Nevada biologist sues bear activists for defamation

RENO — A longtime Nevada biologist is suing bear protection advocates at Lake Tahoe he accuses of harassing and threatening him through a “vicious and calculated” social media campaign that paints him as a corrupt bear murderer who should be imprisoned — or worse.

Carl Lackey, the state wildlife agency’s chief intervenor in bear-human conflicts, filed the defamation suit against the Bear League, its leader Ann Bryant and two Tahoe-area residents. Although the named defendants didn’t necessarily write the posts, Lackey argues they’re ultimately responsible for repeated comments on their Facebook sites that are false and “designed to incite public rage.”

The activists say criticism of Lackey’s trapping and occasional euthanizing of the black bears is constitutionally protected free speech about a volatile public controversy. They maintain the bears have as much right to the woods as the tourists and expansive summer homes that increasingly encroach on their native habitat in the Sierra Nevada.

The mountainous area 200 miles northeast of San Francisco has seen a spike in bear conflicts in the past five years fueled by cyclical drought.

The dry conditions — on the mend now — make food scarce in the forest and sends bears on the prowl to satisfy a daily caloric intake equivalent to 80 cheeseburgers, sometimes breaking into cars and homes.

Some bear advocates in the area recently have adopted more aggressive tactics such as tampering with traps wildlife officials set to capture the animals and singling out residents who notify authorities about bears they think are dangerous. In recent years, an ex-state senator tried unsuccessfully to get a protective order against the Bear League, and a couple won a settlement from bear advocates over alleged threats.

Lackey’s lawsuit seeking unspecified damages says he’s suffered extreme emotional distress because of the “defamatory, slanderous and libelous smear campaign,” and remains fearful of violence directed at him.

Some harassment has occurred in person, but most appears on websites and online forums run by the Bear League, the “Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame” and “NDOW Watch Keeping Them Transparent,” according to the suit Reno lawyer Thomas Brennan filed in March in Washoe District Court. NDOW refers to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Some of the posts are anonymous, but the majority carry names. The most inflammatory remarks cited in the suit accuse Lackey of “murdering bears” and taking bribes from hunters who want to shoot them once they’re trapped and rereleased to the wild. Others posted Lackey’s home address and said he should be jailed. One suggested it was “maybe time for an assassination.”

Because they condoned the publication of false and defamatory statements, Brennan said the defendants are “negligently or otherwise legally responsible.”

Reno lawyer Cameron Bordner, who represents the Bear League, Bryant and Mark E. Smith of the “Wall of Shame,” says the comments are protected under the First Amendment.

Lackey is trying to stifle participation in matters of public concern while also attempting to hold the defendants responsible for the comments of others, which has no basis in law, Bordner said in an email to The Associated Press.

Carolyn Stark, a defendant who started the “NDOW Watch” Facebook page, said in an affidavit she believes Lackey’s intent is to “shut me up and get money from me.”

Her lawyer, Del Hardy, filed a motion April 19 seeking to dismiss the suit, which he says is prohibited under a Nevada law intended to combat lawsuits that are filed to suppress public participation.

The law protects communication on issues of public concern when it is truthful or “made without knowledge of its falsehood,” Hardy said.

Hardy said that because Lackey is a public figure, he faces a different legal standard than a Lake Tahoe couple who won an undisclosed settlement from bear advocates in 2015 after they said they received death threats for reporting an aggressive bear to authorities, who later killed it.

Months later, an ex-state senator sought but was denied a protective order against the Bear League and others he said were harassing him for initiating efforts to trap a bear that damaged his vacation home.

“They’re a group of vigilantes trying to manage wildlife up there,” William O’Donnell told the AP at the time.

Since 1997, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has euthanized about 100 of the nearly 1,400 bears it has trapped, agency spokesman Chris Healy said. It rereleased the rest to the wild.

During the same period, nearly 200 bears were killed by cars.

Those put to death either posed an immediate danger to humans or livestock, or had been released into the wild before and got in trouble again when they made it back to town — sometimes multiple times, or over long distances, state officials say.

Lackey long has blamed humans, not the bears, for the conflicts usually traced to people who fail to properly secure their garbage. For years, he’s pushed unsuccessfully for ordinances mandating bear-proof trash bins.

Andrea Emnas, secretary of Nevada’s Operations Game Thief Citizen Board, defended Lackey in a letter published Friday in the Reno Gazette-Journal, which first reported on the lawsuit this week.

“These people are not fighting for the bears,” she wrote. “These people are personally threatening, slandering and harassing a person’s character from behind a computer.”

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