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Russian River Shooter Gets Jail in Bear Killing
Sentence: Anchorage man ordered to serve 10 days, fined $2,800 for slaying grizzly sow
Katie Pesznecker / Anchorage Daily News / January 10, 2006

An Anchorage man charged with illegally shooting a brown bear sow on the Russian River last summer will spend 10 days in jail and pay fines totaling $2,800, an Anchorage District Court judge ruled Monday.

Michael Oswalt's crime disgusted regulars of the popular fishing stream, where the sow had become a familiar, nonagressive presence, usually with three young cubs in tow.

"This occurred in a wildlife refuge, and the public was pretty outraged that he'd done this," said assistant attorney general Roger Rom. "A lot of people had a personal connection with these bears. It was a big loss.

"And we don't know the fate of those cubs, and we won't know for some time," he said.

The Russian River joins the Kenai River near Cooper Landing. It is one of the most popular fishing rivers in Alaska, with anglers frequently lining the banks when red salmon are running. Its salmon runs also draw black and brown bears, which sometimes come into conflict with the people.

Oswalt, who turns 27 today, initially pleaded not guilty to six charges stemming from the shooting. Now he has pleaded guilty to the three most serious counts: taking a bear in closed season, taking a bear in a closed area, and shooting a sow with cubs.

About 7:30 a.m. July 31, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge officer Clayton McDermott was on routine patrol near the Russian River. He heard shots and set off toward the sound, coming upon Oswalt and a buddy, Aaron Carter.

Oswalt said he'd fired his assault-style rifle but told McDermott he "was sure he did not hit any bears," court papers said.

Two days later, refuge officer Chris Johnson was back on the scene after hearing reports -- erroneous, it turned out -- of a bear mauling. After being charged by the cubs, Johnson found the 350-pound sow dead, shot multiple times.

Bullets retrieved matched Oswalt's rifle.

On Aug. 4, federal wildlife agents tracked down Oswalt. He told them he and Carter found the bears fishing in a small pool and said he shot several times only when the animals came at them, court papers said.

Oswalt told a different story later that afternoon when, at his apartment, he turned his rifle over to agents.

He told agents "he saw the bears in the fishing hole, dropped his bags, unfolded the stock on his gun, got down on one knee and fired a shot at the feet of the bear in the middle of the group. Oswalt said he watched the bears for about a minute before he shot. ... After the first shot the bears started 'acting weird' and looked like they were going to come toward him and Carter, so Oswalt said he shot three more rounds," court papers said.

Oswalt said he returned later to look for shell casings "to keep as a memento." According to court documents, he admitted to agents that he "probably hit the sow" and "thought he made a poor choice and had shot too soon."

The penalty: Sixty days in jail for count one and 60 for count two, with 55 of each suspended and the remaining five for each served concurrently; and 60 days in jail with 55 suspended for count three, totaling 10 days. He is expected to report to jail in February, Rom said.

Oswalt also got three years' probation, a combined $1,500 in fines for the criminal charges, plus he has to pay $1,300 to the state for restitution for the bear. Judge Alex Swiderski also made Oswalt turn over his gun.

Oswalt had no criminal record, Rom said.

"It's a reasonably good sentence, it's a fair sentence," Rom said. "I had argued the seriousness of the offense and emphasized there's a need to reflect the community condemnation and ... to deter the defendant and others who might act similarly."

Oswalt could not be reached for comment Monday.

Not everyone was satisfied with the outcome of the case.

In Cooper Landing, where the cubs roamed after the shooting, grocery and hardware store owner Glenda Mitchell said a 10-day jail sentence is too light. "And I think most of the people here, if not all of them, will agree with me," Mitchell said.

She said Cooper Landing residents haven't seen the orphaned cubs all winter; it's probable they are in hibernation.

"So we're hoping they're doing all right and they'll come out in the spring," Mitchell said. "The last they were seen, they looked like they were doing good."

Daily News reporter Katie Pesznecker can be reached at kpesznecker@adn.com.

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