals and also prevented her from being hurt or attacked. But if she was attacked, she told them she was “OK” with being killed.

Both inside and outside the home, the officers gathered photographic, audio and video evidence of the grizzlies eating grain, a potential violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“If you’re interrupting feeding behavior, that’s a problem,” Fish and Wildlife’s grizzly recovery coordinator, Hilary Cooley, told the News&Guide in January.

As the conversation at the Solitude Subdivision residence progressed, the officers recorded the woman in denial of putting out molasses-enriched grain, even while they watched the grizzly family eat the pellets.

“I never really noticed it,” she told DeBolt and Stoinski.

Any feed that had been put out, the woman told them, was for moose. That grain, she said, was even medicated to help treat what she described as conjunctivitis.

This exchange appears to have doomed the investigation.

Feeding moose in Wyoming is legal, although it’s discouraged by biologists and is technically prohibited both through Teton County’s planning and zoning regulations and the Solitude Subdivision homeowner’s association ordinances.

Six weeks later, an assistant attorney at the U.S. District Court of Wyoming discussed the case with someone in the criminal division. The attorneys concluded they would have a “difficult time convicting” the Jackson Hole resident of feeding grizzlies because she stated she placed feed for moose, and not the bears. With that, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute. Absent violations of state law, they recommended the case be closed.

The plight of DeBolt and Stoinski’s case highlights the difficulty of prosecuting and stopping backyard wildlife feeding in Wyoming, where the state legislature has declined on multiple occasions to criminalize an activity that’s often condemned by wildlife managers.

Rep. Andy Schwartz, a Teton County Democrat, has attempted to pass a state law banning such wildlife feeding. He last introduced a bill when the Wyoming Legislature convened in 2016. That bill did not make it out of committee because conservative Republican lawmakers were not interested in infringing on people’s private property rights, Schwartz told the News&Guide.

Ordinarily, animals being fed are species like deer and moose, which lead anonymous lives in the wild. In this case, the animals being fed include those little-known individual ungulates. But now they also include a family of grizzly bears that has amassed a global fame.

The decision not to prosecute is detailed in a lengthy investigation report that was closed in January. The News&Guide acquired the document through a Freedom of Information Act request. Almost all identifying information of those involved — including law enforcement officers and attorneys — was redacted from the report, although the newspaper was able to piece together many of the different individuals involved.

The Solitude homeowner investigated is among those who have been identified, and she declined an interview for this story. Her identity is not being disclosed because charges were dropped by federal prosecutors and also because of the high-profile nature of the matter, amplified by the celebrity status of Grizzly 399.

The recent investigation found evidence of eight grizzly bears getting into feed at the Solitude home site, including multiple generations of grizzlies born to Grizzly 399.

It was the feeding of a now-adult offspring from a previous litter, Grizzly Bear 962, that launched the investigation into the Solitude Subdivision feeding operation. DeBolt and Game and Fish Bear Biologist Mike Boyce alerted Stoinski on Oct. 12 that GPS data from a tracking collar fitted to the 3.5-year-old female bruin suggested the animal had been frequenting the property for at least two weeks. They provided a Google Earth map with waypoints as evidence.

In a subsequent federal investigation report, federal special agents wrote that feeding grizzlies, which are classified as “threatened,” violates the Endangered Species Act.

“Of greater concern was that (the resident’s) feeding of grizzly bears in her subdivision could endanger herself, other people and the bears,” the law enforcement officer wrote.

That warning proved prescient.

Before officers began an enforcement case, Boyce, who knew the resident, went to try to talk her out of feeding while bears were in the area. She told him on Oct. 13 that a small cinnamon-colored black bear had been around but disputed that there had been grizzly bear activity on her property. When Boyce asked her to stop and told her that feeding could endanger the bears by leading to dangerous habits, she replied, “I don’t want anything to happen to the bears.”

Boyce thought she took his guidance seriously, according to the documents. But 10 days later, DeBolt got back in touch with his federal counterparts to say that Grizzly Bear 962 was still frequenting the property. Additionally, DeBolt passed word that another grizzly and a black bear were also being drawn to the neighborhood. That same day, a Teton Park biologist alerted Game and Fish that Grizzly 399 and her four cubs were seen in the Meadow Road area — one subdivision to the north.

When the two law enforcement officers went to confront the Solitude wildlife feeder that afternoon, the famous grizzly family was in her yard.

Although it’s discouraged in Wyoming and illegal in many states, wildlife feeding can become a way of life for its most ardent practitioners. Backyard feeding becomes a daily routine and significant financial investment for folks who are convinced that they’re acting in the animals’ best interests. It’s clear from the federal investigation report that the Solitude Subdivision feeder fits the description. She told officers that animals “came to her” when they needed help and that she even administers drugs to wildlife despite knowing she’s not legally allowed to do so.

“She said she provides the moose with ‘massages’ and she even picks the ticks off the moose,” the report said. “She said she does anything the animals ask of her.”

