U.S. Fish & Wildlife Report Documents Grizzly Bear Killed Illegally.

Bozeman, Mont.—Conservation groups are questioning why the U.S. Department of Justice did not prosecute what appears to be the illegal killing of a grizzly bear last summer on a Forest Service sheep grazing allotment near Yellowstone National Park. Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Gallatin Wildlife Association, WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project received reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that say a sheepherder shot and killed 8-­‐year old grizzly bear #677 in the southern Gravelly mountains.

According to the report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services spoke with the sheepherder about increased grizzly activity in the area on “multiple occasions” just prior to the killing. The agency asked the sheepherder to move the sheep and the sheepherder responded that was “pretty common advice.”

On August 23rd, 2013 a grizzly killed three of the sheep. The following morning, the sheepherder was directed to move the sheep. The sheep were moved one mile east. On the morning of August 25th, the grizzly bear was shot twice after killing more sheep.

“Grizzly #677 was shot in a very remote roadless area on public land. That bear would still be alive if it wasn’t for domestic sheep.” said Glenn Hockett of Gallatin Wildlife Association. “Grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. This grazing outfit abused that privilege and needlessly killed grizzly #677” said John Meyer, Executive Director of Cottonwood Environmental Law Center.

Grizzly bears are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmental groups and put the bears back on the list of endangered species after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately consider how climate change was impacting whitebark pine cones seeds—a main food source of the bears. As climate change continues to kill whitebarks, grizzlies are searching for new food sources.

The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal for anyone to “take” a listed species. Take is defined broadly and includes harming, harassing or killing a listed species. The Fish and Wildlife Service report states that the grizzly killing was an “illegal take”. The Department of Justice declined to prosecute the case.

The conservation organizations are waiting for the Department to release additional documents that explain why the case was not prosecuted. In the meantime, they have submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest seeking its environmental analysis for the 7 sheep allotments in the Gravelly mountains.

“We would like to know whether the Forest Service has sufficiently analyzed the impacts of sheep grazing in this remote grizzly country,” said Meyer. “It may be that sheep grazing presents too much risk of conflict on these particular public lands.”

The groups recently settled a lawsuit with the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station after the collar of another grizzly bear was found in a stream under a rock. The collar was cut off and an empty rifle cartridge was found at the sheep herder’s camp. Federal officials ruled out hunters as suspects.

“The government has a duty to ensure the recovery of listed species and prevent illegal and unnecessary killing of the animal,” said Bryan Bird, a biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “If grazing of domestic sheep is resulting in illegal take, the activity should cease in the area for the protection of the grizzly.

The organizations challenged the biological opinion for the federal grazing facility, which said that “no known grizzly bear mortalities have occurred in or near the action area in the recent past.” However, meeting notes between the FWS and Sheep Station obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request stated that “within the past 8 years, there have been several grizzly bear mortalities nearby the Sheep Station.”

“Grazing sheep in known occupied grizzly habitat not only puts sheep and grizzlies at risk, it also puts the sheepherders that are often poorly paid migrant workers at risk,” said Ken Cole, NEPA Coordinator for Western Watersheds Project. The conservation organizations received an email in response to a FOIA request that says grizzly bears have chased sheep herders on grazing allotments at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.

The Sheep Station is located just south of the Gravelly Mountains in the Centennial Mountains.

acrobat pdfView the FOIA response here.


  1. Gail Avatar

    “A privilege, not a right”, indeed.
    So glad these organizations are taking the grazers to task.

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    I would think that prosecution at some level would be imperative, regardless.

    1. SAP Avatar

      After reading through the FOIA’d documents, I gather that DOJ probably declined to prosecute based on their experience with similar cases, most notably the 1989 Shuler case on the Rocky Mountain Front. It took nine years, but Shuler was finally acquitted on appeal for killing a grizzly in his yard.


      The Shuler case is in some respects different from the Gravelly case — Shuler started out defending his sheep, and ended up in fear for his life. Prosecutors and judge concluded that Shuler had put himself in harm’s way by going on to protect his sheep, when he could’ve stayed in the house.

