They chased a bear with dogs for at least 90 minutes before it collapsed from exhaustion and cowered in fear, then they put the dehydrated animal in a cage when it became unresponsive and appeared to be dying.
According to court records, William “Bo” Wood kept the bear at his hunting camp in Grand County for two days. After the bear recovered he released the animal to pursue it again, in violation of Utah hunting regulations that prohibit capturing bears and other protected wildlife.
While using dogs to pursue bears is legal and growing in popularity in Utah, the 2018 incident in the La Sal Mountains resulted in felony charges against Wood, 31, a Florida dog trainer who has been arrested for allegedly abusing bears in his home state, and his Utah companion Clifford Stubbs of Parowan.
The incident shines a light into the little-known and ethically suspect practice of pursuing wild animals for sport. Critics say such pursuits harass wildlife, which is not legal in any other context, and could endanger anyone coming upon a bear that had been traumatized by dogs.
Such concerns were front and center in this case, according to evidence presented Thursday to the Utah Wildlife Board as it weighed the fate of Stubbs’s hunting privileges.
Stubbs told the board he knew nothing of his friend’s crimes and condemned Wood’s alleged abuses. A 48-year-old concrete contractor, Stubbs did plead guilty to reduced misdemeanor wildlife violations, but asked the board to drop the three-year suspension imposed by the Division of Wildlife Resources, known as DWR. Stubbs claimed he acted to save the bear, which had collapsed beside a road near homes in a place called Willow Basin near Moab.
“The division wants to use wildlife conservation laws to punish Cliff for conserving wildlife,” his lawyer Brent Ward told the Wildlife Board. ”He had a humane interest in preserving the bear. He did not want a dead bear on his hands. There’s nothing illegal or inappropriate in wanting to keep a bear from dying. Surely that was a greater good than letting the bear die.”
During the three-hour hearing, some board members agreed there were mitigating factors weighing in Stubbs’s favor, but following two hours of deliberation in 4-3 vote, the board upheld Stubbs’s suspension, which doesn’t affect Stubbs’s ability to hunt animals other than bears and cougars.
The decision pleased DWR officials.
“This type of behavior is not representative of the vast majority of people and was not only unsportsmanlike, but it is also illegal,” said Justin Shirley, DWR’s chief of law enforcement. “We always encourage people to contact DWR officials rather than take matters into their own hands. Our agency is committed to enforcing and promoting legal hunting, and this did not fit that description.”
DWR lawyer Kyle Maynard argued Stubbs knowingly violated statutes intended to protect not only wildlife, but also preserve hunting.
“Mr. Stubbs and his hunting party pursued a bear to the point of exhaustion and became concerned the bear may die, something not allowed under a bear pursuit permit. In an attempt to avoid one violation, they committed another. Mr. Stubbs and his party at this point deliberated and made a choice to pick the exhausted bear up, bring it into their possession, locking in a dog box,” Maynard told the board. “He wasn’t acting to save the bear. He was acting to save himself from what he believed was a more serious violation.”
Stubbs, who has pursued hundreds of bears in his 22 years in the sport, had never run afoul of wildlife rules before May 19, 2018, when he and Wood chased the female bear in circles. Video Wood shot at the chase’s conclusion shows the barely mobile bear under attack by nine baying dogs. The two-minute clip, which DWR attorneys showed the Wildlife Board, indicates the bear is so spent it can’t move its hind legs as it moans in fear, with the dogs barking and nipping at it. Yet no one is shown in the video trying to restrain the dogs, although Wood can be heard shooing the bear away from a tree it was trying to climb.
Stubbs said he immediately pulled his dogs away from the bear when he arrived on the scene as his companions discussed killing it. He knew that killing the bear would be illegal and would require a report to DWR.
But leaving the bear was not a good option either because the spot was near homes, he said. A curious passerby was liable to get injured if they startled the bear. So Stubbs reasoned the best option was to take the bear to camp, but on Thursday he acknowledged the better move would have been to call DWR for help.
The men put the bear into a box built for dogs, loaded it into a pickup and drove to camp and provided it with water and Gatorade.
Stubbs went home about an hour later while the caged bear was still unresponsive, he told the board. Wood led him to believe the animal recovered and was released later that day without incident. He claimed he didn’t learn of the bear’s prolonged incarceration and second chase until he was criminally charged the following year.
The case came to light after Florida wildlife officials began investigating Wood in response to social media posts depicting what appeared to be illegal bear hunts. They seized his phone which they discovered contained images of a bear confined in a truck registered to Stubbs, according to Utah DWR conservation officers Kody Jones and Adam Wallerstein. The officers testified the phone contain 30 videos showing the Utah bear’s chase, capture and captivity—all of which will likely be used as evidence against Wood at his trial.
Bear hunting and pursuits are two distinct activities in Utah. Hunters bagged 443 bears last year, an increase from 369 bears harvested in 2019, according to DWR data.
Bear chases are the subject of a different permit system in which permits are awarded for spring, summer and fall seasons. Statewide 557 permits were awarded in 2018 and the La Sal Mountains are a popular place in Utah to chase bears.
Under Utah’s hunting regulations, bear pursuers, known as houndsmen, are not allowed to target cubs or mothers with cubs. They may use no more than 16 dogs in a single pursuit, or eight during the summer. Once a bear is treed, it must be allowed a pathway to escape and the pursuit may not be resumed. The spring pursuit season this year ran from April 3 to May 31.
Many aspects of that first pursuit were problematic, but where it crossed the line into criminality was when they put the animal in a box and held it captive, Maynard said.
Ward argued that Stubbs could not have “captured” the bear because if was so incapacitated it could not even walk. But Stubbs had participated in the underlying chase that resulted in the animal’s collapse, and whether the bear could escape was irrelevant, Maynard said.
The agency “places an emphasis on respecting wildlife we hunt. The act of hunting is a form of appreciation for wildlife and the opportunities they provide,” he told the board. “We have rules to preserve our opportunity to hunt and enjoy wildlife. This is not what bear pursuit is about and the longevity of this sport depends on upholding the legal and ethical obligations of houndsmen.”
For his criminal conviction, Stubbs was given a one-year suspended jail sentence, paid $1,500 fine and performed 52 hours of community service.
Wood, meanwhile, faces serious legal jeopardy in Florida, where authorities have seized his dogs and filed charges of racketeering, animal abuse and wildlife violations stemming from a series of illegal bear hunts, some of which Wood allegedly celebrated on social media with video posts showing dogs assaulting prone bears.
Wood is free on bail awaiting trial in Florida, then later in Moab’s 7th District Court.