CORAM - In a modern-day Western showdown, a Coram man has squared off against state wildlife officials, refusing them access to inspect his drive-through bear menagerie. The state has responded by threatening to revoke his zoo license, a license he said he never had in the first place.
Tired of what he considers government-sponsored interference, Russell Kilpatrick, owner of Great Bear Adventures, is drafting criminal complaints and a lawsuit against "the corporation known as the state of Montana," demanding somewhere around $8.5 billion.
But before the courts hear his complaints, Kilpatrick fears wildlife officials will try to force their way into his bear park. He is armed and ready for the agents, vowing that "if they try to roll over me and take my livelihood, they'll die right here at this gate."
The road to Glacier National Park is lined with all the things tourists traveling to America's wild mountains want to see: miniature golf, go-cart tracks, mystery vortex spots, seasonal shanties selling huckleberry shampoo.
It could be argued this place is highway robbery gone to seed, overgrown with weedy tourist traps whose tendrils reach right under the gates to the wilderness. Among the plywood forest of hand-painted signs sits a truck-turned-billboard, advertising in blazing yellow a drive-through bear adventure featuring penned bruins.
Under the bright banner for Great Bear Adventures, Russell Kilpatrick wades through the scattered debris of his business; spools of wire, wrinkled tarps, an old Chevy and a dozen or so plastic garbage cans. Standing at a jaunty angle amid the flotsam of his life is a ticket booth, decorated with a piece of cardboard 18 inches square and announcing $4 for adults, $2 for kids. Stapled beneath the price list is another, smaller, square of cardboard.
That is exactly what Kilpatrick has been telling the state wildlife officials who have been trying to inspect his property. No checks.
But with no checks - which are required by state law - wildlife officials say they're ready to yank his roadside zoo permit. In addition, officials suspect not all the bears on Kilpatrick's property are black bears; state game agents insist they have an agreement with Kilpatrick that only black bears are to be displayed at the site. In April, Kilpatrick brought home what he says are three brown bear cubs - grizzly cubs officials have not seen, but allege violate his permit.
Kilpatrick, in response to the state's position, is preparing to sue just about everybody. He is charging the Flathead County sheriff's office with mail fraud and impersonating a mailman, not to mention trespass and delivering a threat, because a deputy served him official paperwork from the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks.
It's a criminal complaint, he said, and is being forwarded to the FBI, the Federal Postal Inspector in Great Falls, the U.S. Attorneys Office, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice and the federal magistrate in Missoula, among others.
It includes complaints against other agencies, as well, involving constitutional torts, criminal activity, malfeasance, misfeasance, nonfeasance, perjury of oaths, intimidation, extortion and coercion. And when he's done with the criminal complaints, Kilpatrick is moving ahead with a lawsuit in federal District Court, alleging 10 years of damage done by officials bent on obstructing his bear business. They denied his liberty, he said, and violated his civil rights, and he's suing for $8.5 billion, which he says is the net worth of the "corporation known as the state of Montana."
And through it all, he is drafting his own legal documents, saying the legal profession is in on the conspiracy against him - a conspiracy that includes his neighbors, FWP, his former veterinarian, the media, the sheriff, the Department of Livestock, Montana's attorney general and the courts, to name a few.
He writes his legal statements and briefs on a personal computer located in his log home next door to the fenced bear enclosure. Behind that f
ence, three chubby, fuzzy Syrian brown bears tussle with one another, oblivious to the fact that they are the spark that ignited the latest round of animosity between Kilpatrick and FWP.
For years, Kilpatrick has been scuffling with the state over licensing his operation, and the time has come, he said, to finally shut the door on FWP. Over the years, he said, FWP has forced unnecessary permits and flawed science upon him, and has ignored its own rules as well as those laid down by the courts. Now, he no longer recognizes the agency's jurisdiction.
But Kilpatrick insists he is no outlaw, no gun-toting scofflaw willing to snub his nose at officialdom and mutter an impudent "I don't need no stinking license."
"I'm just following the laws," he said, "and trying to mind this business. I have a federal license, and the state has nothing to do with me. I don't mind being licensed, but the only license I need is the federal license. Everything FWP is doing is outside the law. They've committed crimes … and want me to appear in their kangaroo court. They have no claim over me, and they're not coming here anymore. I'll work with the feds."