      In the Gravelly case, the sheepherder probably had a good Defense of Life claim, based on having an aggressive grizzly 50 yards from his tent (outcome may have been different had he been in the relative safety of a sheep wagon) fighting the Livestock Guarding Dogs. I suspect that the reason Special Agents labelled it “illegal” had to do with the fact that he followed the bear another fifty yards and killed it. Without a transcript of the interview, I can’t say whether the bear made any actual move toward the herder, but having him that close to the tent in a fight with the dogs would certainly be scary.

      You could parse this a number of different ways (and let me state unequivocally that I wish this bear hadn’t been shot; my analysis here is just for the purpose of explanation, not justification). On the one hand: was the sheepherder really afraid for his life if he followed the bear out into the dark and finished him off?

      On the other hand: in the dark, in a tent — no truck, just a couple decrepit saddle horses for transport — and you just put a bullet into a grown grizzly. Do you just call it a night and sleep soundly?

      There are two different, but inter-related matters here: 1) Should sheep grazing continue in a place being recolonized by grizzlies? Asking this question, we step into a galaxy of other questions about delisting, recovery planning, critical habitat, climate change . . . if one has concluded that the Yellowstone grizzly population is recovered and doing fine, then one likely concludes that bears like 677 are expendable and no one should have to do much of anything to accommodate them.

      2) Was this a legitimate Defense of Life kill? Probably.

      It doesn’t do much good to confuse these two questions, even though they are interrelated. I see them as interrelated because it’s clear that this setting — grizzlies + sheep + isolated, poorly equipped herders in canvas tents — has the potential to lead to more of this kind of thing. So, the next questions to explore: can a sheep operation be made less problematic for grizzlies? Or, are sheep and grizzlies mutually exclusive?

      PS: All, please don’t hate on me for not seeing this in simple black and white terms.

    2. Elk375 Avatar

      Cody you can prosecuted the herder, but the case will be heard in federal court in Butte, Montana. Is a jury from Southwest Montana going to convict a Non-English speaking employee? I do not think so; it is a waste of resources.

      1. CodyCoyote Avatar

        I guess the rest of my thought train is there were a chain of incidents of conflicts between the herd of sheep and a grizzly. What was ever done — or not done —to prevent recurring conflicts? What did the OWNER of these valuable privately owned sheep on public land ever do to keep this from happening the 2nd, 3rd time ? Does that not count for anything ?

        Like those anti-fed sheepers over near Dillon MT who had a wolf packd ecimate their sheep. Fine. Theyw ere compensated for ther loss. Then it happened again . What had they done to prevent a recurrence? —they are known practical methods of nonlethal predator control, but when you use none of them…..?

        1. SAP Avatar

          Re: non-lethal: The sheep outfit makes extensive use of Livestock Guard Dogs — the dogs actually did repel the bear the night before the shooting. They probably would have done it again (but, they may have been tired and maybe sustained a few wounds from the first fight). Fear probably played a big role here, as the herder was in a tent instead of a hard-sided vehicle.

          One part of the picture here is that this episode occurred during the Eureka Basin wildfire, which burned right through the Gravelly sheep allotments. Between fire and firefighting operations, I know that the sheep were getting shuffled from one part of the allotment to the other on a daily basis. I was up there on a crew and we drove right through the sheep numerous times (they were unresponsive to honking horns, but they would scatter when the air brakes on our water truck would cycle).

          The shuffling may have led to the sheep ending up in a more dangerous place as to bear risk — down in the Hellroaring drainage, adjoining a big roadless area with lots of forest cover. Plus, the shuffling and constant adaptation surely contributed to fatigue and maybe some communication breakdowns? And maybe the fire and all the helicopters and other disturbance had the bear on edge, too.

          1. Barb Rupers Avatar
            Barb Rupers

            Thanks for relating your knowledge and insight of this event.

  3. AllIsLove Avatar

    Put a luscious feast in front of a starving bear and expect it not to go for it? How realistic is that???


Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Press Release