Although a judge praised a Cody hunter for his “very responsible” decision to self-report the violation, the man must pay $10,000 for his role in the mistaken killing of a grizzly bear …
Although a judge praised a Cody hunter for his “very responsible” decision to self-report the violation, the man must pay $10,000 for his role in the mistaken killing of a grizzly bear last spring.
During a May 2022 hunt with his son in the North Fork area, Joel Proffit mistook the grizzly for a black bear and directed the teen to shoot the animal, charging documents say. After the boy killed the bear and Proffit got a better look, he became concerned it might be a grizzly and contacted the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
In late March, Proffit pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of being an accessory before or after the fact to taking a grizzly bear without a proper license; grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remain on the endangered species list and cannot be hunted.
Under a deal struck with Park County prosecutors, Proffit’s plea was deferred. As long as he obeys the law for the following year and pays $10,000 in restitution for the dead bear and $120 in court fees and assessments, the case will be dismissed without a finding of guilt. He has a year to pay off the sum.
“I’m convinced, I know from reading the reports [that] you did the right thing immediately, as you should have done. And that speaks very well of you,” Circuit Court Judge Ed Luhm told Proffit at a March 30 sentencing. “So I’m looking forward to you being successful here in your probation, so this will be dismissed.”
Proffit told authorities that he and his son were hunting black bears for the first time.
On May 30, 2022, they spotted what they thought was black bear near the Sleeping Giant Ski Area, about 75 yards from the North Fork Highway and about 40 miles from Cody.
In a video Proffit recorded of the hunt, he can be heard telling his son “it is a black bear” and to take the shot, charging documents say.
“The bear appears somewhat dark in color, as it is wet from the rain,” North Cody Game Warden Travis Crane wrote in an affidavit filed in support of the charge. “However, I could tell from the video that it was a grizzly bear.”
Proffit became concerned it was a grizzly after he reached the dead bear and looked at its claws, prompting him to contact the Game and Fish.
When Crane inspected the bear’s head and hide the following day, “I immediately confirmed it was a grizzly bear,” he wrote, “having a large dished head and large, mostly straight claws on its front feet.”
The warden confiscated the head and hide. The Park County Attorney’s Office then charged Proffit in October, deciding it would not charge the teen for the mistake.
As part of the eventual plea deal, both the county attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s Office — which has jurisdiction because of the species’ federally protected status — promised that Proffit’s son “will not now or ever be charged in association with anything to do with the events underlying this case,” said Brigita Krisjansons, Profitt’s defense attorney.
The offense is technically punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. While prosecutors didn’t seek any fine, they did seek the $10,000 in restitution, which will be paid to the Game and Fish Department.
Deputy Park County Attorney Larry Eichele noted the sum is what’s been charged to black bear hunters who’ve mistakenly shot grizzlies in the past.
“We’re just continuing what it’s been,” Eichele said.
Luhm, who's based in Worland, noted that residents share the wilderness with grizzlies.
"People come from all over the world to see these, hope to glimpse one and sometimes they don’t — they have to fly back to Japan or wherever they came from without even seeing one," Luhm said, noting the need to be careful with the resource.
“When you’re a hunter, you got to make sure of that shot,” Luhm said, adding that Proffit was "very responsible since the mistake was first made."
The Worland-based judge presided over the case after Park County Circuit Court Judge Joey Darrah recused himself, or reasons not laid out in court records.
During his time as a defense attorney, Darrah once criticized the large penalties assessed on hunters who do the right thing. In 2008, after a Cody man reported mistaking a grizzly for a black bear and was ordered to pay $14,000, Darrah suggested it would discourage hunters from coming forward in the future.
Back in 2008, Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said that if authorities ever caught someone who killed a grizzly and didn’t report it, the state “would be seeking a heck of a lot more.”
The Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently investigating the killing of a male grizzly that was found dead along the North Fork Highway on May 1.
(Editor's note: This story has been expanded.)