By William Perry Pendley
Twenty-nine years ago this month, a Montana man had a near fatal encounter with a grizzly bear. Although he survived by killing the bear in self-defense, his almost decade-long prosecution by the federal government reverberated through the years, making westerners fearful of responding as he did. Using sound science, a federal agency proposed restoring sanity to this deadly situation, but radical environmental groups sued to stop the plan. As a result, in the face of a gargantuan bear population, the lives of westerners remain at risk.
On September 9, 1989, John Shuler of Dupuyer killed a grizzly bear he encountered while tending his sheep. The federal government brushed aside his self-defense claim, charged him with violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—the grizzly is listed as “threatened,” and ordered him to pay an $8,000 fine. For eight and a half years, federal lawyers argued he had not acted in self-defense, was at fault for exiting his home with his firearm thus entering “the zone of imminent danger,” that, when his dog went on point on seeing the grizzly, it provoked the bear and escalated the conflict, and finally that bears are entitled to a higher standard of self-defense because they are not capable of sapient thought. Happily, with Mountain States Legal Foundation as his attorney, he prevailed and thus ended his lengthy legal purgatory.
The incredible courtroom journey of John Shuler was reported in too many newspapers to list, including the Wall Street Journal, was featured in two “That’s Outrageous” reports in Reader’s Digest, and was the subject of thoughtful tirades by Rush Limbaugh. Everyone had heard, if not of John Shuler, then of his remarkable tale, including Pat Van Vleet of Evanston, Wyoming. In October of 1998, hunting near Dubois and aware of John Shuler’s legal nightmare, Pat Van Vleet feared using his rifle when charged by a grizzly bear. Instead, he dropped the rifle, grabbed the can of pepper spray from his hip, and sought to defend himself. He was terribly mauled but miraculously survived.
Likewise, the Thoman family fears prosecution like that inflicted on John Shuler. Their ancestors reached Wyoming in the early 1900s and they have lost countless sheep to grizzly bear kills over the years, but they and their employees only carry pepper spray. In 2010, one of the family’s shepherds was charged by a fully-grown female grizzly bear; it ignored the pepper spray. Fortunately, the shepherd, after being sent by helicopter air ambulance to a hospital, survived.
Help may be on the way. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated grizzly bears in a 9,200 square mile area in northwestern Wyoming, eastern Idaho, and southwestern Montana a “distinct population segment,” removed that population from the ESA list, and allowed wildlife agencies in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to manage them. In 2017, the agency issued a final rule concluding, among other matters: more than 700 bears roam the area (the original goal was 500); there is only a one percent chance the area’s bears will go extinct in the next 100 years; the grizzly has doubled its occupied range since the 1980s; and the bears have successfully recolonized 92% of the region’s suitable habitat. Still, that is not enough for radical environmental groups.
Last week, in Missoula, Montana, a federal district court heard arguments in the lawsuit filed by several such groups and American Indian tribes to bar the federal government from taking its science-based action. Instead, they urge that the federal government continue its control over the grizzly and other species, and with it the authority it has over vast areas of the American West, and the men and women who live, work, and play there, a result never envisioned by Congress. Here is hoping the judge does the right thing, upholds the delisting, and ends federal prosecution of law-abiding westerners like Shuler, Van Vleet, and the Thomans and their employees.
Bureau Federation, Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and Charles C. Price in the grizzly bear lawsuit.