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Only one thing is certain: A grizzly got killed

 

As with most crime stories, the details of why Jeremy Hill killed a grizzly bear in northern Idaho were slow to emerge.

The federal prosecutors who charged Hill with a misdemeanor in early August were stingy with information, beyond saying that he had killed the juvenile male on his property, thereby violating the Endangered Species Act.

But some Idaho lawmakers framed the story in a way that was guaranteed to boil the blood of just about anyone raised in the land of the brave: The feds were trying Hill, a father of six, for protecting his family from vicious predators. What was worse, Hill had done the right thing by reporting what had happened to wildlife officials, only to have his report used against him.

Smelling the scent of a good old-fashioned David-versus-the-Government story, Republican Gov. Butch Otter fired off a letter to the Obama administration demanding that charges be dropped. Meanwhile, an Idaho state senator warned ominously that the next bear that gets shot in the Panhandle probably won't be reported, and Idaho's federal delegation got to work to water down the Endangered Species Act.

But as August, and then September, wore on, fuller details emerged, first in the form of a report by Boundary County prosecutor Jack Douglas, and then from federal prosecutors and Hill himself. According to these accounts, three bears, a mother and two cubs, came within 40 yards of the Hill family house. It was around 7 p.m. on Mother's Day, and four of Hill's kids were outside playing when his wife first saw the bears and yelled at the kids to get inside.

The reports also noted that Hill never actually saw any bears near his children. Indeed, the juvenile male was climbing a fence surrounding a pigpen when Hill first shot it. The bear would eventually charge Hill, but only after it had been shot twice. Hill apparently knew that his wife and kids were safe inside when he fired the third and fatal shot.

Critics of the government argue that Hill acted to protect his children in a chaotic situation. Shooting the grizzly was a necessary act, they say. But the more detailed accounts also made the prosecutors' position more understandable; after all, pigs aren't children, while the bear was a member of a protected species.

In any case, Idaho's politicians ignored the expanded version of the story and stuck to the cartoon version: "On Aug. 8, 2011, the U.S. Attorney for Idaho charged an Idaho man, Jeremy Hill, with a violation of the ESA for killing a grizzly bear on his property near Porthill, Idaho, in defense of himself and his family," was how Sen. Mike Crapo's press shop summed up the story Sept. 14, weeks after it was revealed that the harm the grizzly bear posed to Hill's kids was, at best, largely in Hill's imagination.

The purpose of the press release was to tout a new bill that would prevent a prosecution like this from ever happening again. No, it doesn't specify that any grizzly climbing into a pigpen is fair game. Rather, it "bolsters" the protections in the Endangered Species Act for people killing protected animals in self-defense.

Critics responded that there was no need for the bill: The act already exempts people who are acting in self-defense. Some speculated the politicians were just trying to gain points with their constituents. That's probably true, but whether it's by design or not, the bill now before Congress will serve an even bigger purpose than simply amending the law. It will ensure that for months to come, Idahoans, and Westerners in general, are going to hear some version of the story of Jeremy Hill -- most likely, the simplified, made-for-TV version.

In politics, stories matter, and the story that Crapo and others like him want to tell, has a lot of emotional power: When it's a choice between a bear and your kids, their story goes, your government is going to protect the bear. Try defending endangered species on those terms.

It could be argued that it was the federal government that brought this on with an overly zealous prosecution. By mid-September, Hill and the U.S. Attorney's Office for Idaho had reached an agreement: no misdemeanor charge but a fine of $1,000.

In announcing the agreement, U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson said her office wanted to give Hill credit for promptly reporting that he had shot and killed a bear. She also said that investigators couldn't really pin down the exact location of Hill's kids when he shot the bear. That seems like an important fact to have pinned down before bringing charges in a case like this.

Then again, all the facts never played much of a part in the stories about a bear, some kids and some pigs in Porthill, Idaho, this summer.

Daniel Person is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Spokane, Washington.