Jack Lynch, legal counsel for FWP, begs to disagree. While Kilpatrick might in fact have a federal license, Lynch said, that has no bearing on his obligations to the state. You can't just pay your federal income taxes each year and then ignore your state taxes, he said by way of comparison.
The battle between Kilpatrick and FWP dates back to the early 1990s, when he first proposed his idea for the bear park. Kilpatrick insists the state had no laws governing roadside zoos at that time, although just such a law has been on Montana's books since 1969.
But there was, in fact, no law for the sort of free-ranging zoo Kilpatrick had in mind, and so FWP worked a deal that was halfway between a game farm and a zoo, requiring permits for both operations. In recent years, the agency dropped the requirement that Kilpatrick have a game farm license, charging him only the $10 annual zoo permit fee.
By 1991, Kilpatrick and Montana's FWP had hammered out a deal that involved 11 conditions, including a requirement that only black bears would be allowed. In the years that followed, Kilpatrick clashed with FWP and others on numerous occasions, once charging that someone poisoned one of his bears and later that the state was not upholding its half of the bargain, and on several occasions he talked of bringing in grizzlies, despite the conditions of his permit.
Just two years into the agreement, Kilpatrick sued FWP, charging the agency with reaching too far in its regulation of his operation. A major complaint was that the state would not allow him to bring in a large grizzly bear. Two months after the suit was filed, however, a judge ruled in favor of FWP's right to enforce state laws.
In the years since, there have been charges of permit violations and bear escapes and bear deaths and a continued concern on the part of FWP that penned grizzlies would threaten the genetic pool of wild grizzlies, which use the area as a travel corridor between Glacier Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
"Mr. Kilpatrick's been threatening to bring in grizzlies for years," Lynch said. "We can only assume, since he won't let us in, that he's gone and done it."
And done it he has. Kilpatrick provided the Missoulian bear "birth certificates" and documents detailing the exchange with a New York state man in which he came to own Red, Brody and Grizz, three Syrian brown bears purchased in April.
The day he brought the bears home, he said, was the day wildlife officials showed up to inspect his property. He remains convinced they were tipped off by an illegal phone tap, but has no proof of the tap.
Despite their reasons for showing up when they did, Kilpatrick is certain the FWP agents have no jurisdiction over his operation. His last state permit, he said, expired in December, and since then he has received no paperwork for a reapplication.
"They want to revoke a permit I don't even have," he said "Th
ey are absolutely crazy."
FWP, however, sent the application paperwork certified mail, but Kilpatrick refused to accept it, saying they sent it to a fictitious person. It was addressed to Russell Kilpatrick, and he insists his legal name should appear as Russell Arnold, Kilpatrick.
When sheriff's deputies tried to deliver that document and others, he refused acceptance on the same grounds, and accused them of impersonating a mailman.
Kilpatrick also contends that his operation is not a zoo or menagerie, and that there is no such thing as a grizzly bear, but only brown-colored bears with "grizzled" fur.
"What is a grizzly?" he asked. "I'd like someone to answer that for me. And what is a zoo? They're just making this stuff up as they go."
FWP is willing to wade through the process - which might take months - before forcing their way in and seizing the animals. For now, the agency said, the fact that the bears are cubs limits any concerns for the wild grizzlies roaming the area.
And the bears appear happy, rolling and wrestling and jumping and climbing and piling onto Kilpatrick in a mound of affectionate fur. Brody, a chubby brown bear, purrs loudly as he licks Kilpatrick's ear. The cub drops back to all fours, nose to ground, and scoops up a cigarette butt Kilpatrick crushed in the dirt.
"They love butts," Kilpatrick said. "Never met a bear that didn't. But they have to be smoked; they won't eat them right out of the pack."
He swings the gate shut behind the electric fence, walking past his ticket booth to the entryway bannered in yellow.
"I don't know what they want from me," he says. "I just wish they'd go away."
No problem, Lynch said. "All he has to do is let us in, and this will all go away."
Monday - 6/28/99