Environment

The life of grizzly bear 346

This story ran January 22, 2006

The story of grizzly bear 346 illustrates Yellowstone´s grizzly bear recovery in Idaho. She was a pioneer, moving west into eastern Idaho, where grizzly bears were rarely seen in the second half of the 20th century. The 300-pound bear made a home in the Centennial Mountains, a critical link between grizzly bear populations in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and habitat in Central Idaho.

She was a part of the remarkable baby boom that brought Yellowstone´s bear population back from the brink of extinction to the point that today, the Bush administration has proposed removing the bears´ threatened status under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Most of all, bear 346 and her yearling cub wandered through the back yards of Idahoans in Island Park and around Henrys Lake without incident. Despite easy access to attractive garbage, 346 stayed away from humans. She taught her cub the same lessons.

"She was a good citizen," said Chuck Schwartz, a biologist with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which follows Yellowstone´s bears.Grizzly bears all but disappeared from southern Idaho before they were protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.

Ranchers, roadbuilders and second homes squeezed grizzlies into Yellowstone National Park and surrounding wilderness during the 20th century. Grizzly bears thrived there, feeding in garbage dumps in the same way their coastal relatives depended on salmon in rivers.

National Park Service officials closed the dumps in the early 1970s, forcing grizzlies to find new food beyond the park´s borders.

Sheepherders shot the bears when they wandered in Idaho´s Targhee National Forest. Hunters in Wyoming killed them when they strayed into outfitter camps. State wardens killed them at garbage dumps and around homes in Cooke City and West Yellowstone, Mont. Park rangers killed bears that continued raiding campgrounds.

These human acts sent grizzly numbers plummeting to fewer than 200 throughout the ecosystem by the 1970s.

Once bears were listed, federal officials moved sheep ranchers out of grizzly habitat, cleaned up community garbage systems in Montana and Wyoming, and provided hunters with high hanging poles and bear-proof metal boxes for provisions.

These measures worked. Grizzly deaths dropped, and their numbers were at biologically self-sustaining levels by 1994, federal biologists said.

Bear 346 is born in 1995 and moves to Idaho in 1999

Grizzly Bear 346 was born in the winter of 1995, likely in Yellowstone National Park, Mont . There she learned the skills necessary for survival from her mother. She learned to use her keen sense of smell and digging ability to eat whitebark pine nuts, stealing the caches squirrels stored in the ground.

She learned to avoid humans. She also learned to explore new territory for food.

That took her to Idaho, where lodgepole pine in Targhee National Forest was growing back. Foresters were closing roads. Large patches of berries grew into the former clearcuts. Kokanee salmon were running out of Island Park Reservoir, providing a seasonal food source for bears, and the last sheep ranchers were moving out.

Grizzly bear 346´s first official contact with humans came August 28, 1999. She was 4 years old when she was caught north of Macks Inn by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team, biologists charged with studying Yellowstone´s bears. The biologists caught her in a baited culvert trap. Idaho Department of Fish and Game Warden Bruce Penske, who patrolled the Island Park region, was there to help as he often did before he retired in 2005.

"It was kind of routine," Penske said. "We caught her, put the collar on, measured her and let her go."

Bear 346, with her radio collar, became familiar to researchers over the next three years. The collar allowed them to follow her yearly cycle of life.

She wandered around the Island Park area, filled with cabins, fishing resorts and hunting lodges. She stayed out of trouble, despite her proximity to people and their poorly stored garbage.

In September, she climbed up towering Sawtelle Peak, the eastern edge of the Centennials, and began feeding on its lush whitebark pine nut crop.

Productive female grizzlies had to live in Idaho before the bears´ status as threatened could be removed, the rules said. Restoring a productive bear population was important because Idaho´s forests and mountain ranges -- like the Centennials that line the border west from Yellowstone -- provide at least a tenuous link to former grizzly bear habitat in Idaho´s central wilderness.

The maturing grizzly walked north from Idaho into Montana´s Gallatin National Forest and eventually into Yellowstone National Park. She fattened up on pine nuts near the headwaters of the Gallatin River, nearly 40 miles northwest of Sawtelle before denning above 9,000 feet in November.

Bear 346 has two sets of twins in Yellowstone

Gallatin Air Service pilot Dave Stratley spotted 346 near her den site May 20, 2000, with two cubs, her first litter. Stratley has been monitoring grizzly bears for the study team since the 1970s and is as good a wildlife spotter as there is.

Stratley secures a bear´s location by circling with a radio transceiver, making a lesser man have a hard time holding his lunch. But even when he can pinpoint a grizzly´s location in the trees, he might not see it.

