A black bear hunter accidently killed a grizzly. Are hunters educated well enough?

In the last twenty years, black bear hunters have mistakenly killed six grizzlies just in Park County, Wyoming.
Grizzlies are still federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, but federal authorities haven't filed charges in recent cases of grizzly killings in the area. (Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park)

by | Jun 5, 2023 | Environment

This story comes through a content-sharing partnership with Wyoming Public Media.

In the late nineties, the sentiment, “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut-up” was often heard in Park County. A downtown gun shop, used by Wyoming Game and Fish for hunter safety classes, displayed a large handgun in a front case. The sign in front of the handgun read, “Wyoming Bear Spray.”

Ron Ostrum, the lone law enforcement officer for the Shoshone National Forest’s 1.6 million acres, worked six cases of intentional illegal grizzly shootings in just 2003.

“They gut shoot the grizzly bear,” he said back in 2004. “And the grizzly bear can travel several miles that way and dies somewhere else and another bear eats it within a day or two, and nobody knows where that bear went to.”

And the problem isn’t going away. A grizzly was shot and killed on the North Fork of the Shoshone Forest on May 1, earlier this year.

Cody wildlife photographer Amy Gerber saw the carcass about thirty yards off the highway that same day. She said she spoke to regional and national news outlets about it. She didn’t know why someone would shoot the 530-pound bear.

“I do think the vast majority of people who live in Cody, and in Park County, and in Wyoming love grizzly bears, as much as I do,” Gerber said. “And I think they want those grizzly bears to still roam this land. This is special. People come from everywhere to see animals like grizzly bears.”

After the news came out about her comments on the bear’s death, she said, “The vast majority of people I’ve heard from have been supportive.”

But, she added, “I’ve been called ignorant, I’ve been called arrogant, I’ve been called a ‘Karen.'”

‘Mistaken identity’

Days after the bear was killed, it was revealed this grizzly shooting was a case of mistaken identity.

An affidavit filed in district court by a Wyoming Game and Fish warden stated Wapiti resident Patrick Gogerty turned himself in the day after the grizzly carcass was found. The affidavit stated Gogerty admitted he shot the grizzly when he was black bear hunting. Gogerty reportedly said he thought it was a black bear because he couldn’t see the hump on its back, and shot at the bear seven times.

Grizzlies are still federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. That means someone who kills a grizzly bear could be fined up to $50,000, and be sentenced to a year in jail under federal charges. But, the only charge filed against Gogerty is a Wyoming misdemeanor charge for taking a trophy game animal without the proper license, or authority. That’s punishable by one year in jail, up to a $10,000 fine, and $25,000 restitution to the state.

Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said that in the last twenty years, there had been about six cases of black bear hunters mistakenly killing grizzlies in Park County. In all of those cases, Skoric observed the federal authorities had failed to file charges.

One of those was a grizzly that was shot last May. Twelve days after Gogerty reportedly shot the North Fork grizzly this year, news came out about last year’s case, in which a hunter was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution for telling his son to shoot a grizzly he thought was a black bear.

But, Skoric said, “We take this very seriously. We have in the past cases.”

Gogerty appeared in district court in Cody for his arraignment, without a lawyer. The judge filed a “not guilty” plea for Gogerty on May 19, setting his trial date for October.

Wyoming Game and Fish Cody Regional Wildlife Supervisor Dan Smith denied a request to comment on Gogerty’s case, saying it was still under investigation. But, he said he’s not worried about the number of mistaken identity cases in Park County in the last two decades.

“Six mistaken identity cases of a bear, I don’t think is very high,” he said.

Educating hunters

Smith said a 27-page booklet may be given to hunters when they buy a black bear license. That book contains pictures and descriptions of black and grizzly bears so that hunters can tell them apart. It also explains that baiting bears, which is allowed in most of Wyoming, is prohibited in areas where grizzlies commonly live.

“It’s a resource that’s available. They’re not required to take one,” Smith said.

And, license sellers are not required to give hunters the booklet.

“Rather than regulating the person selling the license, I would say that the responsibility falls on the hunter,” Smith said.

Smith said the information about black and grizzly bears is also found on the Game and Fish Department website.

The President of Wyoming Outdoorsmen, Chip Newton said he is not prejudging Gogerty’s case. He said they ask their members to know what their target is, to know what they’re shooting at.

On that, Smith and Newton agree.

“People make mistakes. I think the majority, 99 percent of hunters that are bear hunters, know exactly what they’re looking for,” Smith said. “But mistakes happen. A mistaken identity is a mistake, and the person has to be responsible for what they do.”

Even wildlife photographer Amy Gerber agreed. She said hunters need to take more time to assess their target.

“I would like to think we’re going to stop mistaking grizzly bears for black bears,” Gerber said. “I know mistakes happen. No one’s perfect. We’re all human. Everyone makes mistakes. I don’t hold any malice against this person, but moving forward we just have to do better. We have to be better.”

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