September 18, 2019

Habituated Large Wild Predators and Liability

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bearinfeederHumans share living quarters with wildlife and as a result there are inherent risks we assume. Therefore, no one or entity is liable should a bear, wolf or mountain lion decide to attack a human while lounging in a hammock in their back yard……right?

One would think. BUT……..

This morning I was reading another article about “nuisance” bears. It seems all summer long that’s all I’ve read are stories about bears and humans crossing paths, and the idiot responses and comments by wildlife officials as well as law enforcement.

In Michigan there seems to be a problem in the Iron River areas with what is being described as “multiple reports of nuisance bears” and “habituated, showing no fear of humans.” It appears from comments and actions that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) thinks people are feeding the bears, whether intentionally or by utilizing irresponsible habits, like leaving out garbage, that feeds the bears unintentionally.

Is there a liability issue here? I’m not lawyer. I’m just a writer asking questions and providing readers with some interesting case histories to ponder.

Michigan, like most states, has some kind of immunity law they believe protects them for actions or responsibilities undertaken as a function of their governmental entity and duties. I did some brief research into that and what I found, I saw no direct mention into anything concerning wild animals. I believe what I also found was that there are no laws restricting the feeding of wildlife in a person’s backyard….or front yard for that matter. There are many guidelines for feeding and baiting game animals.

What if people were intentionally feeding bears or some other large predator, and private property gets damaged or worse, personal injury or death? What if someone was feeding deer and the neighbor next door contracted Lyme disease? Is there liability? Somewhere?

In 2009, Charles E. Vandergaw, was charged with illegal feeding of bears at his remote cabin in Alaska. His cabin was named, “Bear Haven” and Vandergaw was featured in an Animal Planet show about his close encounters of the Alaska wild bears kind. According to a Daily Record article dated May 20, 2009, Alaska wildlife officials, “consider feeding bears a danger to humans.” What Vandergaw was charged with was improperly feeding the bears through a bear baiting permit he had obtained through the Alaska fish and game.

In October of 2007, Tom Holman fed bears in his backyard. Holman was a professional photographer. He lured bears in for the purpose of taking photographs and selling them. When I first reported on this event in 2007, information available said that “Tom lives in an area of Idaho where many neighbors like to feed wildlife. It’s not like he is the only one.” Was he targeted because he was making money? Did this somehow make him more liable?

But there is a different twist to this story. A grizzly bear, an endangered species in Idaho by federal standards, regularly came to Holman’s feeder. It was determined by the government officials that the bear was “habituated”, and as a result had become a danger to other people. The bear was killed.

Officials wanted to bring charges against Holman, not for feeding wildlife, as there are no laws prohibiting it in Idaho, but for violation of the Endangered Species Act……causing the avoidable death of a protected species. I do not believe any charges in that regard were filed but we see the beginnings of liability here.

Recently in Utah, the State Supreme Court issued an interesting ruling as it may pertain to liability and responsibility of protecting people from dangerous wild animals. Over time, this ruling may have sweeping consequences on how states and the courts view liability and whether or not people will be allowed to feed, intentionally or not, wildlife in their back yards, or be held responsible.

In 2007, Sam Ives was camping with family at Uinta National Forest. During the night, a grizzly hauled Sam Ives out of his tent, into the forest and killed him. A sad and unfortunate event. However, earlier that same day, the same grizzly bear attacked another man at the very same campsite. The courts not only ruled that the state didn’t do enough to protect Sam Ives from grizzly bears, their interpretation of Utah’s immunity laws leaves us wondering if other states will begin interpreting immunity laws, as they pertain to wildlife, in a similar manner.

In Francis v. State of Utah, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that wildlife are not a “natural condition of the land”, meaning the state’s immunity in this area does not include wildlife.

The differences that I can see in the issues in Michigan as opposed to those in Utah is that the bear attack on Sam Ives occurred on public land and in a designated campsite. But one does have to ask to what degree of liability is the state assuming when, as in Michigan, officials are doing what they can to provide public safety and protect people from being harmed by habituated bears. They are assuming responsibility for the problem. Will that make them subject to lawsuits, especially if a court rules on immunity as was done in Utah? In addition, what amount of responsibility is then put on the person(s) that deliberately feed wildlife?

So, long as there are greed and lawyers, lawsuits will be forthcoming; the result being the implementation of more and more laws prohibiting the feeding of any wildlife, including birds. This may appear all well and good, but this action will do little for the results of too many bears or large predators and/or not enough natural food to go around.

Who becomes liable for that action?

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