August 30, 2011 / 1:40 AM / 8 years ago

Prosecution for fatal grizzly shooting sparks debate

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - An Idaho man accused by the U.S. government of illegally shooting and killing a federally protected grizzly bear “acted in good faith to protect his family,” a member of his legal team said on Monday.

Jeremy Hill, 33, of Bonner’s Ferry, is charged with violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act by killing a grizzly May 8 on his property, which straddles a corridor connecting two declining bear populations on Idaho’s border with Canada.

Hill, who could not be reached for comment, pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor last week in a case scheduled for trial on October 4 in Coeur d’Alene. He was charged on August 8.

“We believe he acted in good faith to protect his family,” Seagrin Von Ranson, legal assistant for Hill’s attorney, Marc Lyons of Coeur d’Alene, told Reuters.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior Department agency that oversees enforcement of the Endangered Species Act for most listed animals, declined on Monday to provide more details in the case, nor did federal prosecutors.

“We’re not going to try our case in the press,” said Rafael Gonzalez, aide to Idaho U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson.

Grizzly bears had neared extinction in the Lower 48 states before they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Although hunting grizzlies is generally prohibited, the law does allow the out-sized, hump-shouldered bears to be killed if they are threatening human life.

The grizzly case has galvanized several Republican party leaders in the state, who are calling on the federal government to reconsider its federal protection.

Governor Butch Otter and U.S. Senator Mike Crapo, among others, said in statements that Hill thought his children were playing outside when he saw the bear in his yard.

“Many, including me, feel Mr. Hill did what a concerned parent would do. Now Jeremy and his family must endure the cost of a trial,” Otter wrote in an August 22 letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that was sent one day before Hill’s arraignment in U.S. District Court.

Crapo said the case warrants a closer look at the Endangered Species Act for possible revision.

“I have deep concerns about the incident and the decision of the government to prosecute Mr. Hill,” Crapo said in a statement on Friday.

Fewer than 100 bears roam two key conservation areas in the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains that encompass parts of the Idaho Panhandle, eastern Washington, western Montana and southern Canada.

The federal government is seeking to delist an estimated 600 grizzlies that inhabit the Yellowstone National Park region, which cuts across parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

Those bears were removed from the threatened list in 2007, but a federal judge in 2009 ordered protections restored, ruling that the government failed to analyze the impact of climate changes on trout and high-elevation pines that provide food sources for grizzlies. That case is under appeal.

Under federal law, killing a threatened species is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of $50,000.

Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan

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