He monitored 346 in the Gallatin Range in Yellowstone from June to August without getting a good look at her or her cubs. When he saw her again on the side of a mountain in the middle of August, her cubs were gone.

"It´s not unusual for a first-time mother to lose her cubs," said Chuck Schwartz, chief researcher for the Interagency Grizzly Bear team. Sometimes a male grizzly will kill the cubs so the mother will breed again.

She continued north in the fall of 2000, feeding on whitebark pine and ending up near Quadrant Peak in Yellowstone west of Mammoth Hot Springs. She entered a new den there in the middle of November.

Grizzly 346 emerged from her den May 2, 2001, and again had two cubs. She stayed in Yellowstone throughout June eating grasses and plants like dandelion, clover, thistle, biscuit root and fireweed. In early July, she moved south, skirting West Yellowstone and heading toward Idaho.

She lost one of her cubs sometime between July 2 and July 9. She was still in the park, and Schwartz said he had no reason to believe the cub´s death was anything but natural.

She was back in Idaho by August on the Henrys Lake Flat, an expansive meadow of private land between three mountain ranges. Again, she and her cub lived close to people at the height of the tourist season and stayed out of harm´s way. After visiting Sawtelle´s pine groves, she headed back north into Yellowstone and the Gallatin River drainage where she and her surviving cub denned in November.

Bear 346 and her cub move again to Idaho

High winds kept Gallatin Air Service out of the air much of the spring in 2002.

"They couldn´t get a good location on her until the end of May," Schwartz said. "When they did, she was out of the park near West Yellowstone and on the upper Madison River."

After a visit to the Big Springs area, 346 and her cub walked one more time through Island Park, ignoring its alluring garbage cans filled in August by cabin owners predominantly from Utah and Idaho Falls.

"She was doing what she was supposed to do," said Laurie Hanauska-Brown, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist.

Bear 346 was on a familiar path toward Sawtelle Peak and the Centennials with her yearling cub tagging along, learning how to survive in greater Yellowstone. The mother was now a full adult who could look forward to living another 10 years or more, with maybe three more litters.

Her yearling female was following in her footsteps, moving with Yellowstone´s grizzly population west into Idaho. She could expect to have her own litter as early as 2004.

That was before she ran into Dan Walters.

Bowhunter mistakes 346 for a black bear and shoots

Walters, 47, was a bowhunter from Kentucky. He and his partner, Robert Sauer, also of Kentucky, were hunting elk in the Rock Creek drainage on Sawtelle´s north side in the late afternoon of Sept. 22. Walters was walking up an open trail when he saw something move.

"It didn´t look like a bear, but it had to be a bear," Walters recalled. "I was looking through the shadows and saw two bears digging."

Walters had picked up a pamphlet the day before at the Island Park Ranger Station telling hunters how they could distinguish between a grizzly bear and a black bear. But the accomplished hunter, who had once shot a 500-pound black bear, didn´t even think grizzly, he said. Black bears come in several color phases, from black to light brown.

"The coloring on the bears was astoundingly blond," Walters said. "I was so preoccupied with the color phase, I never gave it any thought that it could be anything but a black bear."

But Walters knew black bear behavior. He couldn´t understand why two bears would be traveling together at this time of the year.

He inched to within 30 yards of the two grizzlies and stopped where he thought he would have a good shot when they quit digging and exited.

After 20 minutes, the two bears walked directly toward him single file. Then, 346 turned broadside and Walters shot.

"The mother turned, looked at me all of a sudden. She looked at the cub, and then looked away and ran," Walters said. "She turned around, opened her jaw for a minute and I could see her teeth. I thought she was coming back at me."

The wounded sow kept going up the hill. Walters notched another arrow and began following her blood trail.

He knew he didn´t hit her well. It was getting late.

"The wise thing was to let it lay down," Walters said. "The best bet was to come back in the morning."

Hunter returns to camp with bear 346 still missing

After a short run, 346 laid down with an arrow in her left hindquarter. Walters might not have hit where he wanted, but the sow was losing a lot of blood. Her cub returned to her side. The young bear eventually covered her mother with leaves and dirt.

Walters walked down and met Sauer at the car. They drove back to the hunting lodge of Sauer´s friend Merril Hoge, a Pocatello native who played NFL football with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Hoge, now an announcer with ESPN, held annual bow hunting trips that attracted a number of former NFL players, including Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.

Sauer had done construction work on Hoge´s Kentucky home and invited him and Walters to join them in Idaho.

Hoge was back East broadcasting with ESPN when Walters returned to the lodge, Hoge said. Walters was excited to share his success story.

"In that living room, with Mr. Kelly and everyone, I was elated to tell the story," he said. "It became a trophy of epic proportions. I told the story at least once to everybody."

