Idaho man pleads not guilty to killing grizzly

August 24, 2011 - 1:35 PM

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) — A North Idaho man charged with illegally killing a female grizzly bear that supporters say wandered into his yard where his children were playing has pleaded not guilty in federal court.

Jeremy M. Hill, 33, of Porthill was arraigned Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Coeur d'Alene on a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully taking a federally protected species.

The hearing for Hill drew dozens of supporters who claim he was doing nothing more than protecting his family when the bear and two cubs ambled on to his rural, 20-acre property near the Canadian border on May 8.

The crowd was so big that the magistrate judge moved the hearing to a bigger courtroom.

Federal prosecutors say Hill shot the female with a bolt-action rifle, but they have shared few other details of their investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Cook declined to comment to reporters after the hearing.

A jury trial has been set for Oct. 4. If convicted, Hill could face penalties of up to one year in prison and fines up to $50,000. He has been appointed a federal public defender and is free on bond.

The Endangered Species Act classifies the grizzly bear as a threatened species in the lower 48 states, and it is protected by federal law.

Hill and his wife have six children, and their home is between two federal grizzly bear recovery zones — the Selkirk zone to the west and Cabinet-Yaak zone to the east. Biologists estimate that 100 grizzlies inhabit the zones that include parts of Idaho, British Columbia and Montana.

The bears are a controversial topic in Boundary County, as habitat protection by federal agencies has impacted and timber harvest and logging industry.

Supporters say several of Hill's children were playing in the yard when the bear approached, and he notified Idaho wildlife officials after shooting the sow.

"It seems unjust to me that someone would be charged when they were protecting their family," state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said after the hearing. "I'm at a loss to understand why the U.S. government is pursuing this in the manner they are."

Supporters have written letters to state and congressional leaders, and last week the community raised $19,500 for a defense fund for the family at a 4-H animal sale in Bonners Ferry.

Ronald Smith, chairman of the Boundary County Commission, said the county supports grizzly recovery plans also is struggling to understand the charges against Hill.

"Jeremy Hill . has been falsely accused of a crime that did not happen," Smith said in a statement. "This is not some flagrant or malicious act."

The case was investigated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, who submitted their report to federal attorneys, said Joan Jewett, agency spokeswoman.

"We do an investigation and turn over our information and evidence to the U.S. attorney's office and the U.S. attorney makes the decision on whether to prosecute or not," Jewett said.