WASILLA -- The story of Yukon Don Tanner and the four bears has a happy ending -- for Tanner, at least.
A judge last week dismissed all wildlife charges filed against the well-known 59-year-old Talkeetna man who tells a wild story about the family of marauding grizzlies that visited his remote cabin north of Talkeetna last July.
State prosecutors agreed to the dismissal, even though the wildlife authorities involved say they still don't quite believe Tanner's story.
Here's the short version: Tanner shot a sow and her three male cubs in the space of a few minutes around 4 a.m. July 6. He said the cubs -- actually more like teenaged bears weighing around 200 pounds a piece -- were about to bust into his cabin. He feared for his safety.
As far as Tanner was concerned, he shot the young bears legally, in "defense of life and property," as provided by Alaska law.
His knees were literally shaking, he said. He had nightmares afterward, dreams about the cabin and "a bloody mess, and I don't know who wins."
Several other Su Valley residents reported encounters with an unusually aggressive sow and three cubs that weekend. Two of the young bears had buckshot in them, as if somebody else needed to scare them off. All told, biologists tallied 13 bears killed in defense of life and property that weekend in the Mat-Su.
Tanner, a state deputy commissioner of community and regional affairs during the Hickel administration who now works as safety director for Matanuska Electric Association, said the bears at his cabin were bolder than usual, and he's seen enough bears to know. During a trip on the Yukon River with a church youth group, he said, he shot and killed a brown bear that came into camp with a gaggle of teenagers clustered behind him. On another trip, he shot a charging bear during a horseback moose hunt around Montana Creek.
"I have never had an encounter that unnerved me like those aggressive bears," Tanner said of the family at his cabin. "The bad bears of Clear Creek have been reported ... those bears knew no fear."
A NOISE IN THE MORNING
This is how Tanner tells the tale:
The morning of July 6, he woke to a noise outside and grabbed his Marlin 1895 .45-70 lever-action rifle, a special Alaska statehood commemorative edition of the rifle engraved with his name.
He looked out his bathroom window and saw the 350-pound sow through the window. He figured she was a boar he'd spotted earlier chasing down a moose calf -- a legal kill. He shot her. The bear went down. He went back to bed, figuring he'd skin it in the morning.
But then Tanner heard more noises and grabbed the rifle again. He spotted one young bear peering through a screen window at the back of the cabin and shot it. Then, he said, a second bear pushed the unlatched door open. He shot that one in the face, wounding it. He stepped outside and killed it.
The story surrounding the third young bear is a bit hazier.
Tanner told Talkeetna-based Trooper Dan Valentine on July 7 that he heard a bleating sound outside and found the third cub next to the sow. He told the trooper, "I thought, hell, that cub ain't gonna leave and it's just going to be trouble, so I shot it," according to the trooper's report that Tanner provided.
A few weeks later, Tanner told a newspaper reporter the bear charged him. Last week, he said the bear would have posed a threat when he came out to skin the others.
Troopers saw the newspaper account and wondered about the inconsistency, said troopers Sgt. Mark Agnew. Evidence at the cabin also contradicted Tanner's story, Agnew said. A bloody drag mark indicated Tanner moved one bear closer to the cabin after he shot it, according to the trooper's report.
Given all that, Agnew said, he was "surprised and disappointed" that the state agreed to dismiss the charges against Tanner.
"I didn't think it was a legitimate shooting on all four bears," Agnew said.
Andrew Peterson, an assistant attorney general in Anchorage, handled the case. Reached Tuesday morning, Peterson said he couldn't say much about the reasons behind the dismissal.
"We reached a compromise that didn't involve prosecution," he said. "It takes into account all the facts in the case."
His supervisor, Susan McLean, said the tenor of the case changed after the state determined that the young bears weren't technically cubs.
Tanner said the state's case was "nonsense" all along.
Originally, he said, he called authorities the next morning to report himself and Valentine told him he wasn't in any trouble. Valentine wasn't available for comment. But on July 19, the trooper cited Tanner for killing a sow with cubs and killing a cub. Agnew this week said the charges stemmed from Valentine's investigation, which raised questions about Tanner's story.
On July 20, however, a biologist analyzed the bears' teeth and realized the cubs were older than 2, and legally not cubs any more, even though their mother was still nursing them. That discovery erased the "sow with cubs" violation.
The sow was the one bear Tanner is allowed to kill each year. The bear coming through the door qualified as a defense killing because troopers couldn't prove otherwise, Agnew said. But the two other young bears didn't qualify as defense killings, the trooper said. Tanner was then charged with two counts of taking bears over his limit.
Tanner hired a former Palmer prosecutor, he said. About a month ago, he said, Peterson offered to knock off one of the two misdemeanor over-limit violations, and limit the penalty to a $500 fine.
"I said, 'Andrew, I'm not paying you $500 for something I didn't do wrong,' " Tanner said last week. "'No deal.' "
The case was dismissed last week. Peterson said he could not confirm Tanner's story.
In a Nov. 2 letter, Tanner's attorney, Richard Payne, thanks Peterson for agreeing to settle the case. The brief letter states only that Tanner agrees to forfeit any interest in the sow's hide, skull or claws -- a moot point, because the hide was destroyed.
It also says Tanner is still entitled to shoot one brown bear in the area around his cabin through next summer.
Find Zaz Hollander online at adn.com/contact/zhollander or call 352-6711.