Tim Brown, a St. Anthony contractor, had built Hoge´s lodge on Bill´s Island in Island Park reservoir. He was partying with the football players at the lodge and pulled Walters aside. Could it have been a grizzly bear he shot?

"The feeling that came over me was overwhelming," Walters said. "What are you talking about, I said."

He remembered the pamphlet. He figured out why two bears were together. The one he shot was a mother.

"From that point on, I knew that was the only logical explanation," Walters said.

Brown offered to go back up to Sawtelle with Walters and Sauer the next day to see what he had shot. Walters agreed.

Hunter returns to scene to find bear 346 and her cub

The next morning, Brown showed up at the bottom of the hill with a friend, Brad Hoopes, also of St. Anthony. He was a good tracker, Brown said.

Walters was reticent. Then Hoopes pulled out a bow. Brown had a rifle.

If the bear was a grizzly, and it was wounded, they would need a gun, Brown told Walters.

"I thought, ´This is all going downhill in a hurry,´ " Walters said. "I´m shaking my head like this is a bad dream."

They walked up the mountain and Hoopes found some bear tracks, but could not tell if they were grizzly or black bear. Then suddenly, Sauer saw a bear and immediately recognized it was a grizzly.

The bear made a bluff charge at them, Sauer told wardens, but never got closer than 30 yards. It appeared confused and ran in various directions.

Brown handed Sauer his rifle and told him to shoot it. Sauer refused. Hoopes took two shots at the bear with his bow before it ran away.

The four men walked up to where the bear was and found 346 dead, covered partially with leaves and still slightly warm. Brown took over, warning the others about the federal fine and possible jail, Walters said.

Brown ordered him to remove his arrow, then took off up the ridge with Hoopes in pursuit of the yearling sow.

Sauer heard a gunshot 10 minutes later and went to find the two men. The two Idaho men were standing beside the dead yearling, Sauer told the wardens.

Brown told Sauer to shoot the dead bear to "keep everyone honest," Sauer told the wardens. He refused.

Walters´ head was spinning as he dug out his arrow.

"I felt like it was a massacre, and I was a part of it," Walters said. "I was sick."

Brown told the Kentucky men not to disclose the events to anyone.

Later, he and Hoopes said they destroyed the radio collar and cut the bear´s tag with its number out of its ear.

Brown told Walters he shouldn´t feel bad about what he did.

"No matter what you think today," Walters quoted Brown saying, "we did a service to Idaho bowhunters, because we don´t like grizzlies. We don´t want grizzlies, and we don´t need them around here."

Father and son hunting elk come across bears

Jerome Bowen, a Ririe landscaping contractor, was hunting elk with his son Sept. 28 when he first encountered the now dead 346. The first thing he noticed was the smell.

"We figured it was a dead elk, and my son and I spread out," Bowen said. "We kept getting a whiff and followed it down from where we were having lunch."

When he first saw the large brown mass, he though it was a moose.

"When I saw the claws, I knew it was a grizzly," Bowen said.

They went and got the Idaho Fish and Game wardens. When they returned, they found the yearling with a large hole in its chest and a fresh bullet hole in a sapling next to the bear.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents Craig Tabor of Boise and Scott Bragonier of Idaho Falls came to the site Oct. 1 and collected evidence.

They videotaped the scene and packed out the bears for Richard Stroud, a forensics veterinarian with the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory.

But the wardens had no leads.

A tip leads investigators to call former NFL player

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out news releases asking for tips on the killers. Environmental and sportsmen groups offered an $8,000 reward.

Still, two years later, federal authorities had no clues.

In 2004, a caller left a message saying he had overheard a conversation that pointed to the Hoge hunting group as possibly involved in a bear killing. Bragonier visited the Hoge lodge in September 2004. Hoge wasn´t there, and the people who were said they didn´t know anything.

"Jim Kelly calls me and says the feds were just here and said I killed a grizzly," Hoge said.

Brown told Hoge that he killed a young grizzly, but Hoge didn´t believe him.

He talked with Kelly, then called Walters, who told him the whole story.

"I said I wouldn´t cover up for anyone," Hoge said. "I should have called after Tim told me, but I just didn´t believe him."

Hoge gave Bragonier some details and Walters´ telephone number. Walters was ready to confess when the Fish and Wildlife officer called.

"For two years I was carrying the burden of knowing I was responsible for the deaths of not just one grizzly but two," Walters said.

He agreed to pay $15,000 restitution, which was given to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to capture and collar more grizzly bears in Idaho. Brown and Hoopes decided to fight the charges for killing the yearling and were scheduled for trial Jan. 3.

