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Costly mistake: G&F employee must pay $10,000 for misidentifying, killing grizzly

A Wyoming Game and Fish employee did everything right after mistaking a grizzly bear for a black bear during a 2013 hunting trip: he immediately notified authorities and fully cooperated with their investigation.

But Luke Ellsbury’s mistakes — killing a grizzly bear and firing at it from a spot too close to the North Fork Highway — resulted in more than $10,000 in financial penalties last week. The sentence was roughly in line with similar instances in Park County in recent years.

“I understand that you’ve taken all the right steps and done all the right things. ... It’s one of those situations that’s just unfortunate,” said Park County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters.

Waters granted Ellsbury a one-time deferral on the count of taking a grizzly without a license. That means the offense will be dismissed as long as Ellsbury obeys the law for the next year and pays $10,000 in restitution for the dead bear and $40 in court courts. The count of shooting a firearm along U.S. Highway 14-16-20 resulted in a $220 penalty.

Ellsbury, who specializes in managing conflicts between people and large predators like bears, took full responsibility for the errors at the Thursday morning court hearing.

“I deal with the public a lot, and I deal with them with this very situation,” Ellsbury said. “It’s hard to look people in the eye knowing that I made the mistake that I tell people day-in and day-out not to make.”

The Cody-based large carnivore biologist added that “it is something that will follow me the rest of my life as I continue through this career.”

In addition to the criminal penalties, the Game and Fish Department punished Ellsbury by suspending him for two weeks without pay — costing him $2,500 — shortly after the Sept. 6, 2013, shooting.

“It was basically because of the nature of the incident, and that we hold our people to a higher level of standard,” Game and Fish Large Carnivore Section Supervisor Dan Thompson said of the swift internal punishment. Thompson, called as a witness for Ellsbury at the hearing, also praised his employee’s handling of the incident and the quality of his continuing work for the department.

Last September, Ellsbury had spotted a large black bear while checking bruin activity in the Sweetwater Creek drainage along the North Fork of the Shoshone River. After completing his Game and Fish work, Ellsbury bought a black bear license, returned to the area and spotted what he thought was the same bear.

Ellsbury later told wildlife investigators that he’d believed the bear had no hump, tall ears (rather than short, round ones), a straight face (rather than one curved like a dish) and appeared solid black as it passed through an opening in the brush on the rainy day.

“Ellsbury said he had just the one opening before the bear would be gone. He had only a couple of seconds to judge if it was a black bear or grizzly bear,” Game and Fish Wildlife Investigator Scott Browning of Lander later wrote in charging documents. Ellsbury fired from a spot just about 23 feet from the edge of the highway.

He recalled being 100 percent certain the animal was a black bear until approaching the carcass and seeing the blond tips and long claws characteristic of grizzlies.

Thompson described Ellsbury as “extremely remorseful” in a call right after the shooting.

“It was obvious that he took this very seriously and he took full responsibility for his actions at the exact moment that this happened,” Thompson said.

“Despite being very remorseful and probably dealing with this every day for the rest of his career, he’s still maintained a professional level of performance in his job,” the supervisor added of Ellsbury.

Ellsbury’s defense attorney, Nick Beduhn of Cody’s Goppert, Smith and Beduhn law firm, argued unsuccessfully for a $7,500 bill for the dead bear. He noted Ellsbury’s complete cooperation, his internal suspension and that as a married father of three, Ellsbury wasn’t in the best financial position to come up with the money.

The $7,500 figure is how much a hunter had to pay for making a similar mistake in Park County in 2009.

Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric, however, asked for $10,000 in restitution. That’s the same amount he requested in a pair of similar cases in 2008.

Skoric noted his request was less than a $25,000 value the state has assigned to each grizzly bear.

“That’s not really the state’s place, myself, to determine if that’s a high number or a low number. It’s what’s been set,” Skoric said of the $25,000 figure.

Judge Waters agreed that restitution was required.

“Restitution is kind of a different animal, because it’s not a function of how remorseful a person is: If they run a stop sign and hit a car, restitution’s the restitution,” he said. “It’s the value of whatever the damage is, regardless of how honorable the intentions were or anything else.”

Waters said he believed the $10,000 figure was reasonable, in part because no additional fines were being imposed as they were in the 2008 cases.

Ellsbury agreed to pay $150 a month, meaning it will take him more than 5 1/2 years to cover the bill.

“This is difficult for you, I understand that,” Waters said toward the close of the hearing. “It’s no fun for anybody else in here, either. It’s unfortunate. There have been a lot of very good people that have been in your same seat, particularly (for) Game and Fish violations.”

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department website advises black bear hunters to look for a combination of identifying characteristics and remember that a bear’s color and size can be misleading.

“Be sure before you shoot!!!” it cautions.

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