'Bear Man' fined; no jail time

April 8, 2010 

PALMER -- Charlie Vandergaw, the "Bear Man" of the Mat-Su, was fined $20,000 on Thursday but will serve no jail time after pleading guilty to eight charges of illegally feeding bears.

Vandergaw, who for 20 years lured, fed and coexisted with black and grizzly bears at his remote Yentna River cabin, pleaded guilty last week to the misdemeanor charges. District Court Judge John Wolfe accepted a plea deal that Vandergaw, 71, hammered out with prosecutors that included 180 days of suspended jail time, the fine and three years probation.

Before he was sentenced in the Palmer courtroom, Vandergaw told the judge he tries not to be a bad person. The conflict over "Bear Haven," as his property is called, has taken a toll on his family and he wishes he hadn't involved so many other people, he said.

Vandergaw was known for living in close interaction with the bears, which roamed his property and often entered his home. Photographs show him and visitors playing with and petting the animals.

"I've had a storybook existence," Vandergaw said. "I've had a chance to live in a different environment. I never looked at myself as a person who could go out and take a piece of land and then deny the creatures the right to be there."

Vandergaw declined to comment after the hearing.

A retired Anchorage schoolteacher who had twice previously been cited for feeding game, Vandergaw was approached by Alaska Wildlife Troopers in 2008, when they told him the law had changed to bump feeding wildlife from a violation akin to a traffic ticket to a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Peterson said.

Troopers also let Vandergaw know he would be under investigation. Yet Vandergaw continued feeding the bears and putting his guests, including young children, at an "unacceptable level of risk" of being injured or killed, Peterson said.

Officers serving a search warrant on the premises in September found a handful of black bears in the area, said Sean Farley, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who testified as an expert witness for the state. A bear on the deck of the home wouldn't leave until Vandergaw slapped it in the behind with a paddle, said Farley, who was with troopers for bear control.

"They kept trying to come back in. Initially all we had to do was wave our arms and yell at them," Farley said. "They'd get closer and closer and after a while, you'd have to pick up a stick and rap it against a tree to make some more noise. Ultimately, toward the very end, it was clear to me the bears, they were testing us."

Farley shot off cracker shells to keep them back, he said. Troopers found a few thousand pounds of dog food and cookies that had been flown out to the cabin, though there were no dogs there.

"The first and foremost thing to remember in this case is that the intentional feeding of game is illegal," Peterson told the judge. "Mr. Vandergaw has admitted to doing that for the past 20 years. But it really goes beyond that, because he didn't just feed game. He fed them during the 2008 summer for a profit."

That summer, a film crew from Firecracker Films, Ltd., was at the cabin shooting footage for a documentary. Vandergaw was paid about $70,000 for his cooperation, according to prosecutors, who sought a fine of $72,000 to cover what he earned from the criminal activity.

Wolfe, however, said Vandergaw didn't set out to profit when he started and ruled there was no basis to seek the money Vandergaw made from the film.

Farley testified that the bears at Bear Haven have become habituated to humans and to being fed. Because Vandergaw has been at it for 20 years, several generations of bears are now accustomed to going to cabins for food and -- though some of Vandergaw's closest neighbors wrote letters asserting that they've not had any problems with bears -- the bears could pose a safety risk as they roam ranges of 50-60 miles, Farley said.

"I expect Mr. Vandergaw is one of the world authorities on being able to read bear behavior," Farley said. "But for the average person, no it's difficult."

Vandergaw himself has been bitten and swatted by the bears, Farley said. The prosecution showed Farley several photos, including one of a grizzly embracing Vandergaw with a mammoth paw on his back. The photos, Farley said, depicted "high risk" behavior.

Vandergaw's attorney Kevin Fitzgerald, however, said many people have visited Bear Haven over the years, and the only one with an injury worth noting was a cameraman for Firecracker Films who was bitten on the ankle when he climbed a tree after a black bear cub and got between it and the mother.

The prosecution contended that Vandergaw's feeding has for years artificially inflated the number of bears in the area and, because they aren't afraid of humans, the animals are easy targets for those conducting predator control. Fitzgerald called that assertion an "outrageous" attempt to put the blame for the local predator control program on his client.

"This notion that the state is really all that concerned about the welfare of the bears, particularly in Mr. Vandergaw's property, seems to me would fly totally in the face of the fact that in Game Management Unit 16, the state wants to kill every bear there," Fitzgerald said.

"This really is a sad case," he said. It's "the tragic end of a pursuit with so much promise, a pursuit that had the potential of teaching us that, despite the misconceptions and the preconceptions of interaction between bear and man, that man could interact, could have relationships with bears at a much higher level."

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

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