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Idaho drive through bear park sheds most state wildlife regulations

Cliff Hall
Flickr Creative Commons

A drive-through wildlife park in eastern Idaho was found to be violating federal and state regulations in the last year. Under new state law, it’ll have less oversight.

An animal rights activist with PETA went undercover at Yellowstone Bear World in Rexburg last year, where tourists can see black bears, grizzly bears, bison and elk up close.

The activist group’s complaint led to a federal workplace safety fine from OSHA, initially totaling $8,928, which the company negotiated down to $6,250. The “serious” citations noted that employees were exposed to potential attacks from captive animals like bears while doing their jobs.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game also sent the company a notice of violation this summer. Among other things, it said the park was breaking state code which doesn't allow the public to feed captive wildlife, an activity Yellowstone Bear World highlights on its website.

Though the company said it settled the matter with the department, it asked the legislature to remove most Fish and Game oversight of animals kept by businesses like theirs.

“There is a very real concern that PETA will continue to utilize the agency complaint process to try to shut businesses like ours down,” lawyer Jeremy Chou, representing the company, told lawmakers last month.

“The bill will allow Yellowstone Bear World to continue to run its business without constantly looking over its shoulder,” he said.

Gov. Brad Little signed it into law Monday afternoon.

The facility will still be regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose focus when it comes to Class C Exhibitors like Yellowstone Bear World is animal welfare. According to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, there are no specific USDA animal care personnel stationed in Idaho.

Under the new law, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will still be allowed to request to review the facility’s records, but the state agency won’t be able to inspect the operations on-site.

Yellowstone Bear World’s representatives said the federal and state regulations were duplicative. Fish and Game does not have the same purview of municipal zoos.

Opponents of the bill said the changes would leave gaps in state oversight by removing requirements to share records on the importation of animals, for example, and for the businesses to carry insurance.

Amber Worthington, Deputy Director of Fish and Game, told lawmakers last month that the state added its own regulations for captive wildlife in response to a 1995 incident when lions escaped “Ligertown” near Lava Hot Springs.

“This incident involved a situation where state and county public safety officials did not know how many animals were at the facility or how many escaped, and involved significant state and local response resources,” she said.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission ended up taking a neutral stance on this bill once an amendment was added giving it more authority to track deer, elk and moose at the facility in order to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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