For the first time since grizzly bears were listed as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, the State of Idaho has successfully prosecuted a grizzly bear poaching case, demonstrating that it is ready and able to manage grizzly bears as big game animals.
On May 7, 2014, Kenneth Tyler Sommer (23, of Newdale, ID) was with his wife hunting for black bears in Unit 62A near the Rock Creek Girl Scouts Camp. According to a statement Sommer made to the United States Fish & Wildlife Service Agent initially investigating the matter, a bear charged he and his wife and he shot it. Only after killing the bear did Sommer identify it as a grizzly. He contacted conservation officers with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG) to report the incident. After consultation with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) it was decided that the State of Idaho would handle the case.
IDFG officers, aided by a USFWS agent, conducted a thorough investigation of the kill-site but found no physical evidence on the ground that the bear had ever charged Sommer or his wife. All three investigators concluded that the bear had likely been "standing still" when Sommer shot and killed it with a single bullet to the center of its forehead.
Sommer was cited for unlawful taking of a grizzly bear, plead not guilty, and requested a jury trial. Last week, on December 5, 2014, Fremont County Prosecuting Attorney, Karl H. Lewies, tried the case to a jury. He argued that the bear had not been charging when Sommer shot it, but that Sommer who "wanted to kill a black bear that day, shot first and identified second." After hearing all the evidence, including Sommer's own version of events, the jury found Sommer guilty of unlawfully taking a grizzly bear.
The grizzly bear that was killed was a 12-year old adult male weighing approximately 400 lbs. The investigation determined that the bear had initially been shot in the head from 36 yards away with a 7mm rifle and that its tracks never veered toward the Sommers. The bear had previously been collared for study purposes but had never gotten into any trouble with humans. According to IDFG Regional Conservation Officer Doug Petersen, one of the investigators on the case, "As a sportsman we have a legal and more importantly an ethical obligation to make sure and identify our target before we shoot. The responsibility is ours when we pull the trigger on a firearm to know where that bullet is going and where it will stop."
Magistrate Judge Gilman Gardner sentenced Sommer to the maximum fine of $1,000 dollars, maximum $400 civil penalties, 30 days in jail, 1 year hunting license revocation and 2 years unsupervised probation. The judge suspended the jail time and $500 dollars, on condition that Sommer successfully completes his probation.
According to Petersen, "This is the first case in Idaho where there was a successful prosecution in state court of a grizzly bear taken unlawfully. From the officers' detailed investigation, through partnership with Fremont County's prosecutor, this sets the record straight that Idaho is prepared to manage grizzly bears as a big game species in Idaho."
The investigation phases of two unrelated cases regarding the killing of grizzly bears in the Island Park Area in 2013 are complete and still awaiting federal prosecution.
To learn more about bears in Idaho, visit http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/education/bearIdentification/