Editor’s note: This case has been resolved; here is a link to our update.
A 52-year-old Pierce County, Wash., man has an arraignment hearing in an Okanogan County court later this month on nearly 40 counts of illegally baiting and killing multiple black bears in the upper Methow Valley over the past two years.
In either a testament of James L. Erickson’s innocence or a show of his attitudes towards game laws, photos of a very large bruin that game wardens allege he poached over food scraps last September still remained prominently and publicly posted on his Facebook page as of today, Friday, April 20.
“Killed over bait minutes before that shot,” says Sgt. James Brown of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. “The bait is about 30 yards to the right of the picture from the meat pole.”
He claims that Erickson would haul in a mix of restaurant scraps, day-old food and dead fish and animals to attract bears to his property backed up against the Okanogan National Forest in the Rendezvous area.
“It looked like he might have contacts in the restaurant industry,” Brown says.
Court papers say that salt and mineral licks were also used.
Pages from a diary and, more importantly, hundreds upon hundreds of photos recovered off trail cams and computers indicate that bears were baited to within close range of Erickson’s cabin and shot by he and others — sometimes from the comfort of chairs while the shooters read novels and at least once before one man managed to even put on his shoes and tie his laces.
Baiting bears has been illegal in Washington since 1996, when it was outlawed by a statewide initiative.
All totaled, Erickson was charged last week with 34 counts of baiting, four counts of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree, and one count each of unlawful transport, second degree spotlighting, third-degree possession of stolen property – a trail cam put up by neighbors to find out who was cutting their gates – possession of a body-gripping trap, and possession of a duplicate tag.
Probable cause documents say that Erickson illegally killed or hunted bears with the aid of bait Sept. 3, 2011, Sept. 18, 2010, Aug. 6, 2010 and twice in 2008.
WDFW also seized the .338 Winchester topped with a 4×16 Nikon Monarch scope the defendant allegedly used to kill the Facebook bear last year, and his blue 2007 Chevy Suburban which hauled the carcass to a Westside butcher as well as transported buckets of bait.
Erickson did not immediately respond to Northwest Sportsman’s request for a comment, but his attorney downplayed the charges, saying the state is making a mountain out of a mole hill and that he will enter a not-guilty plea for his client at the April 30 pro forma hearing in Okanogan.
“When the case comes to trial, most of the air will come out of the balloon,” says John Brangwin of Woods & Brangwin in Wenatchee. “I think (WDFW) cast too big of a net – there may be some violations, but it’s not the crime of the century.”
He says the case will turn on whether leaving out food which wildlife happens to come upon and feed on is illegal.
“What’s the crime – shooting the animal or putting the material out there?” Brangwin says.
He also suggested that wardens put so much time and money into watching Erickson that they had to justify it somehow, and thus all the charges.
THE STATE HAS A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT VIEW. For six and a half years, goings-on at the defendant’s “hunting” cabin between Little Cub Creek and Cub Creek, about 14 miles up the Chewuch River valley from Winthrop, have been on local game warden Cal Treser’s radar, says Sgt. Brown.
“Citizens had been telling the officer that the camp had a revolving door of participants, all Western Washington residents, who used the camp as a base of operations to commit big game violations, allegedly in and out of season,” he says.
Trying to get to the bottom of secondhand stories of deer poaching and bear baiting, an undercover officer made several contacts with the group in 2005 and 2008 and was told about “many supposed violations,” but Brown admits WDFW was also unable to see anything first hand.
Over time it also became clear that folks at the cabin were “keenly aware” of uniformed game warden presence in the area and “were taking many steps to avoid detection of their activities,” says Brown.
To break the case Treser needed a little luck.
That came last July when he learned that an alleged bear bait station of Erickson’s was on Forest Service land. That site also featured a trail cam, and since the possible violation was in “open view,” Treser was able to get a search warrant to access the camera and its card.
Brown says that that then gave Treser ample opportunity over a period of several months to check on what was happening at the site.
“Many of the pictures showed (Erickson) coming by and dumping baits out,” says Brown.
Court papers refer to a half-dozen white buckets at the cabin and say that “dead birds, fat, grease, bear attractant, salmon, trout, other game fish, donuts, grain, corn, and dead stock animals” were dumped at two bait stations.
The birds and stock animals included numerous breasted-out ducks and ruffed grouse, a “butchered pig and four baby pigs.”
