The owner of the Great Bear Show performing at this week's Butte-Silver Bow County Fair has been cited four times since 2012 for failing to provide veterinary care for one of his animals and not ensuring spectators are safely separated from the bears.
Bob Steele of Jefferson, Texas, was cited in January of 2015 when Barney, Steele's then-1-year-old cinnamon bear cub, was observed continuously scratching large areas of hair loss around his neck and the sides of his body. The same bear displayed the same symptoms Friday.
The United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service first observed Barney's condition in November 2014 but were assured by Steele that Barney had seen a veterinarian. When the USDA returned two months later, Barney's hairless patches were larger.
The USDA citation stated "direct and frequent communication on the cub's condition has not been conveyed to the attending veterinarian in a timely manner," and demanded Barney see a vet by February 12, 2015.
In February 2016, Steele was cited by the USDA again, as Barney's condition had not improved. The USDA gave Steele until March 25, 2016, to have a veterinarian find the underlying cause of Barney's scratching and bald spots.
Steele said at the Butte-Silver Bow County Fair on Friday that the veterinarian had done all sorts of tests on Barney and found nothing wrong but would not specify. He said the vets said not to worry.
Barney had large visible hair-loss areas and was scratching his sides during and after the bear show at 3 p.m. Friday.
Steele hypothesized that Barney could have alopecia, hair loss caused by an autoimmune disorder, but also said the 2-and-a-half-year-old Barney's hair loss was normal, as young bears don't develop their thick undercoat until they're 3 and a half to 4 years old.
"If you turn on National Geographic and look at the grizzly bears on there, they look just like that," Steele said.
Grizzly bear scientists disagree.
John Heine, director of the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, said bears don't slowly develop an undercoat as Steele suggested.
"All the grizzly bears we've had, their coats have been perfect from cubs to yearlings on up," he said. "It's not like there's any bald spots."
Barney's hair loss has been observed in summer and winter, but Bear Manager Jamie Jonkel of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said bears only shed their thick winter fur around July, not year round.
"It's more of a seasonal thing," Jonkel said.
In 2012 Steele put on a show in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the only separation between the crowd and his bears was a pipe and drape barrier. Steele was observed removing his three bears from their cage one by one and placing them on chairs, only locking them to their chairs when the cage was empty. The USDA report states two large male bears were not under his or any other physical control for up to 30 seconds.
Steele's barrier at the County Fair is a ring of interconnected crowd-control barriers.
After each show, Steele allows audience members to pay for photos adjacent the bears, separated by a 41-inch-wide, 62-inch-tall plexiglass board hinged perpendicular to a particle-board backdrop.
On Friday, Steele called this barrier material Lexan, the same kind used in racecar windshields. Steele called the barrier unbreakable despite one of the corners being broken off, which Steele attributed to a windstorm.
In 2012, USDA cited Steele for a plexiglass-type barrier used in photo sessions, which it said was ineffective and potentially dangerous. Also, while the bear is chained to a chair during photo sessions, USDA said the chair itself must be chained to an immovable object.
According to the USDA citation, Steele said he secures the bear chair to his trailer. Despite being next to the trailer, the chair was unsecured Friday during a photo session.
Fair Board Secretary Lisa Pedersen said Friday she was unaware of the citations but would check with Steele. She said this was the third year since 2011 that Steele's show has been at the fair.
Butte Civic Center General Manager and Fair Board member Bill Melvin said Friday that Steele's show is still on for Saturday if he follows all the rules.
"We will go out and make sure that does not happen again," Melvin said.