Bear hunters’ claims of entrapment gain traction, congressional inquiry launched
The tactics of state and federal wildlife officers in a multi-year undercover sting targeting bear hunters continue to come under fire.
A congressional field hearing probing the questionable sting, known as Operation Something Bruin, will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, June 19, at the Haywood County Courthouse.
Dozens of hunters from across the mountains are expected to turn out in a show of solidarity against what they have characterized as entrapment by the undercover agents that conducted the operation.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, called for the hearing as part of an investigation he has launched to get to the bottom of Operation Something Bruin.
“I look forward to hearing directly from individuals involved in Operation Something Bruin to get to the bottom of whether or not improper or illegal activity took place, and if so, to hold those involved accountable,” Meadows said.
Undercover agents with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Georgia Wildlife Resources Commission and U.S. Forest Service have received letters from Meadow’s office asking them to attend the hearing and be prepared to answer questions. The agencies are also being compelled to turn over a massive volume of documents and records related to the operation.
The congressional inquiry is being carried out under the auspices of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform.
“I hope it brings light to what happened,” said Linda Crisp of Graham County, whose husband and son were both charged in the sting. “I want anybody who had anything to do with this Operation Something Bruin from the top down to be held accountable.”
Wildlife agents went undercover for four years, adopting fake identities and posing as fellow hunters as they infiltrated and gained the trust of the bear hunting community.
The result was hundreds of charges against 55 hunters, ranging from minor technicalities like not having proper permits to more major offenses like illegally baiting and trapping bears.
But hunters claim wildlife agents went on a fishing expedition, using entrapment and other underhanded tactics to trick hunters into violating wildlife laws, like engaging in illicit hunting themselves and then accusing others in the hunting party of being complicit in the law breaking.
Hunters have also complained about the tactics used during arrests, which included an aggressive SWAT-style round-up of suspects.
A panel of N.C. state legislators conducted their own formal hearing in December to hear complaints from hunters. One of the issues raised at that hearing was the unfair confiscation of personal items during the round-up of suspects.
Crisp said the items confiscated from their family ranged from her personal computer to heirloom trophy deer and hog mounts. Agents even confiscated a skid loader the family needed to run their commercial boat dock on Fontana Lake and the registration and titles to their boats.
“They took our livelihood,” Crisp said.
The state legislative panel ordered the items to be returned, but little else came from it other than media attention.
Nearly all the hunters charged had their cases dismissed in state court, except for a handful of pleas to minor offenses. A few have had charges taken up the chain to federal court, where they’ve been met with a mixture of not guilty and guilty verdicts.
Those charged in federal court claimed entrapment in their arguments, but a federal judge discounted that as a defense.