By Tonya Maxwell
On far-flung, rugged slopes of western North Carolina's mountains, bear hunting is a tradition that stretches back through generations, often handed down from father to son.
As the season opens, hunters release lean and leggy hounds — maybe Plotts, maybe Redbones — under an autumn canopy of red and gold to track an animal with a sense of smell more finely tuned than even a bloodhound's nose.
A bear might lead a chase for hours, hunters reading and following the canine yelps on slopes thick with laurel and brush. A good set of dogs will bay their quarry up a tree. A good hunter will usually find a kill shot to the head of the bruin.
And the ground, if the beast is large enough, will shake with its fall.
For years now, though, the deaths of a particular set of bears killed during a federal and state investigation involving five agencies in North Carolina and northern Georgia is still causing the ground to tremble. It has rattled families, the bear-hunting community and government agencies, even reverberating in the halls of Congress.
Operation Something Bruin has pitted a slice of mountain life against the government.
Wildlife law officers maintain that they targeted bear poachers whose hunting tactics were neither legal nor sportsmanlike, taking animals without regard for the hunting season or as they fed over candy used as bait.
Some defendants say much the same of the state and federal agencies: Their investigative tactics were neither legal nor ethical, they killed bears themselves.
Even as court cases have concluded, many of them with convictions and guilty pleas, some families caught up in the investigation maintain the criminals were the men with badges.
Internal documents were requested under the Freedom of Information Act from four agencies involved in Something Bruin: the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Carolina Game Commission and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Of these, only the Georgia officials allowed an examination of documents related to the investigation, its law officers speaking with a reporter.
Other agencies will comment only through a spokesperson.
But when officials publicly rolled out the investigation in February 2013, they crafted a campaign meant to draw the attention of both the media and the public.
About four years earlier, a U.S. Forest Service memo indicated that its law officers believed the American black bear was being poached throughout western North Carolina and parts beyond.
That document was given to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, among other agencies, to outline a potential investigation into the problem.
The animals were being illegally hunted, baited, transported and sometimes sold for their parts. An undercover sting in the 1980s, Operation Smoky, cracked down on the sale of bear gall bladders, prized in Asian markets for their purported curative abilities.
The Forest Service agent who would lead the investigation, Brian Southard, proposed a new undercover operation, up to three years long, in which plainclothes officers would infiltrate bear-poaching groups.
"The information has been limited due to 'close knit' groups that bear hunters operate within," the document reads. "Bear hunters historically do not share detailed information with persons outside their group not only for security reasons, but for competitive reasons as well."
Operation Something Bruin launched into its first year, largely one of planning. Afterward, undercover agents, some working full time, others around hunting season, focused on bear poaching in the far western counties of North Carolina and northern Georgia.
In late 2012, as the undercover portion of the investigation closed, preparation for the media campaign ramped up and included a new website and a unified message that conservation laws protect natural resources that benefit legal hunters.
The individuals charged in the sting were altogether different. They were poachers, law officers insisted in press conferences, people preying on wildlife to the detriment of the public good.
At the time, officials said Something Bruin snagged 80 people who faced as many as 900 violations.
They would later backtrack on those numbers.
"The Promised Land"
The most withering criticisms against Something Bruin have come from Linda Crisp of Graham County, whose arguments against the investigation have drawn applause at two packed public forums, one for community members and another before state legislators.
She speaks with the to-the-point confidence of a schoolteacher, which she was until her retirement.
She and her husband, David Crisp, make their living on Crisp Boat Dock, set on a far southern shore of Fontana Lake.
The lake, running near 20 miles long, is a reservoir that spills into craggy coves, bordered with mountain slopes that drop straight into its waters. Many of the picturesque inlets are accessible only by boat, where floating summer cabins are anchored near the rising shores.
The Crisps rent a few cabins, just around the bend, and their son, Chad Crisp, works the dock as well.
Both father and son have been convicted in federal court in connection with Something Bruin.
The younger Crisp, who has not yet begun serving a 20-month federal sentence on a guilty plea for convictions related to killing bear and deer in the Nantahala National Forest, has received the most stringent sentence of the Something Bruin defendants.
David Crisp, the father, was found not guilty at trial for digging ginseng, but guilty on a charge of baiting bears with processed food, illegal in North Carolina. He received a 90-day prison term.
At the boat dock on a May afternoon, Linda Crisp has gotten word that a congressional field hearing to examine investigative tactics has been set for June 19 at the Haywood County Courthouse.
"We're hoping someone will hear us when we tell about how we've been abused and falsely accused by the undercover officers," she said. "Why would we do this if we're guilty? We would be the stupidest fools in the world."
On this side of Fontana Lake is the Nantahala National Forest. To the north of the reservoir lies the Great Smoky Mountains, home of the nation's most visited national park.
Chad Crisp had once described the Smokies as "The Promised Land" to an undercover agent who wore a wire, recording his words.
Probably a lot of bears in the park, an undercover agent commented to Crisp in the summer of 2010, not long after meeting him. Probably can't hunt there though.
"You can if you don't get caught," Crisp responded.
They agreed to meet again once the weather cooled, a time better suited for hunting.
In early contacts with Crisp, investigative documents indicate he told an agent he would help him hunt a bear for a fee, though he later accepted only in-kind payments, such as gas money and dog food.
By November, the agents were hunting with Chad Crisp on trips that were largely unsuccessful. He told them the he had 500 pounds of M&Ms to use for bear bait, and that he and another man hung 60 pounds of sausage and bacon, along with candy, from a tree limb.
That man had killed a 150-pound bear from that same tree with a headshot, Crisp told the agents, according to court documents.
Bear baiting is illegal on federal lands, while in North Carolina, using processed foods is banned.
Agents, who had at least once purchased candy in Cleveland, Tennessee, helped Crisp and his father set out the waste chocolate.
In a Fontana Lake cove known as Lovin Entry, Crisp led an agent to a black plastic barrel topped with a wire grate. They poured a 5-gallon bucket of candy inside and the set-up was rigged with a device that would beep remotely should a bear disturb it.
The barrel was on federal property, in Nantahala National Forest.
A few nights later, on Sept. 6, 2011, Crisp and two agents sat in a boat with hounds, waiting for that device to sound. The account comes from Chad Crisp's October federal court plea to two misdemeanors related to the shooting of a bear.
The beeps came about 9:15. The dogs were released and soon came their excited bays. They had done their job, running a bear up the tree.
The men followed, carrying a single .35-caliber rifle that Crisp had loaded with four rounds. He shined a light on the bear and told an agent to shoot. Twice, the agent aimed deliberately below the bear, hitting the tree.
Crisp took the rifle himself and shot twice, and the wounded animal fell from the tree.
The bear bellowed and fought the dogs, but would not die. Out of bullets, Crisp grabbed a stick and poked it in an open wound, then tried to stab it in the head with a knife. The bear rolled down the slope and into the water, fighting the hounds.
An agent told Crisp he suddenly remembered a .357-magnum pistol in his backpack. Crisp took the weapon and fired a fatal shot into the bear's head. More....