For some weeks now, Idahoans have been hearing howls of anguish in a bvear shooting case - howls from their elected officials, Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter and the congressional delegation among them. “Many, including me, feel Mr. Hill did what a concerned parent would do. Now, Jeremy and his family must endure the cost of a trial,” Otter remarked last month, after sending a letter to the Obama administration decrying the prosecution. The case became a conservative cause celebre.
What was known at the time essentially was this: A grizzly mother and two cubs had wandered onto Jeremy Hill's property at Porthill, and he shot one of them. Shooting an endangered grizzly is against the law, although you'd naturally want to cut some slack to someone acting to defend himself or another person.
Because of that, any useful assessment of Hill's case needs to turn on the specific details, on exactly what happened. Because the case was in litigation, with possible criminal charges involved, Hill wasn't saying much publicly - we had little basis for working out the right and wrong. But on Wednesday, he and the feds worked out an agreement. Hill agreed that he violated the Endangered Species Act and paid $1,000 fine, and any criminal case was dropped.
At that point, he released his description of what happened:
After having family over for dinner on Mother's Day, I was outside at the basketball hoop with four of my children. I went into the house to take a shower. When I finished showering and was getting dressed, my wife, Rachel, looked out the bedroom window and saw three grizzly bears at the edge of our yard, but very close by, standing near a small pen that held the children's 4-H pigs. The last time I saw my children they were outside. I grabbed a rifle and ran out on the deck. I yelled for the children, but did not hear a response. The bears did not move away from the pen as I was yelling. Fearing for the safety of my children, I shot the bear that was closest to the house. The other two bears ran across part of the lawn and into the brush. The wounded bear followed into the yard, but stopped and turned toward the house. I shot the bear again. About this time, Rachel told me that the children were safe inside the house. The bear I shot was badly wounded, and I believed at that time that it would be very dangerous to leave the bear wounded, possibly posing a threat to others. I also thought the humane thing to do was to put the wounded bear out of its misery.
We do not live in the wilderness. We live in a rural farm community. I have never seen grizzly bears near our home before. I shot the grizzly bear because I was fearful for the safety of my family. I thought I was doing the right thing to protect them. Once I shot the bear, I immediately called Idaho Fish and Game to report the incident.
Impressions will vary. Ours, assuming the accuracy of the story and nothing important left out (the size of yard, the amount of time elapsed), is that Hill was more justified than not. There are gray areas. Since the bears were not near or attacking anyone at the moment, and he was some distance away, presumably he could have waited them out for a few minutes to see if they went away. Or he might have fired a warning shot to see if that would scare them off. That said, he evidently didn't know quite where his children were (might shooting one have driven the others in his children's direction?) and - this is critical - grizzlies are extremely unpredictable and dangerous, and fast, and he was inexperienced with dealing with them. All of these points are easier to contemplate at a distance and in hindsight. Might Hill have acted in a way that would have preserved both bears and safety? Maybe. But his actions were certainly not unreasonable either; a danger was clear and present and foraging in his back yard.
Something like the resolution that emerged seems reasonable. Criminal charges might be fitting for someone headed out into the woods to hunt grizzlies, but surely not in a defensive case like this. At the same time, Hill had options, and okaying simply killing grizzlies on sight doesn't seem right either. The tone of the statements coming out of both sides on Wednesday seemed subdued, and that feels generally appropriate.