On Jan. 20, 2014, a Wyoming resident shot and killed a wolf.
That, in itself, was not remarkable; Westerners kill wolves all the time. But this incident was different. This particular wolf, a 2-year-old male, was slain under a confusing set of circumstances: on the grounds of a private inholding within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park.
As a result, the National Park Service and the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish found themselves in a muddle: Whose wolf was it, anyway? Both agencies dispatched personnel to the site, with the Park Service acting as lead investigator. The wolf had been threatening domestic animals, the shooter told them. He or she — the Park Service never publicly identified the landowner — injured the wolf with two shots from a .223 Remington, followed the wounded animal into a stand of timber, knelt in the snow 50 yards out, and put a fatal bullet in its left shoulder. Park Service biologists thanked the landowner for cooperating, and a state game warden loaded the carcass into his truck for later examination.The two agencies now stood on uneasy ground: Both had feared just this scenario — a wolf killed on an inholding — since the species was delisted in Wyoming in 2012. Though the Park Service had for decades assumed it had jurisdiction over the inholdings, Wyoming Game and Fish had been urging it to revisit the question for over a year; now, the federal government began a legal review in earnest. Ten months later, on Nov. 11, 2014, the resolution came in the form of a letter from Tammy Whittington, a Park Service official, to Brian Nesvik, chief game warden at Game and Fish. After extensive review, Whittington wrote, the state of Wyoming “will take the lead in responding to wildlife management issues on privately-owned lands within the park.”
Five months after the Park Service surrendered its wildlife authority over the inholdings, the agency’s officials seem sanguine about the decision. “We’ve always had a good working relationship with the state,” says park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs. “The average visitor to Grand Teton National Park will not see any difference or realize anything’s changed.”
Many conservationists, however, consider the reversal a troubling, even precedent-setting, shift. “How can you protect anything inside the park anymore?” demands Franz Camenzind, former director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “I find it ironic and disturbing that, as we’re preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Park Service (in 2016), we’re witnessing the shredding of its very fabric.”
So what does this decision really mean — and what might it portend for Grand Teton and other national parks?
If you want to make sense of the Park Service’s decision, you have to rewind 65 years, to the bizarre circumstances surrounding Grand Teton’s birth.
Though the park was created in 1929, its boundaries initially embraced only the jagged Teton Range, leaving the neighboring valley of Jackson Hole an unprotected quilt of private land. That wouldn’t last: In the 1930s, New York millionaire John D. Rockefeller snapped up 30,000 acres, intending to donate it to the federal government, and in 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt declared Jackson Hole a national monument. Though local opposition was vehement — one enraged senator called the designation a “foul, sneaking Pearl Harbor blow” — President Harry Truman upped the ante in 1950, merging the monument into Grand Teton National Park.
Even then, Grand Teton remained incomplete. At the time of the park’s creation, private landowners still held 13,000 acres, forming Swiss cheese-like holes in the feds’ domain. Over time, the Park Service purchased almost all of that property. Today, the park is laced with 100 private inholdings representing 950 acres — less than half of 1 percent of Grand Teton’s area.
Still, enough private land remains that wildlife conflicts are inevitable. “We’ve had bison gore livestock, situations involving bears and sanitation,” says Scott Talbott, director of Wyoming Game and Fish. When such incidents have cropped up, he says, “We’ve worked closely with the Park Service, and on most occasions both agencies have responded. But there’s always been that question: Whose jurisdiction is it?”
That dilemma took on new urgency in 2012, the year Wyoming’s wolves were removed from the endangered species list. The delisting pushed the inholdings into legal limbo. Within Grand Teton, wolves, and virtually all other wildlife, were protected by federal regulations that prohibited hunting or trapping inside park borders. On private land in northwest Wyoming, however, the creatures were now subject to state statutes that allowed landowners to kill wolves that attacked livestock. In other words, Canis lupus was clearly secure within the park, and clearly vulnerable on private lands. But what about private lands within a park?
The uncertainty didn’t sit well with Wyoming Game and Fish. Could the owner of an inholding really be prosecuted for following state laws on private property? In a March 2013 letter, the state agency urged the Park Service to clarify the matter. But the feds moved too slowly. Nine months later, on that frigid morning in January 2014, as Skaggs puts it, “What we were afraid would happen, happened.”
