Jury convicts dog trainer in bear capture case

Chasing bears is legal, but holding them captive is a crime.

(Screen shot courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) This video image depicts several dogs cornering a female black bear during a pursuit on May 19, 2018 in Grand County. The video was found on the phone of William "Bo" Wood, a Florida dog trainer now awaiting trial on felony charges stemming from the incident.

A Grand County jury on Wednesday convicted a Florida hunting dog trainer of illegally capturing a black bear after chasing it to the point of collapse near Moab three years ago.

[Related: Bear capture case illuminates dark side of pursuing wildlife with dogs for ‘sport’]

But William Tyler “Bo” Wood, 31, was acquitted of a felony poaching violation in the May 2018 episode in the La Sal Mountains, where pursuing bears with trained dogs is popular. The case is noteworthy in that it highlights a quirk in Utah wildlife laws, which allow the harassment of otherwise protected wildlife if it is done by licensed hunters using dogs. Yet the law criminalizes conduct aimed at saving the lives of bears and cougars when the pursuit has gone too far, as was the case with Wood and his client, who was also charged.

After a three-day trial in Moab, jurors found Wood guilty on two misdemeanor counts, each carrying up six months in jail. Wood is to be sentenced Dec. 13 by 7th District Judge Don Torgerson. Wood’s attorney did not respond to a voicemail message Thursday.

Wood was already in deep trouble with Florida wildlife officials for allegedly tormenting and killing bears in his home state in 2018 when investigators seized videos depicting a disturbing bear chase in Utah. Further investigation led officers to Wood’s client, Clifford Stubbs, a Parowan contractor and avid houndsman — someone who uses dogs to chase cougars and bears for sport.

Stubbs cooperated in the probe, detailing how he and his dogs joined Stubbs and his dogs’ pursuit of a bear that lasted for more than 90 minutes before the frightened animal collapsed from exhaustion. Wood intended to kill the bear, in blatant violation of the law, according to Stubbs’s statement to Utah Division of Wildlife Resources investigators. But Stubbs convinced his companion to spare the bear’s life. They loaded the incapacitated animal into a dog kennel and transported it to their camp, where they revived it.

Stubbs later acknowledged he should have notified DWR officers.

While the move likely saved the bear’s life, it violated Utah laws that criminalize the capture of protected wildlife. During a hearing this year before the Utah Wildlife Board, officials displayed disturbing videos of the chase and expressed disgust with the hunters’ apparent lack of regard for basic ethics and the bear’s welfare.

However, neither Stubbs nor Wood were charged with mistreating the animal during the chase. Instead they were charged with poaching it in a count formally known as “wanton destruction of protected wildlife,” along with misdemeanor counts of illegally transporting the bear and holding it in captivity.

Wood’s jury declined to convict on the poaching count, perhaps because there is no evidence he killed the animal.

Stubbs pleaded guilty to reduced charges and was fined, but he fought to keep his hunting privileges, claiming his illegal actions were meant to save 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,” his lawyer Brent Ward told the Wildlife Board in June. “Surely that was a greater good than letting the bear die.”

The argument swayed some members of the board, which still voted 4-3 to suspend Stubbs’s privileges to hunt bears and cougars for three years.

Stubbs told the board that he had gone home immediately after getting the bear to the camp. He later learned Wood released the bear a few days later to chase it some more.

It is not known whether the bear survived its ordeal.