A North San Juan man accused of killing a mother bear and trying to sell her cubs could be heading to trial next week.
Christopher Puett has been charged with unlawful possession of a restricted animal, harassing an animal, unlawful taking of a bear and the taking of a female bear with cubs. He was offered a plea for counts one and two in return for three years probation, according to court documents.
Puett was in Nevada County Superior Court Friday and unsuccessfully petitioned for a new attorney. He is set to return to court Wednesday to discuss possible resolution of his case, which is set to go to trial March 19.
Puett allegedly was caught with two cubs after he allegedly tried to sell them outside a North San Juan gas station in May 2012.
Acting on a tip, state Fish and Wildlife officials confiscated the cubs, searched Puett’s property and confiscated a gun.
During an interview with The Union after the incident, Puett insisted he was simply trying to find the orphaned cubs a good home.
“They were not for sale, not for free, except to a professional,” he said. “I was trying to contact a professional bear rescuer, somebody that knows what they are doing. I didn’t catch a wild animal. I saved some orphans.”
Fish and Game searched Puett’s property and found no dead bear, but they did confiscate his gun.
Puett told The Union the cubs’ mother had a history of encroaching on the property where he had been living and looking after five dogs, 50 ducks and around 20 to 30 cats.
Puett said he had fired warning shots in previous altercations, had hit the bear in the head with a tire iron and shot it in the posterior with rock salt.
But on the night of May 3, 2012, Puett said he heard the bear rifling through his dogs’ food, which he said was next to a small, blind dog he looks after. When Puett yelled at the bear, he said it charged at him, and he shot it through a flap in his tent with a Mossberg 500 shotgun.
By the time Puett got out of his tent, the bear was gone, but Puett said he knew he hit it. He later discovered the cubs in a tree, he said.
According to Puett, he called the Department of Fish and Game, which he said told him to either shoot the cubs or let them go. But Fish and Game spokesman Patrick Foy said they had no record of Puett contacting them and would not advise shooting cubs.
A long road back to the wild
The bear cubs were transferred to a wildlife rehabilitation center in South Lake Tahoe and were reintroduced into the wild approximately a month ago.
The two were among 10 that volunteers rehabbed last year at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, said secretary and treasurer Tom Milham.
“We had more than we’ve ever had before,” Milham said. “The most we ever had before was seven.”
All of the cubs that are brought to the care center have been evaluated by Fish and Wildlife wardens to see if they can be rehabbed or need to be euthanized or sent out of state, he said. They typically are “first-year cubs,” meaning they were born in January or February. Cubs typically weight about 1 pound at birth; Milham said the smallest one rehabbed at the center at 4-1/2 pounds. By contrast, the bear cubs brought in from North San Juan were about 12 to 15 pounds, which is average for a first-year cub in late spring.
Some bear cubs will stay with the mother bear through their second winter, Milham said, and will weigh about 50 to 60 pounds at that point.
“We have three different cages, and normally we will have six or seven cubs in the one cage,” he said. “We can easily put some in the raccoon and bobcat cages — we could have up to 13 without any problem.”
The rehab center feeds the cubs with the types of foods they likely will encounter in the wild, Milham said.
“We introduce them to fish,” he said. “We have a pool for them, so that when they get out in the wild they aren’t surprised by what they see, they’ll recognize a food source.
“When we go in to feed them, we’ll lock them up into the play area and put the food down for them, so they don’t see us,” Milham explained. “That’s our biggest goal, not associating humans with food.”
Typically, the rehab center will keep the bear cubs until January or February, then do a “winter release.”
“We actually put them into a den while they’re hibernating,” Milham said, adding that the center still has four cubs that it is planning to release this spring.
The North San Juan cubs were released into a “den” north of Truckee, a plastic doghouse with straw bedding that was then covered with snow.
“More than likely they’re still in the den,” Milham said.
Most the cubs will have an ear transmitter attached by Fish and Wildlife, but the batteries are good for only about a year.
“We have heard back on a few,” Milham said. “So far we’ve been fortunate; out of 53, only one was getting into trouble. We’ve been doing this for 13 years. None of the ear tags have been turned in, so none have been shot, although they might have died naturally.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.