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Wyoming Hunter Fined $10,000 for 'Honest Mistake' in Shooting Grizzly, Sparking Debate

The seasoned hunter and ethics instructor did everything right after his mistake, but was fined as if he shot a grizzly on purpose.

The spring 2022 day began like any other great day of bear hunting for seasoned Wyoming hunter Joel Proffit and his son, Fisher Proffit, then 13. The pair were out on a brushy mountainside near Cody, looking for a black bear to punch their tag with. But one shot and a case of mistaken identity soon sparked not only a massive headache for the father and son but also a full-on ethics debate within the hunting community.

Fisher and his father, an experienced backcountry hunter, had both spotted a black-colored bear. Joel, an experienced backcountry hunter and a hunter education instructor, knew that both grizzlies and black bear coexist in Wyoming. But the one in front of them lacked any of the typical distinguishing features of grizzlies, such as big ears, the telltale shoulder hump, or a dish-shaped face, Joel later confirmed.

"It's a black," Joel whispered excitedly to his son, the whole scene captured on video. Joel talked Fisher through the harvest; Fisher takes his shot and, within moments, the bear was down. But when the pair approached the fallen bear, they saw its long claws. It wasn't a black bear. They had shot a grizzly bear.

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Killing grizzly bears in Wyoming is illegal. Joel, as a volunteer hunter education instructor, always stresses ethical hunting with his son. While the mistake was heartbreaking, this was an opportunity to practice ethics, he said, so they skinned the bear and reported the mistake to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department the next day. They turned in the hide and the video that recorded the kill to authorities.

But what came next was debatably a harsher punishment than what fit an honest mistake of the offense.

First, federal authorities focused on 13-year-old Fisher, who faced a maximum federal penalty of up to $25,000. The Proffit family cooperated with authorities and, thousands of dollars and immeasurable stress later, the UFSWS turned the case over to Wyoming Game and Fish, Cowboy State Daily reported. Eventually, Joel entered a plea of no contest for being an accessory to killing the grizzly in exchange for his son being cleared of any possible charges now or in the future.

Despite a lesser charge, Joel was still slapped with a $10,000 fine—the same fine he'd incur if he shot the bear knowing it was a grizzly.

Joel believes the state of Wyoming should restructure classification for killing grizzlies and that penalties for those who shoot a grizzly by accident, rather than through deliberate intent or gross negligence, should be considerably lighter.

The penalty should come down to a certain portion of the current Wyoming wildlife violation statute that differentiates whether a person "knowingly" killed an animal illegally, he said. Strict penalties should be reserved for those who purposely commit a poaching crime and not for those who make an honest mistake, Joel said in a YouTube video he made. "We are honest and ethical citizens who cooperated fully with authorities," he added.

He made the argument that rather than holding hunters accountable for their actions, strict penalties such as what he faced only turn ethical hunters into non-ethical hunters. In other words, he said, it makes hunters less likely to self-report when they do make an honest mistake.

This isn't the first time this issue has come up in Wyoming. The same thing happened in 2013 when Game and Fish bear management specialist Luke Ellsbury mistakenly shot a grizzly that he believed was a black bear and was then slammed with the same $10,000 fine.

Joel argues that if a professional bear expert could make such a misidentification, it is not unreasonable for a regular citizen to make the same honest mistake and therefore should not receive the same penalties as criminals.

At this time, the state has no plans to change any classification or fee structures. Breanna Ball, Wyoming Game and Fish public information officer, told Cowboy State Daily that the policy is designed to hold hunters responsible for properly identifying bear species.

"Wyoming is home to both black and grizzly bears. It is the hunter's responsibility to be aware of the species before deciding to harvest an animal," she said. "To ensure hunters are educated, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department encourages black bear hunters to test their bear observation and identification skills on the Game and Fish website. The educational identification course is intended to reduce grizzly bear mortalities by mistaken identity. Additionally, the black bear hunting brochure which is available to hunters when they buy a license contains a helpful pictorial identification guide."

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