Idaho and BLM flout conservation laws for fallen officers

 

On May 13, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the federal Bureau of Land Management tried to honor two fallen Idaho wildlife officers in a most unfortunate way: They did so by violating federal conservation laws.

The story begins back in 1981, when two Idaho conservation officers, Bill Pogue and Conley Elms, were murdered by a poacher named Claude Dallas along the South Fork of the Owyhee River. Pogue and Elms had gone to Dallas' camp along the river to investigate reports of illegal trapping. Dallas turned out to be the right man, but when they tried to arrest him, he resisted and shot and killed the two officers. He then fled, but was later apprehended and found guilty of two counts of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the manslaughter charges and 10 years for firearms violations. Claude Dallas served 22 of the 30 years and was released from prison in February 2005.

There are many good ways to appropriately honor officers who are killed in the line of duty. But Idaho Fish and Game staffers chose to follow a lawless path – and they did so with BLM personnel on board. Here's what they did: State staffers drove at least one truck into the Owyhee River Wilderness to the canyon rim in violation of the Wilderness Act, which prohibits motorized travel. Then they installed a permanent rock memorial to the officers -- another violation of the Wilderness Act -- on the banks of the river where they were slain. At the May 13 event to officially unveil the monument, Idaho wildlife staffers also drove a utility vehicle into the Owyhee River Wilderness to provide access for a person with mobility impairments.

To top it off, the BLM issued an Environmental Assessment and Decision Notice authorizing this behavior on May 14, the day after the unveiling had been conducted. This mockery of legal process violated the spirit and provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, and deprived the public of any way to comment and perhaps protest.

Owyhee County has filed a Notice of Appeal against this action. "This failure to coordinate in good faith prevented consideration of other alternative sites that could well have been appropriate means to honor the lost Fish and Game officers," the county wrote. "The memorial should be removed from wilderness until the decision process can be done correctly to correct the flaws noted above," the county concluded. Several local tribes also objected, asking whether they could erect memorials in wilderness area to honor generations of their fallen members, whose bones are scattered across the Owyhee country.

Most Idaho residents love the Gem State's wilderness heritage. Idahoans enjoy the experiences found in designated Wilderness for hunting, fishing, hiking, wildlife watching, or just enjoying the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. And people from across America love to come and visit such iconic wildernesses here as the Frank Church-River of No Return, the Sawtooths, the Selway-Bitterroot and the Owyhees. These places help make Idaho the great place it is.

So it is appalling that Idaho wildlife staffers display so little respect for wilderness protections under environmental laws. From its war on predators, including hiring a trapper to wipe out wolf packs deep within the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, to this current offense, the state wildlife agency consistently shows its disregard for the tenets of the Wilderness Act.

Sadly, the BLM is now proving itself to be not much better. Whether it's Cliven Bundy trespassing on federal land for 15 years and refusing to pay BLM grazing fees, or the more recent case of northern Nevada ranchers Dan and Eddyann Filippini defying the BLM's grazing allotment drought closure, it becomes clear that the BLM won't enforce the law on others, and at the same time is OK with selectively breaking the law itself. The BLM has itself fostered a culture of disobeying the law and getting away with it.

All of this is most unfortunate. America's wildernesses deserve better. And Bill Pogue and Conley Elms, who gave their lives defending our conservation laws, ought to be remembered by something other than a legacy of lawlessness.

Kevin Proescholdt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.