Jan. 26—A Troy man accused of killing a collared grizzly bear on his property over bait more than three years ago has agreed to plead guilty to charges related to the alleged incident.
According to federal court documents, Othel Lee Pearson, 80, will enter a voluntary plea of guilty to evidence tampering and failing to report the taking of a grizzly bear, a threatened and protected animal under the Endangered Species Act.
A court date for his change of plea in U.S. District Court in Missoula has not been set yet.
The maximum sentence for witness tampering is 20 years in prison while six months is the maximum term for failing to report the taking of a grizzly. Total fines could reach $275,000.
Federal law says someone killing a grizzly bear must report it within five days of the incident.
"As alleged, Pearson discarded a GPS collar on a grizzly bear and hid the bear's claws and an ear tag in an attempt to avoid criminal prosecution for unlawfully killing a grizzly bear. Such conduct is illegal and, as shown here, will result in the prosecution of a federal felony," U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said.
It is anticipated that Pearson has agreed to plead guilty to both charges in the information. The joint plea agreement calls for the government and defendant to recommend a sentence of three years of probation and an $8,000 fine. In exchange for guilty pleas, the United States agrees not to prosecute another individual in connection with the taking of the grizzly bear and Pearson agrees to cooperate with the United States regarding the skull of a second grizzly bear discovered on National Forest System lands near his property.
The investigation began Nov. 23, 2020, after a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Game Warden contacted U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Special Agent Mona Iannelli about a dead female grizzly that was dumped on Pipe Creek Road a few miles south of Yaak.
In the affidavit of probable cause, Iannelli wrote that the sow bear had been killed elsewhere and dumped where it was discovered. She reported the animal had been partially skinned and was missing two quarters and paws. She also saw tire tracks and boot tracks, believed to be related to the incident, at the scene.
Iannelli learned the bear had been microchipped, fitted with a GPS collar, two white, button-style ear tags and a lip tattoo for identification. The collar was missing, but was later found in the Yaak River. The ear tags and lip tattoo had also been cut from the bear.
A little more than a week later, on Dec. 2, 20202, a biologist with the Fish & Wildlife Service found the missing GPS collar submerged in the Yaak River along Yaak River Road and retrieved it the next day. The collar was cut and GPS functionality destroyed.
Despite the loss of its function, federal biologists were still able to download data from the collar, including location tracking, activity sensor data and temperature sensor data. That information indicated the bear died at about 8:55 p.m. on Nov. 19, 2020, about 40 yards from Pearson's house, on his property outside Troy.
Federal wildlife biologist Wayne Kasworm confirmed the bear was killed in the Yaak where Pearson used to live.
When Special Agent Iannelli and other law enforcement served a search warrant at Pearson's residence on Dec. 16, 2020, the defendant denied knowledge of the killing.
The search turned up a treasure trove of evidence, according to the charging document. Agents found red snow on the ground, about 30 yards from a "shooting room" which was attached to Pearson's residence. The windows were removed to allow a person to shoot at wildlife from within the room. They opened out to various baiting sites, within close shooting distance, on Pearson's property.
The search also uncovered numerous items associated with baiting wildlife on the property. They included multiple empty bags of deer feed, feed dispensers hanging from trees, salt block stations and a spent .270 caliber rifle cartridge in the shed.
Agents also found blood and tissue samples at Pearson's residence and a bag of meat from Pearson's freezer, labeled, "Ham." Forensic analysis later revealed it all belonged to the bear that was killed.
In addition, on the day of the search, a neighbor told agents that Pearson had told him he shot the bear with his .270 rifle. Agents collected a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight, .270 caliber bolt-action rifle.
About 17 months later, more evidence of the alleged, illegal kill turned up after someone hiking on Kootenai National Forest land next to Pearson's land found a garbage bag containing grizzly bear parts hidden in a hollowed-out tree. The bag held 10 grizzly claws and an ear tag belonging to the same bear killed on Pearson's property, according to the court document.