Idaho Hunter Avoids Charges for Killing Grizzly Because State Wildlife Officials Misidentified the Bear, Too


On June 10, an Idaho hunter contacted the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to self-report that he’d shot and killed a grizzly bear that he’d misidentified as a black bear. Normally, the hunter would’ve faced serious repercussions for the mistake. Grizzlies are still federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, and killing one for any reason other than defending human life can result in steep punishments of $50,000 in fines and up to a year and jail. In this instance, however, IDFG officials say the hunter was not cited because they had also misidentified the bear.

The agency announced Tuesday that it had concluded its investigation into the incident, which took place over a legal black bear bait site on U.S. Forest Service land near the lower St. Joe River and the town of St. Maries. IDFG pointed to “extenuating circumstances” around the hunt, including the fact that grizzly bears aren’t known to inhabit that part of the Idaho panhandle. Wildlife officials also couldn’t justify citing the hunter because they’d misidentified the same bear just a couple days before, effectively giving him permission to take the shot.

“Two days prior to the incident, the hunter recorded video of the bear at the bait site and sent it to Fish and Game for review,” IDFG explained in the press release. “The hunter expressed concern that the bear was a grizzly and not a black bear. Unfortunately, Fish and Game staff misidentified the young bear as a black bear because it lacked some common features of a grizzly, and shared that misidentification with the hunter.”

The agency said the incident underscores the importance of properly identifying black bears and grizzly bears, especially since young male grizzlies are known to wander long distances from their home range. Some black bears are brown, and some grizzly bears are black, IDFG points out, so hunters should focus on a few key features that grizzlies typically have, including a dished facial profile, prominent shoulder hump, and two- to four-inch-long claws.

This is easier said than done, however, and the key features IDFG points to are more prominent one some bears than others. There have been several instances of hunters mistaking grizzlies for black bears in the northern Rockies, one of which involved a fatal grizzly attack more than 10 years ago.

Read Next: Wyoming Officials Euthanize First Grizzly Bear to Wander into Bighorn Mountains in a Century

More recently, in a pair of separate instances that occurred in May 2023, two experienced Wyoming hunters mistook grizzlies for black bears and killed them. Both hunters turned themselves in. Wyoming Public Media reports that during one of those court cases, Park County attorney Bryan Skoric testified that in the last 20 years, there have been six instances of black bear hunters mistakenly killing grizzlies in his county alone.

“People make mistakes,” Wyoming Game and Fish regional supervisor Dan Smith told the news outlet. Smith was referring to the May 1 incident involving Patrick Gogerty, who mistakenly shot and killed a grizzly bear during a black bear hunt outside Cody. “I think the majority, 99 percent of hunters that are bear hunters know exactly what they’re looking for. But mistakes happen.”

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