Yellowstone Bear World, fined by OSHA, lobbies for bill to nix oversight of wildlife parks - East Idaho News

Yellowstone Bear World, fined by OSHA, lobbies for bill to nix oversight of wildlife parks

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REXBURG (Idaho Statesman) — Idaho lawmakers have moved forward with a bill crafted by a Rexburg drive-thru wildlife park that would remove Idaho Fish and Game and Idaho State Department of Agriculture oversight for similar facilities.

Yellowstone Bear World crafted the bill, which would exempt Bear World and other U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed Idaho animal exhibitors from state regulations related to captive wildlife.

Those regulations include providing Fish and Game with animal birth records, death records and import and export records. State regulation also requires exhibitors to provide Fish and Game with a bond of at least $50,000 to cover the costs of disease control, containment of escaped animals or other emergencies.

The legislation easily passed the Idaho Senate on Thursday, but the Idaho Conservation League and Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, expressed concerns that the bill could allow disease to spread and leave taxpayers on the hook for capture efforts in the event that captive animals escape — as one wolf at Yellowstone Bear World did in the past.

They also criticized the decision to remove regulations from the facility less than a year after it was cited for rule violations by Fish and Game and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


The Idaho Fish and Game Commission opposed the initial version of the bill, which would have removed the agency’s oversight of all captive animal species kept by wildlife exhibitors. After legislators amended the bill to carve out oversight stipulations for captive deer species, the commission took a neutral stance, Fish and Game spokesperson Roger Phillips told the Idaho Statesman.

The stipulation allows Fish and Game to monitor deer, elk and moose that could potentially spread chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness that was first detected in Idaho deer in late 2021.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, external relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, told the Statesman the environmental group was “disappointed in Fish and Game taking a neutral position on this bill that will continue to impact wildlife.”

As Bear World’s name suggests, it’s home to black bears and grizzlies. It also has moose, bison, elk, deer and farm animals like goats and pigs.

Bear World and other wildlife exhibitors, including zoos, must still obtain an exhibitor license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and are subject to its animal welfare regulations.

Charlotte Cunnington, a lobbyist for Yellowstone Bear World, told the Senate Resources and Environment Committee in February that the bill would get rid of “unnecessary double regulation.”

Cunnington told the committee the bill was brought forth after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights group more commonly known as PETA, “planted an undercover investigator at the park” last year. The group filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Idaho Fish and Game.

The lobbyist said PETA and similar groups “utilize the agency complaint process to try to shut businesses like ours down, and we know that they will not stop.

“This bill will allow Yellowstone Bear World to run its business without constantly looking over its shoulder,” Cunnington said.

On the Senate floor Thursday, bill sponsor Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, praised the facility, calling it “world class.” Burtenshaw did not return phone and email requests for comment from the Statesman.

Wintrow, one of two senators who voted against the bill, told the Statesman she didn’t understand the deference to federal oversight in a state that typically champions local government.

“People are categorizing what I would call wild animals as domestic because of the facility they’re in,” Wintrow said. “But it doesn’t take any more of the wild out. You can’t legislate the wild out of animals.”

Wintrow said she was also concerned with removing regulations at the behest of a facility that was recently cited for violating those regulations.


Cunnington told lawmakers last month that “only the Idaho Department of Fish and Game found merit in (PETA’s) complaints.” But a week earlier, OSHA cited Yellowstone Bear World for three serious workplace safety violations and fined the business nearly $9,000.

OSHA said Bear World didn’t properly train employees on the use of bear spray, a powerful mace used to deter bears. It also said employees were “exposed to potential attacks from apex predators, including captive black bears and grizzly bears,” while feeding animals and performing maintenance.

U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson Mike Petersen told the Statesman that Bear World agreed to pay the fines and abate the violations by mid-April. Bear World owner Courtney Ferguson did not respond to an emailed request for comment from the Statesman.

The Fish and Game citation Cunnington referred to was issued in July and claimed Bear World had not submitted appropriate animal health condition reports or death reports to the agency within the required 30-day time frame and had not obtained appropriate transportation permits before moving animals. None of those reports or permits would be required under the new legislation.

The citation also claimed Bear World violated state regulations that bar the public from feeding captive wildlife. The agency said Bear World advertised opportunities to bottle-feed baby bears and feed adult bears.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which examines veterinary records, transport records and animal welfare, often has less stringent requirements than Idaho Fish and Game, including those for animal enclosures and reporting of animal acquisition and transfers.

A Feb. 10 inspection report from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found no violations at Bear World.