Montana Man Killed a Grizzly, Threw Its GPS Collar in the River, and Hid Its Claws in a Hollow Tree, Feds Allege

The man now faces federal charges after his elaborate cover-up failed, leading federal agents straight to his property
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A grizzly bear walks over dead timber in the woods.

The GPS collar Pearson had tried to destroy led federal agents straight to his property. Photograph by A. Falgoust / NPS

An elderly man from Troy, Montana filed a plea agreement with the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana on Monday after a damning affidavit from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent alleged that he killed a grizzly bear and tried hiding the evidence in November 2020. He was charged with tampering with evidence, a felony, and failure to report taking a grizzly bear, a misdemeanor.

A press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and court documents obtained by Outdoor Life detail how Othel Lee Pearson, 80, allegedly shot the sow grizzly bear with his scoped .270 Winchester Model 70 Featherlight, potentially through a window in his home in Troy. USFWS special agent Mona Iannelli delivered an affidavit on Thursday detailing how she received a report from a game warden of a grizzly bear carcass dumped on Pipe Creek Road just south of Yaak, Montana on Nov. 23, 2020. The carcass had been “partially skinned and was missing two front quarters and paws,” Iannelli says in her affidavit.

The sow was microchipped and had worn a GPS collar at one point, but the collar was missing from the carcass. The sow also had two white ear tags and an interior lip tattoo. (This is standard practice for identifying both wild and domestic animals.) But those were also gone, having been “cut from the bear.”

Federal wildlife agents began connecting the dots nine days later when a USFWS wildlife biologist found the GPS collar in the Yaak River on Dec. 2. Despite it being pretty beat up, biologists were still able to download incriminating data. Tracking and health data indicated with extreme accuracy where and when the bear had died. This brought them straight to Pearson’s property.

On Dec. 16, Iannelli and other federal agents executed a search warrant on Pearson’s home. At first, Pearson denied killing the sow. But agents found “red snow” 30 yards from what they describe as a “shooting room,” or a room tacked onto Pearson’s house with open windows and vantage points that looked out on various baited sights around Pearson’s property. Agents found deer feed bags, feed dispensers, salt blocks, and other evidence of wildlife baiting, as well as a spent .270 casing on the floor, although no direct charge is made that Pearson baited the sow.

Animal tissue samples found in Pearson’s house and in his truck, which Iannelli reports had recently been washed, matched with the sow. So did a large bag of meat, labeled “Ham,” that agents found in Pearson’s freezer.

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This likely would have been sufficient evidence to bring charges against Pearson. But the evidence doesn’t stop there, according to Iannelli’s affidavit. On April 27, 2022, almost a year and a half after agents searched Pearson’s home, a hiker allegedly found a trash bag stashed in a hollow tree on some Forest Service land adjacent to Pearson’s property. The contents of the bag? Ten grizzly bear claws and a single white ear tag with the number 934, all of which were linked to the same sow through forensic analysis.

Pearson faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for the felony charge, along with a maximum of six months in prison and a $25,000 fine for the misdemeanor charge. The district court will consider his plea agreement on Feb. 15. As part of the agreement, Pearson’s sentence would consist of three years of probation and an $8,000 fine, and federal agents would not investigate or prosecute Marcia Pearson (Othel’s wife, according to an obituary for his late brother) for her alleged involvement in the incident. They also would not prosecute Othel or Marcia for any crimes stemming from a second grizzly bear skull found on National Forest land near their property, although Othel would have to cooperate and share information about the skull with investigators.