The feeding operation is large enough it’s obvious to anyone traveling through the neighborhood in the winter — moose and deer are everywhere. Game and Fish has taken advantage of this, even incorporating the property into their annual “classification counts” of big game species like moose. During a February 2018 helicopter flight, there were 10 moose counted by the house. Last winter there were a dozen.

There’s also a track record of bears taking advantage of the subdivision feeding just south of the national park, and then later getting into trouble. A conflict-ridden 9-year-old grizzly known by the research number 802 was destroyed last summer, four years after Boyce first trapped the bear in the neighborhood. The bear, according to emailed correspondence, had been “visiting her place for years.”

“After we relocated 802 in 2016 he returned to Jackson, resumed his conflict behavior and was involved in dozens of conflicts involving livestock feed across the valley,” Boyce wrote in an email to Stoinski. “It became very concerning when he began breaking into homes, barns and outbuildings in his attempts to get livestock feed and garbage.”

Grizzly 964 is another offspring born to the famous sow confirmed to have zeroed in on the same property based on GPS location data. The bear, of famous lineage, learned dangerous behavior that wasn’t tolerated.

“964’s GPS collar clustered at (the resident’s) place last fall,” Boyce wrote. “Shortly after she began hitting bird feeders at homes south of Solitude. We jumped on the situation and quickly moved her.

“Don’t think it is a coincidence that 964 and 962 are siblings, the offspring of 399 and then all of them have been hanging at the (resident’s) property.”

Grizzly 789, a collared 11-year-old male, is another bruin that Boyce has tied to the Solitude situation.

The high concentration of grizzly bears in a residential neighborhood has not been welcomed by all. The Solitude Subdivision homeowner’s association filed complaints with Game and Fish last year, right around the time that Grizzly 399 and her litter passed through. Individual complaints also were lodged with federal investigators.

“In my 25 years in Solitude, we’ve never had bear problems like we are having this fall and winter,” wrote one Solitude board member, whose name was redacted. “We would like to know if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intends to do anything about (the resident) continuing to feed animals — including grizzly bears. This puts us all, including the animals, in danger.”

Another resident experienced that danger firsthand.

A family walk along a path that led back from the Snake River on Nov. 24 turned into a mad dash away from a bear that the party believed was a grizzly, which came charging at them.

“I could see it had a broad head, was a light brown with blond highlights, had a noticeable hump, and that it was running very fast,” the resident reported via email to Game and Fish. “I yelled for the family to go over the fence so the bear could stay on the trail.”

As they scampered away — which is not recommended — the reporting party saw the reason for the charge. A cub was up a cottonwood tree nearby.

“We prayed for help,” the person wrote, “and the bear stopped chasing us.”

When the wildlife feeder agreed to let Stoinski and DeBolt in her home, they noticed numerous dogs, cats and rodents kept in cages. At least 10 large tin cans full of grain were observed. The woman, the officers reported, kept a collection of bear scat, which was stored on cookie sheets.

While inside, they took more photos and videos of Grizzly 399 and her cubs, which continued to take advantage of the feed.

“The officers spoke with (the resident) for nearly two hours,” Fish and Wildlife’s report said, “and in that time the bears fed on this grain throughout the entire interview.”

The resident continued to deny that she had put out any grain anytime since being admonished by Boyce 10 days prior. All the while, the bears kept eating. Before they broke off the conversation, the state and federal law enforcement officers told her she was violating the Endangered Species Act.

“The officers said that based on (Boyce’s) warning to not feed bears, the amount of grain the officers saw out on (the) deck and the ground, the five grizzlies feeding, the volume of grain stored in tin containers and (the resident’s) admission about feeding wildlife, (Stoinski) told (the resident) that a report of their findings would be provided to the U.S. Attorney’s office documenting feeding of grizzly bears,” the report said. “She was reminded that she had ownership in the fate of the bears because she was feeding the bears.”

She told them she “understood.”

The week that followed, Grizzly 399 and her four cubs continued moving away from Grand Teton National Park, embarking on a fraught monthlong journey through the southern, privately owned reaches of Jackson Hole. The grizzly family during that time scavenged elk carcasses but also continued to take advantage of backyard food sources, gorging on livestock grain, a compost pile and wiping out honey from a beekeeper’s colony. Those instances of grizzly feeding were deemed inadvertent and were not investigated.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement office did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Game and Fish Regional Supervisor Brad Hovinga said that, short of wildlife feeding being criminalized in the state, his staff’s hands are tied.

“Like any other wildlife feeding operation in the county, we don’t have any authority to do anything about it,” he said. “We try to focus on education.”

Teton County, which has prohibited wildlife feeding through its land development regulations, is another governmental entity that could take enforcement action against the feeder, who has been the subject of numerous complaints. Multiple calls to the county’s code compliance officer, Josh Butteris, have not been returned.

While grizzly bears have denned for the winter, wildlife feeding at Solitude Subdivision persists.

On Tuesday afternoon, at least four moose and a mule deer now occupied the yard where Grizzly 399, her four cubs and other grizzlies have previously gorged on grain.