The strange day a longtime Idaho bear hunter became the prey

Lifelong Idaho hunter Marvin Jennings has bagged his share of black bears over the years.

The 43-year-old grew up in Boise but has lived in the mountains of Boise County for the past 20 years. He hunts big-game animals and waterfowl for food.

“I’m not a trophy hunter in any way,” he said recently from the front porch of a house that he built.

A 300-pound black bear that he killed a couple of years ago helped feed his family for a year, said his wife, Jamie Jennings.

The bear that upended Marvin’s life on May 28 — creating national headlines and reigniting the debate about the use of bait in hunting — wasn’t one that he hunted for his wife and two teenage daughters. Marvin was helping Jon Pendergraft, an uncle from Washington state, kill his first bear.

“We’d been planning the trip for a year,” Marvin said. “It’s an experience he’d never had.”

And it’s not one that Pendergraft will soon forget after watching a wounded bear chew on his nephew and try to shake the life out of him.

“You don’t see something like this every day,” said Pendergraft, a 66-year-old taxi driver from Lynnwood, north of Seattle.

Doctors harvested an artery from Marvin’s right leg to save his left arm, which has significant nerve damage but is still functioning. A tooth from the bear lodged in his artery and helped stem the bleeding, possibly saving his life, he said. A nurse visits him at home each day to clean and treat the deep bite wounds on his left side and back; another nurse is doing weekly checks to make sure he’s healing.

Marvin works as a general contractor. He has no idea when he’ll be healed enough to get back to work, and he said he’s having trouble sleeping due to nightmares. Though covered by health insurance, the medical bills are piling up. A GoFundMe account set up by fellow firefighters at the Clear Creek Volunteer Fire Department has raised $1,250.

“It’s a huge tragedy to my family,” said Marvin, who has received both tremendous support and scorn. During his five-day hospitalization, he got a card from someone who wrote they wished the bear had killed him.

The debate on bait

Marvin chalked up the angry backlash he has received to “Californians,” “tree huggers” and others who generally oppose hunting. But many Statesman readers online questioned and criticized the use of bear bait, a legal hunting method in Idaho that has been debated nationwide.

Critics say it’s unsporting since it doesn’t involve “fair chase” and can have unintended consequences, such as conditioning wild animals to seek handouts.

“That’s not really hunting, it’s ‘luring into a trap,’ ” wrote one commenter. “Are hunters too lazy to work at getting their ‘trophy’? My father and the men he hunted with in Washington would be appalled at this travesty.”

Idaho has roughly 30,000 black bears, according to estimates by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Each year, the state issues about 30,000 hunting tags for them; the annual number killed by hunters over the past 10 to 15 years ranges from 2,000 to 2,800.

More than 90 percent of people who obtain tags in a given year won’t bag a bear. Of those who do, 35 percent to 48 percent hunt over bait, depending on the year.

Some hunters buy black bear tags in case they come across a bear while out hunting other game, said Craig White, deer and elk coordinator for Fish and Game. Permitted black bear hunting methods in Idaho also include spot-and-stalk and the use of hounds. (Hounds and bait are allowed only in specific locations.)

The Jenningses see baiting bears with food as more humane than chasing them with hounds, and akin to other accepted methods of obtaining food.

“If you bait a hook, it’s called fishing,” said Jamie.

Marvin invests weeks, even months, in hunting bears. The state allows hunters to manage up to three bait sites, and there are many rules governing what food is used and the container it’s in. He puts up wildlife cameras near sanctioned bait sites to learn about the bears in the area. He then looks at those images at home before setting up near one of the sites.

Using bait to hunt black bears is prohibited in many states, including Oregon, Montana and Colorado. Idaho has a long history of allowing it, though there have been efforts to change that. The last voter initiative to ban the use of hounds and bait was in 1996.

“There are different perspectives among our sportsmen of what’s proper and what’s not,” White said. “I think people don’t look at baiting and realize the effort that goes into that ... Hounds hunting isn’t necessarily the cinch deal that a lot of people might think it is. There’s tremendous effort training dogs to track bears by scent.”

The number of annual bear baiting permits in Idaho has increased over the past two decades, topping 3,000 each of the past two years for the first time ever, White said. That’s double the number issued in the late 1990s.

The black bear population, however, is not declining. That’s notable, he said, because state wildlife managers want to keep the population in check to ensure bears do not become a nuisance: preying on domestic sheep, damaging crops or wandering into cities.

“Because our bear populations are robust and a natural resource, we can provide hunter harvest opportunities without negatively impacting the bear population,” said Jon Rachael, state wildlife game manager.

What went wrong?

Marvin believes what happened on the night of May 28 was a fluke.

“I’ve played it back a million different ways,” he said.

He and Pendergraft said they were sitting 65 to 80 yards away from the bait site in the Clear Creek area, west of Idaho 21. The bear’s behavior — glances in their direction, ears back and gums flared — indicated that it knew they were there, Marvin said. It was about 9 p.m.

A shot behind the ribs took the bear down, and Pendergraft recalled seeing it tumbling downhill. Marvin went down soon after to check on it.

About 15 to 20 yards away, he said, he used a handgun to shoot the bear twice in the head, intending to end any suffering. He turned to look at his uncle. When he looked back at the bear, it was charging at him.

He was unable to lower his rifle quickly enough to get a shot off. The bear swiped his legs out from under him and bit him in the left arm, hip and back.

Marvin was able to reach the handgun. “I straight up had to shoot him off me,” he said.

Pendergraft, who was still uphill and looking for a fallen clip, heard Marvin’s screams for help: “He’s got me. He’s got me.”

In his haste to aid his nephew, he tripped and fell down the hill. He wasn’t hurt, he said, but he had no way to communicate the emergency to his son, who was sitting in a tree at another bait site.

By the time it was over, Marvin had fired all but one of his handgun’s 15 bullets at the bear. The taxidermist found that just two went through its head, he said.

Marvin’s arm was a mangled mess, and he was bleeding from multiple bite wounds. He told his uncle that he had to go for help. Pendergraft eventually got to a fellow firefighter’s house and called for help. Volunteer firefighters and EMTs took Marvin to a rendezvous point with the air ambulance.

Jamie said she reads to her husband at night to try to help him sleep, and she’s thankful for the support they’ve received from family members, who helped at the hospital, sent money and have helped with wound care.

Pendergraft is going to keep the bear’s head and hide — Marvin has a standing invitation to come up and “stomp” on it, his uncle said. He’ll be getting the meat from the butcher soon.

“Because of the age of the bear, it’s all going to be turned into pepperoni and summer sausage,” Pendergraft said. “We will be sharing it with Marvin — he well deserves part of this.”

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller