Grizzly run-ins part of life in Idaho’s Panhandle

By David Cole
Porthill, Idaho (AP) October 2011

As recently as 100 years ago, grizzly bears ranged the flat and green Kootenai River valley floor each spring.

“That seems like forever ago to us, but grizzly bear biology hasn’t changed in that time,” said Wayne Wakkinen, senior wildlife research biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, in Bonners Ferry.

Grizzly populations dropped over time, and the riparian vegetation that dominated the valley has been replaced by farmland. But the grizzly instinct to seek spring-range habitat at lower elevations hasn’t changed.

Today, the animal, a subspecies of brown bear, is mounting a recovery, though slow. As that progresses, more bears will be showing up in the valley, including in and around Porthill.

“As bears expand, there are going to be bears not that far from Sandpoint,” he said. “We are going to have more human-bear interactions.”

In Porthill, at the U.S.-Canadian border and home to less than 100 people, visitors can see hop fields that extend for thousands of acres.

The structures and overhead wires were put in place to support the vigorous growth of hop plants for past production by beer maker Anheuser-Busch. Today, other crops, including wheat, grow in the valley.

While a border town, the agricultural community also is close to two of the lower 48 states’ half-dozen grizzly bear recovery zones, with one just four miles west across the Kootenai River. The rugged mountains to the west mark the boundary to the Selkirk Mountains recovery zone. Grizzly populations there are increasing.

East of Porthill, on the Idaho side of the Montana-Idaho border, lies the boundary of the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery zone. That ecosystem has approximately 50 grizzly bears, though that number is declining slowly, said Joan Jewett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific region.

The Selkirk recovery zone spans 2,200 square miles.

The portion in British Columbia has an estimated 45 to 50 grizzly bears, while the U.S. portion has about 35 to 40, Wakkinen said. Of the roughly 80 grizzly bears, about 15 are breeding females, which have offspring every third year. The mothers aren’t reproductive until age 6 or 7.

The cubs the mothers do have, with an average litter of 2.1, stay with them for two years.

Incidents of human-cause mortality have been reduced, allowing the grizzly bear population to mount a comeback. Fewer bears are being shot by poachers, and black bear hunters are killing fewer by mistake. Highway kills are becoming rare.

“We’ve got more bears living, and reproduction is ahead of mortality,” Wakkinen said. “We’ve got a slowly growing population here.”

But a growing grizzly bear population is not like a growing white-tailed deer population. Female grizzly reproductive patterns govern the pace.

Meanwhile, “Public attitudes about grizzly bears have changed for the better,” Wakkinen said.

The lack of grizzly attacks on people helps.

Wakkinen couldn’t recall a grizzly bear mauling since the late 1970s or early 1980s when a surveyor fell victim to one of the animals about three or four miles north of Porthill.

Just 20 or 30 years ago, it was unusual to have grizzly bear sightings in the Kootenai River valley, because the population was way down.

Anymore, it’s not, Wakkinen said.

Perhaps surprising to outsiders, people in Porthill say the animals are at most an uncommon sight. Some residents have never seen one, even though it’s known the animals venture into the valley in spring.

“Having a grizzly bear in your yard here is a big deal,” said Porthill resident Yvonne Sheppard, while she worked at Porthill Mercantile, the oldest standing building in town. “That’s scary.”

Grizzly bears have long, curved claws and muscled shoulders, and males near Porthill reach 500 pounds and females more than 300 pounds, eating mostly huckleberries. They are long-lived mammals, generally reaching around 25 years old.

Sheppard, a lifelong resident, has never seen one, she said.

“We don’t live in the woods,” she said. “We’re just a bunch of farms.”

Sheppard, a mother of two, was a bit on edge at home after May 8, which happened to be Mother’s Day. That’s the day a mother grizzly and two 2-year-old cubs wandered onto a Porthill resident’s property.

Two of those bears ran off when one of them was shot and killed by Jeremy M. Hill, 33. He was charged last month in U.S. District Court with killing a grizzly, and has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Marc Lyons of Coeur d’Alene, said the killing was done to protect Hill’s family and property.

All residents in Porthill support Hill’s actions, and would like to see laws adjusted so nobody else ends up in his position.

Tom Kellogg, who was dusting bottles of booze at the duty free store in Porthill, said, “He wasn’t just shooting for the sport of it.”

Porthill residents say the safety of people and the protection of property is more important than protecting grizzly bears, a threatened species in the lower 48 states and protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Politicians have lined up to say publicly that they support Hill’s actions.

In the early 1800s, an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears roamed between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Plains.

Today, only a few small corners of grizzly country remain, supporting about 1,200 to 1,400 wild grizzly bears.

In the 1860s, a man named David McLoughlin came to Porthill, which was then called Ockanook, a Kootenai Tribe word meaning rocky point or grassy hill.

McLoughlin started a trading post in Ockanook, said Sue Kemmis, curator at the Boundary County Museum. Both McLoughlin and his wife Annie Grizzly, a member of the Kootenais, are buried at the Porthill Cemetery, which sits on a hill high above the community.

Kemmis said the place was named after Charles  “Chippy” Hill, who filed a claim on the land, taking it from McLoughlin. Jeremy Hill’s wife, Rachel, said she’d never heard of Charles Hill, and doesn’t think there is a relation.

Charles Hill gave the place its current name, joining the word “port” with his last name in the 1890s, Kemmis said. Others believe the town was named by a different man, who chose the name simply because it’s a “port-on-a-hill.”

Terry Crisman, a Porthill resident for more than 30 years and a friend of Hill’s, said people here will pile into a tour bus and head south to Boise if Hill’s trial ends up there. His first court appearance was in Coeur d’Alene.

“Everybody in the county is backing him,” Crisman said. “His only mistake was being honest.”

After killing the grizzly with a .270-caliber rifle, Hill called wildlife officials to report the death.

It would have been easier to dump the dead bear’s carcass in the Kootenai River and watch it float into Canada, he said.

Others have suggested a “shoot-then-shovel” approach would have been more expedient for Hill, a lifetime resident of Boundary County.

Crisman said while nobody expects Hill to face jail time or a significant fine, stress on his family has already exacted a toll.

If convicted, Hill faces up to a year in jail and a $50,000 fine for the crime, which is a misdemeanor.

Crisman said Hill is a mellow guy, who works hard to take care of his family, which includes six kids.

“We don’t make a lot of money around here,” Crisman said. Many people commute the 25 miles south to Bonners Ferry to make a living. “This is a laid-back community. We live here because it’s beautiful, quiet, and there’s no crime.”

Some of that peace has been interrupted by the grizzly’s death.

U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson has declined to comment on the case, and state and federal wildlife officials have not released an incident report, so it’s not known what happened on Hill’s 20-acre property.

All anybody knows for sure is a grizzly bear was shot and killed there, and Hill has been charged.

Hill has declined comment about the incident.

In a letter to the Obama administration late last month asking for a review of the case, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter wrote: “No one disputes that Jeremy Hill killed a grizzly bear. The dispute appears to be over the reason for shooting the bear.”

Otter warned that prosecution might further damage public support for recovery efforts.

Trial is scheduled for next month.