The long-dreaded wolf killing pushed the inholdings review into overdrive. The Park Service sent the case to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Wyoming, Christopher “Kip” Crofts. During the following months, Crofts and his staff pored over state statutes and federal regs, examined similar cases, and solicited advice from other offices. Their analysis focused mostly on the Code of Federal Regulations, which says that prohibitions against killing wildlife apply “regardless of land ownership, on all lands and waters within a park area that are under the legislative jurisdiction of the United States.”
For decades, those words had buttressed the view that the Park Service had authority. “There’s substantial past practice and legal precedent for Park Service jurisdiction,” says Deny Galvin, the agency’s former deputy director.
Crofts’ office, however, decided that the phrase “regardless of land ownership” was modified by the words that followed, “under the legislative jurisdiction of the United States” — and the inholdings weren’t under U.S. jurisdiction because they were not “dedicated to park purposes,” language in a 1977 Wyoming state statute. The inholdings' long history of private ownership effectively trumped their location.
“It would be counterintuitive to consider private land that has nothing to do with the park ‘dedicated to park purposes,’” Crofts says. “You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand that.” Federal wildlife regulations, Wyoming’s U.S. Attorney Office decided, didn’t apply to Grand Teton’s private inholdings.
How much does this matter, in the end? After all, we’re talking about just 950 acres in total — smaller than Golden Gate Park in the heart of San Francisco.
For starters, the next time a bison gores a cow or a black bear raids a garbage can, it will be Wyoming Game and Fish, not the National Park Service, that rides to the rescue. (That still applies to wolves, even though they’re again federally protected after a court threw out the delisting in September 2014.) That shift probably won’t transform management. “I don’t see a huge change in how we work,” says the Park Service’s Skaggs.
But another issue has conservationists concerned: the impacts of hunting. After Game and Fish received Whittington’s letter last year, the agency promptly opened bison hunting on Moose Head Ranch, the park’s second-largest inholding at 120 acres; the state is proposing to continue the Moose Head bison hunt this year. On another inholding, the 450-acre Pinto Ranch, the state has proposed treating the land like a regular hunting area in 2015, meaning it would be open to the pursuit of game species from waterfowl to mule deer to cougars. Those proposals will be finalized in late April.
“We’re not against hunting in general, but we would have liked to see the state respect the sanctuary of the park,” says Sharon Mader, Grand Teton program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “People come to parks to view wildlife in its native habitat, unmolested.” Mader also points out that hunters on inholdings can now shoot non-game critters, including coyotes, foxes, jackrabbits and porcupines, on sight.
For his part, Franz Camenzind fears that expanded hunting within park boundaries could disrupt the ecology of predators like black bears, wolves, and, if they’re eventually delisted, even grizzlies. “Some of these private lands are in prime habitat and movement corridors,” he says.
To be sure, the vast majority of Grand Teton’s inholdings are residential lots, some as small as a quarter-acre, that are unlikely ever to host hunting. And hunters will only be able to access the Pinto and Moose Head ranches at the pleasure of their owners. “(The inholdings’ owners) value wildlife as much as the Park Service does,” avers Skaggs. “I doubt they would want just anybody gaining access to their land to hunt.”
Yet the decision’s implications may extend beyond Grand Teton’s borders. As of 2012, the nation’s parks contained 2.7 million acres of inholdings, around 3 percent of their total acreage. Glacier, Zion and Sequoia are but three of the parks that embrace private lands. “Most Western parks have private property within their boundaries,” says Galvin. “It just seems to me an unmanageable situation if you have people able to shoot and kill species as soon as they step onto private land.” (In response, Crofts says that Grand Teton’s circumstances are too specific to set precedent, and that the opinion of a U.S. attorney, as opposed to a court decision, is unlikely to have sweeping ramifications.)
Ultimately, the question of what this all means for Grand Teton, and the park system, can only be met with that always unsatisfying answer: We’ll see. In his 2014 book Peaks, Politics and Passion, the historian Robert Righter observed that Grand Teton, owing to its contentious origins, receives scrutiny and incites acrimony like nowhere else. “In many national parks administrative errors, or well-intended policies that somehow backfire, would go unnoticed, but not in Grand Teton National Park,” Righter wrote.
That’s not to claim that the jurisdictional change is an error or a failed policy — the decision is too new to make that judgment. Rather, the jury is out, and the West awaits its verdict.
Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent for High Country News.