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Grizzly death case could set precedent

Published May 30, 2010 9:27 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The successful prosecution of a Jackson Hole hunter who claimed self defense after killing a grizzly could set a precedent in Greater Yellowstone, where the grizzly population is expanding and loaded guns are now allowed in national parks, experts say.

A jury recently found 41-year-old Stephen Westmoreland guilty of a misdemeanor charge of illegally taking a grizzly bear stemming from an incident in September when he shot a bear. He argued self defense in a trial that hinged on the behavior of the bear, among other things.

Mark Bruscino, bear management program supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, testified at the trial about how bears act before they attack a person and told jurors that most often bruins will retreat during an encounter.

"This whole thing adds up to that people need to make sure they are in a self-defense situation," Bruscino said in an interview after the trial. "You can't kill wildlife based on an undemonstrated fear of an unrealistic threat."

Last year, seven grizzly bears were killed by hunters and hikers in self defense situations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Teton County Attorney Steve Weichman, who prosecuted the Westmoreland case, said it is one of the first instances in the country where a person was convicted of taking wildlife when claiming self defense.

Westmoreland shot the animal at 40 yards after he encountered it feeding on a moose carcass. The animal died on the other side of the moose from Westmoreland and without charging.

In their verdict, jurors seemed to acknowledge that Westmoreland had no malicious intent when he killed the animal. But they were convinced he was not defending himself from a real threat.

"Under the circumstances, we feel the defendant acted out of fear instead of self defense," the verdict said.

Grizzly bear death casecould set park precedent