A man and his teenage son have been charged with illegal hunting after killing a female black bear in her den in southern Alaska and then shooting her two "shrieking" newborn cubs, state authorities said.
Alaska Wildlife Troopers said Andrew Renner, 41, and his 18-year-old son, Owen, from the town of Wasilla, skied in April to the remote den on Esther Island in Prince William Sound, where they fatally shot the three bears and then tampered with evidence.
The hunters were apparently unaware that the bears were part of a study by the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game aimed at learning more about the species and individuals' habitats. The mother bear, or sow, had been fitted with a GPS tracking collar, and a camera monitoring her den captured the killings on video, the state troopers said.
The Renners were charged this week with numerous crimes in the incident, including one count each of unlawfully taking a female bear with cubs and two counts each of unlawfully taking a bear cub. The elder Renner was also charged with tampering with physical evidence. Attorneys for the men were not listed in online court documents.
The sow was among 20 black bears involved in the observation program.
It is illegal in Alaska to hunt bear cubs or a sow with her cubs, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Wildlife officials have previously said that it is not illegal for hunters with valid permits to take collared bears. But "the loss of research animals could impede biologists' efforts to learn more about . . . black bear populations," the department said in a 2016 news release. Hunters who kill collared bears must return the collar to state wildlife authorities within 30 days.
In a criminal complaint, prosecutors said that the April 14 video showed Owen Renner shooting twice at the mother bear, at which point her cubs began "shrieking."
The Renners listened for "several minutes" and then realized that it was not the dead bear that was whimpering, but her cubs, according to court records. Then, from a short distance away, Andrew Renner picked up his rifle, looked through the scope and fired "several more shots, killing the newborn bear cubs," the documents allege. The documents stated that during the slayings, Renner could be heard telling his son: "It doesn't matter. Bear down."
They dragged the mother bear from the den and the elder Renner threw the cub carcasses in the snow, saying, "I'm going to get rid of these guys," according to court records.
In another video clip, court documents say, the 18-year-old told his father that the sow's collar had been removed; the father responded, "We're going to skin it that way," pointing away from the den. Owen Renner then said, "They'll never be able to link it to us," according to the court records.
Prosecutors said the men "butchered" the mother bear and placed the remains in game bags. Two days later, they returned to collect the shell casings and collar and to dispose of the cubs' bodies, the prosecutors said.
When Andrew Renner took the sow's remains to a Fish and Game Department office on April 30, he told officials there that he and his son realized that the bear had "teats" after they killed it but that there were no signs of any cubs in the area, according to court records. He also falsely stated on an official document that he killed the bear when, in fact, his son did, according to the documents.
The bear killings took place on state land, but it rekindled debate about hunting regulations on federal land in Alaska. As in other states, both federal and state laws regulate hunting in Alaska, and, in some cases involving federal public land, such as national parks, federal laws are more restrictive.
Such regulations have long been a point of contention between Alaska officials and politicians and the federal government. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a rule in 2016 that barred almost all predator hunting on national wildlife refuges not authorized by the federal government. The next year, the Senate voted to abolish it, and in May, the Trump administration proposed to reverse the regulation. It restricts certain hunting practices, including shooting and killing bear cubs, on federal land across the state.
As The Post's Darryl Fears reported at the time:
"A proposed rule published by the National Park Service in the Federal Register would let Alaskan game officials decide whether bear cubs can be killed alongside their mothers, caribou can be shot from a boat while swimming, wolves, including pups, can be hunted in their dens and other animals can be targeted from airplanes and snowmobiles. Animals could also be baited with sweets and killed or poisoned.
"The Park Service said its proposal is consistent with an order by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to accede to states' wishes to expand recreational hunting. 'The purpose of this proposed rule is to align sport hunting regulations in national preserves in Alaska with State of Alaska regulations and to enhance consistency with harvest regulations on surrounding non-federal lands and waters,' officials wrote. 'The proposed rule would apply the State of Alaska's hunting regulations to national preserve lands, with limited exceptions.' "
Some wildlife conservation and animal protection organizations that oppose the rule change held up the incident on Esther Island to renew calls for its rejection.
"There isn't enough outrage in the world to cover the depravity of this wanton crime," Kitty Block, acting president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement. "Whenever a trophy hunter displays such disregard for law and animal life, the organizations that promote trophy hunting -- and the elected officials who support their agenda -- are quick to condemn the scofflaws. And it would be the right thing to do now. But it would also ring a bit hollow because they are working to make this sort of killing perfectly legal on National Park Service lands in Alaska."
This article was written by Lindsey Bever, a reporter for The Washington Post.