U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy dismissed a lawsuit last Thursday dealing with the grizzly bear mauling death of Great Falls hunter Timothy Hilston.
The case stems from an Oct. 30, 2001 incident in which Hilston went hunting in the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area about 45 miles east of Missoula. Hilston was successful in downing an elk and was in the process of field dressing the animal when he was attacked and killed by a grizzly bear.
Believing that the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Wildlife and Parks were “negligent in operation and control, maintenance and management of the grizzly bears” in the wildlife management area, Hilston’s widow sued those agencies for the death of her husband.
Lawyers for the state and feds say if Hilston’s widow was successful in her suit, it could have set a precedent that would have opened the floodgates for similar lawsuits and undermined grizzly bear protection.
“If, somehow, it got established that the state was responsible for what wild animals do, then conceivably, anytime someone runs into a deer and wrecks their car, the state would be liable for that,” says Jack Lynch, agency legal council for FWP.
Molloy heard arguments in the case last Wednesday and issued his ruling Thursday. The ruling dismissed the state and federal governments from the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Hilston could still sue FWP in state court, although no decision has been made as to whether she will do so.
“We think that it’s going to be very difficult for the plaintiff to really be able to establish any kind of liability on the part of the state,” says Lynch of the possibility of a second lawsuit in state court. “[The state has] never been held responsible for what wild animals do, and I don’t foresee that the courts will successfully hold us to any kind of standard for what wild animals do.”