Story and evidence from the scene didn’t match

They pleaded guilty: Brown to killing the bear and Hoopes to destroying government property -- the radio collar.

Brown said Hoopes shot the bear with an arrow when it attacked them. Then they followed the bear and performed a mercy killing, he told U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill.

"I pointed my gun at the bear and dispatched the bear," Brown said.

Brown told the Island Park News essentially the same story and said "others in the group´´ encouraged them to destroy the evidence -- a direct conflict with Sauers´ and Walters´ story. The problem with Brown´s story, Bragonier said, is that the forensics veterinarian found no evidence the yearling bear had been shot with an arrow. It only had a rifle shot, which by recreating the crime, they determined had been shot from a distance.

"The version of facts laid out by Sauers and Walters collaborate the physical evidence and it´s just the opposite with Hoopes and Brown," Bragonier said.

The two men will get a chance to explain themselves on March 16 when Winmill has scheduled a sentencing hearing. Brown faces a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $100,000 fine under the Endangered Species Act. Hoopes faces a maximum sentence of a year in jail and $100,000 fine. Both also could lose hunting privileges and be required to pay restitution.

EPILOGUE

Bear biologist Schwartz found 346´s death and the death of her cub especially tragic. She was the reproducing sow who lived the furthest West in the Yellowstone ecosystem, a pioneer.

"She was a productive adult grizzly bear, and her young would have repopulated Idaho," he said.

Opponents to delisting point to her cub´s death and the anti-grizzly attitude of many in Idaho as a reason to keep grizzlies under federal control. But her death won´t be in vain if Idahoans heed her story, said Louisa Willcox, a grizzly bear expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Mont.

"If there is any meaning in her death, it´s in the lessons the bear can teach us if we want to listen," Willcox said.

The life and death of grizzly bear 346

Bear 346´s range covered three states, two national forests, a national park and thousands of acres of private land, mostly in Idaho.

1. August 28, 1999

Bear 346, a 4-year-old female who had yet to reproduce, is captured and radio collared by biologists with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team and Idaho Department of Fish and Game wardens north of Macks Inn, about 10 miles west of Yellowstone National Park. She works her way up the Centennial Mountains to the west, eating whitebark pine nuts for the remainder of the fall.

2. November 1999

Bear 346 moves to the headwaters of the Gallatin River in Yellowstone National Park, where she feeds on whitebark pine and then dens .

3. May 20, 2000

Bear 346 is seen by a pilot in the higher north side of the Gallatin River in Yellowstone. She has two cubs.

4. August 2000

Bear 346 is spotted in the Gallatin River drainage again heading northwest toward Quadrant Peak in Yellowstone. Sometime between June and August, she loses both cubs, which is not unusual for first-time grizzly mothers, especially in Yellowstone where male bears often kill cubs so they can breed with the sow. She feeds again in August and the fall in the Quadrant-Electric Peak area on whitebark pine nuts and in November she denned in that area.

5. May 2, 2001

Bear 346 comes out of her den with two new cubs. She stays in Yellowstone until early July when she follows Grayling Creek south to the outskirts of West Yellowstone, Mont., which now has an elaborate sanitary system so bears are not attracted to garbage.

6. July 2-9 2001

Sometime between July 2 and July 9 she loses one of her cubs. She heads southwest into Idaho to the Henrys Lake area in August and stays there through the early fall.

7. October 2001

She returns to Yellowstone in October, climbing again into the Gallatin Range near the headwaters of the Gallatin River, where she dens for the winter with her surviving female cub.

8. May 2002

High winds keep researchers from flying in early May. Bear 346 is spotted for the first time with her cub in late May on the upper Madison River west of West Yellowstone.

9. July 2002

Bear 346 heads south in early July, showing up near Big Springs east of Island Park in Idaho.

10. September 2002

Bear 346 is last monitored on Sawtelle Peak in early September, where she and her cub were feeding again on the mountain´s lush whitebark pine crop. In the three years that researchers followed her, she never got into trouble with humans even though she was regularly near them, especially in the late summer and fall.

11. September 22, 2002

Kentucky bowhunter Dan Walters stalks to within 30 yards of bear 346 and her cub and shoots her with a arrow in the hind quarter shortly before dark, mistaking her for a black bear.

12. September 23, 2002

Walters returns with Tim Brown and Brad Hoopes, both of St. Anthony, and a friend from Kentucky. They find bear 346 dead. Brown kills the surviving female cub, and Hoopes destroys bear 346´s radio collar.

13. October 2002

Rexburg hunter Jerome Bowen finds bear 346 and her cub dead and contacts authorities.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact Rocky at rbarkeridaho statesman.com or 377-6484.

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