Members of the public feed bear cubs at Yellowstone Bear World. Jay Pratte, director of animal care, conservation and education at Utica Zoo, estimated the bears were 8 months old when the photo was taken.
Senate Bill 1084, which would reduce the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s oversight of animal facilities with a Class C Exhibitor’s License from the USDA, passed the House Resources and Conservation Committee on Wednesday.
The bill was introduced after reports from Fish and Game and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration each filed reports stating Yellowstone Bear World had committed multiple violations under both organizations’ regulations.
Witnesses testified both for and against the bill, with supporters arguing that the removal of Fish and Game oversight would remove regulations that are already in place at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Critics said the USDA wouldn’t provide the same level of oversight as Fish and Game.
Jonathan Oppenheimer, external relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, testified against the bill, citing the 1995 “Ligertown disaster,” an incident in which multiple lions and ligers escaped from a privately owned animal facility, leading to 18 of the animals being killed.
That incident led to legislators increasing Fish and Game’s oversight of other animal parks.
Oppenheimer said he was particularly concerned about the issue of bonding, a fee animal facilities must pay to Idaho Fish and Game. In Idaho the bond is either $2,000 per animal or $50,000.
“The bonding issue is critical to provide for public safety in the event of an accident,” Oppenheimer said.
Attorney Jeremy Chou, who represents Bear World, said his clients would keep up its insurance to cover costs from accidents.
Oppenheimer also repeated arguments he previously made in an interview with the Post Register, that the effort to overturn the law was “revenge” after Fish and Game found Yellowstone Bear World had not kept proper documentation of its animal transfers and deaths. The report also stated Bear World’s advertised bottle feeding of bear cubs was a violation of Idaho law.
Tricia Hosch-Hebdon, assistant chief of wildlife for Fish and Game, testified that the department had worked with Bear World’s staff to correct the violations.
Idaho Fish and Game pushed for an amendment to the original law to allow it to track transfers of deer species in order to track and prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease. After that amendment was included, the department took a neutral stance on the law.
Hosch-Hebdon said her office could keep track of animals through contact with USDA, which she said inspects facilities at least once a year, or more if it receives a complaint. Bear World would still be required to maintain records, and Fish and Game would be allowed to inspect those records, but would not be allowed to inspect Bear World itself without an invitation.
Oppenheimer, however, said he has made more than a dozen efforts to contact USDA in response to complaints, but was told he needed to file a records request to find out whether there was any ongoing investigation.
“It’s very hard to get in touch with anyone at USDA who can answer any questions, and I think that’s very pertinent,” Oppenheimer said.
The law would have no bearing on OSHA, a federal agency, which Chou told the committee was “unfortunate.”
OSHA’s report stated Bear World failed to provide proper training or safety measures for employees. Chou said the facility decided to settle and pay $6,250 in fines, claiming it would cost around $100,000 to challenge the inspection in court.
The bill will now proceed to the House floor, where if it passes, it will go to Gov. Brad Little to be signed.
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