Court papers also say that late last August, Erickson placed three whole salmon on the pile — perhaps pinks from a river near his home.
“The stench in the area was extremely bad from rotting meat,” a report from Treser reads.
Probable cause documents indicate that Erickson began baiting well before the beginnings of the 2008, 2009 and 2011 bear seasons — as early as April 30 last year.
“The effort was a collaborative effort to attract bear with the aid of bait spanning multiple years,” say court papers.
Photos from the trail cam showed bears coming in and bears being killed, Brown alleges.
On Saturday evening, Sept. 3, 2011, Erickson took the big bruin, court papers say.
Following up on a report of a shot from the area, two days later Treser determined that an animal had been killed at the bait site and then dragged to the cabin. He saw a pair of spent cartridges there.
That gave officers enough to get a search warrant for Erickson’s cabin on Sept. 6 and then his house between Eatonville and Yelm on Sept. 7.
Forensic analysis of computer files turned up 1,022 photos and videos of baiting, and eventually led to not only the charges against Erickson, but also five others, including three immediate family members.
Lois M. Erickson, wife, 52, of Eatonville: three counts of baiting and one count of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree.
Jessica Erickson, daughter, 22, of Eatonville: two counts of baiting and one count of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree.
Justin J. Erickson, son, 21, of Eatonville: one count of baiting and two counts of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree.
Zachary Banks, 23, of Pasco: one count of baiting and two counts of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree.
Brent M. Kerr, 24, of Eatonville: two counts of baiting and one count of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree.
Arraignment dates have not been set for family members or friends, according to information from Okanogan County.
FOR LEGITIMATE AND ETHICAL HUNTERS, the Ericksons et al’s alleged behavior is repulsive.
Brown says that most of the animals were “shot from the comfort of an Adirondack chair on the porch of the cabin.”
It was set behind a camo blind that provided good concealment from the alleged bait site.
Twenty pages of a 150-page-or-so diary recovered at the building also allegedly indicate that at least one bruin was killed before the shooter had even put on boots.
“We planned to pack up early Monday morning early and head out,” writes Brent Kerr in the journal, according to WDFW case reports, “but a bear was kind enough to meaner (sic) near camp. I got him with my .308 before I got my shoes on.”
Court documents say that a photo shows him dressed in shorts, “boots slipped on and untied,” while posing with the bear.
What in all likelihood is the same photo can be seen on Erickson’s Facebook page.
Next to it a commenter writes, “bear hunting in shorts? lol the bear must have been full on the treats to get him there! nice bear though im a tad jelous.”
According to WDFW’s case report, Kerr said he did not shoot the bear over bait.
But the cabin diary also records these moments:
9-16/18-10:[An individual not charged in the case] wrote, “Justin and Zack came over Friday night right after Justin’s lab hoping for a bear, no luck, but the bear has been into the Krispy Kreme surplus and hog guts from [another individual not charged in the case].
9-19-10 Gang left around 5 pm Saturday leaving Zack and I [Justin] to find a bear. We sat on porch, each with an old western novel. Less than a chapter looked up and saw a bear. Shots fired, each claimed a bullet hole in the 135 lb black bear.
Entries from summer 2011 indicate:
4-28-11 thru 5-1-2011 Jim baiting, wrote lots of bear, black and brown
5-19-11 JJ wrote, lots of bears. Same time period, Zack Banks wrote, Big cinnamon bear in camp. (Baiting)
6-3-11 Jim in camp. (Baiting)
6-25-11 Jim and wife (Lois) at cabin. Baiting
7-14-11 Bait. Jim commented, great bear photo’s (sic) on both camera’s (sic.
8-4-11 Jim wrote, “[another individual not charged in the case] and Jim bear scouting, Krispy Kremes, saw no bear.”
8-12-11 (Baiting) Jim’s camera’s (sic) captured lots of bears, sometimes 3 at same time.
8-25-11 (Jim at cabin baiting) Jim wrote, “over night trip”.
9-4-11 Entry by [first individual not charged in the case], camera showed large bear, 7 pm saturday night, Jim shot bear.
9-4-11 Entry by [a fourth individual not charged in the case]. “Came over 8/31 6:30pm , on Saturday 9/3, big dark brown bear showed up and Jim shot him.
Under state law, baiting is a gross misdemeanor, subject to fines and hunting license revocation for up to five years.