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  • Louisa Willcox

Action Jackson: Of Poachers, Grizzlies and Coexistence

by Louisa Willcox

In a new Grizzly Times podcast, Bob Jackson shares stories of his fascinating 30-year career as a backcountry ranger in Yellowstone Park. He was dubbed “Action Jackson” for his work contributing to a record number of convictions of poachers in a remote southern area of the Park known as the Thorofare. As Bob and I swapped stories about a particularly fraught period during the early 2000s -- Bob while employed by the Park Service and me with Sierra Club and later Natural Resources Defense Council -- my blood boiled again at the pattern of unnecessary conflicts between hunters and grizzlies that each of us worked hard to address, each in the ways we could.

The chronic conflicts that Bob highlighted involving dirty hunter camps and poor handling of game carcasses have receded in public consciousness with an increasingly obsessive focus of the debate about grizzly bears on whether or not federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections should be removed for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Even the tragic but avoidable mauling of a hunting guide named Mark Uptain by grizzly bears in the Teton Wilderness last fall has not produced a shift in focus by those cynically promoting removal of protections. This essay not only explores but also provides necessary historical context for the wide-ranging conversation that Bob and I recorded for the podcast.

Bob bumped into grizzlies often during his near 70,000 miles of travel in Yellowstone’s backcountry, but never had to shoot a bear or even once deploy the capsaicin-based bear spray that he carried with him. He recalls his problems were not with grizzlies but with poachers who sometimes gunned down big game inside the Park. Guides who outfitted big game hunters also routinely and illegally dumped salt blocks just outside the park boundary to lure elk onto adjacent national forest land where they could be shot – like “shooting fish in a barrel,” Bob quipped.

And, while managers worked hard to keep human foods out of bruin’s reach inside the Park, outside park boundaries hunters often carelessly disposed of food, garbage, and big game carcasses, wasting an estimated 370 tons of elk meat each year according to one government estimate—despite state laws expressly prohibiting the practice. The result was—and continues to be—an unending illegal supply of anthropogenic foods that lure grizzlies into conflicts with humans.

Enforcing the law is particularly challenging in the Thorofare, which is further from a road than any place else in the lower-48 states. In a land he calls “lawless”, Bob was far more often threatened by criminals, thugs, and corrupt politicians than by the grizzly bears he helped guard.

At some level, human greed is at the heart of the chronic conflicts between people and grizzlies in the Thorofare. Guiding hunters in this mecca for big bull elk is huge business. During the fall, hundreds of elk migrate out of the sanctuary of the Park to the lower elevation wintering grounds in Jackson Hole, WY, passing through a gauntlet of hunters along the way. A single permit to outfit hunts in the Bridger-Teton Forest’s Teton Wilderness can sell for $400,000 or more. And since out-of- state hunters are required to be guided in designated Wyoming’s designated Wilderness areas—a scam in its own right—outfitters have a captive market.

Maximizing profit means running as many clients as possible into the backcountry during hunting season and cutting ethical corners if need be. In the view of Craig Sax formerly of Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF), the agency that permits outfitters, demands of hunters contribute to the problem. He says that: “People now come into hunting unwilling to put in time and effort. They want immediate gratification.”

It is no surprise that WGF often looks the other way when hunters break the laws protecting grizzlies, which are seen as competitors for big game and a symbol of federal restrictions imposed by the ESA. Importantly, the agency is financed primarily by hunting license fees and federal grants based on taxing arms and ammunition, which is why it caters almost exclusively to the interests of hunters. And in the case of Yellowstone elk, whose historic southern migration route has been severed by the town of Jackson, state officials want hunters to kill as many as possible before they reach their wintering grounds on the National Elk Refuge where they are fed at taxpayer expense until spring.

All of this spawns plenty of food in the Thorofare available to grizzly bears during their late-season hyperphagic feeding frenzy. Garbage in a hunter camp is food, as is an elk carcass left on the ground. To a hungry bear, the sound of a gunshot has become a dinner bell, and hunters object in predictable ways if a bear attempts to take possession of their quarry. Thanks to humans, bear food is often abundant, but deadly. “The Killing Fields,” Bob calls the place—not just for elk, but for grizzly bears as well.

In his early years, the Park Service showered praise on Bob for enforcing Park laws. Yellowstone Park’s Superintendent, Bob Barbee, said this: “Action Jackson is the genuine article, a great backcountry ranger with a deep love of the park.” But when Barbee and his similarly laudatory replacement, Mike Finley left, support from Park higher-ups vanished under pressure from well-connected outfitters.

Bob’s investigations became especially inconvenient in the run-up to US Fish and Wildlife Service’s first attempt to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone’s threatened grizzly bears in 2006. Then as now, agencies were invested in happy talk about the status of grizzlies, and any criticism of management was--and still is--unwelcome. The high-profile national news stories about Bob’s work raised questions about the adequacy of grizzly bear management, especially if responsibility over grizzlies outside Yellowstone Park were returned to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

Embarrassed, WGF officials and their powerful political allies hoped Bob would shut up or go away. Under pressure, the Park Service gagged Bob and then tried to get rid of him.

Meeting Action Jackson

Our paths first crossed in the late 1990s, when Bob’s plight first started making national headlines. Although I had met a number of government whistleblowers by then, Bob was especially disarming. Fit, soft spoken, with a twinkle in his eye, Bob seemed bewildered by the controversy swirling around him. I could tell he had not worked with many conservationists before. He seemed relieved when I told him of the many weeks that I had logged in the Teton Wilderness working for the National Outdoor Leadership School. At least I wasn’t a complete greenhorn, by his standards.

We had a lot in common – a love for the wild, grizzlies, and fair play. Here’s Bob: “I mean the bears are what makes life. Yeah, I always had to think of bears -- every night you bang on the door before you go out in case there’s a bear right on your porch. You’re yelling ‘here bear’ when you’re going to the outhouse, you’ve got your flash light, you’re ready to go. But that’s where the humbleness comes in. You’re not top dog.”

I know what he means. At the age of seventeen I had my first encounter with a grizzly—in the Teton Wilderness no less. After a brief but intense moment of surprise for both of us, the bear whirled around and disappeared into the darkening forest. I also got hopelessly lost in the Teton Wilderness’s confusing Two Ocean Plateau, where the headwaters of streams flowing to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans loop around each other till they decide which way to flow – one to the Snake and Columbia Rivers, the other to the Yellowstone, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers. I did not then foresee that such adventures would lead me to devote the next 40 years of my life to the cause of protecting wilderness and grizzlies.

Yellowstone River near Thorofare

Not surprisingly, proposals have been made to expand Yellowstone Park to include the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, once during 1918 and then again during the late 1920s. Jackson Hole cattlemen and Cody area outfitters squelched them both. A century later, hostility to grizzlies and National Parks among Wyoming cattlemen and outfitters still casts a long shadow on management of our public lands and wildlife. More on this later.

Of Luck, Skill and Consequences

You have to listen to our conversation to appreciate Bob’s sphincter-shrinking adventures in the Thorofare. He was prone to bumping into bears at close range because he was frequently off trail and sometimes hiding to see what poachers might be up to. He says: “you’re behind a tree or cliff waiting for the bad guys, because you’re in a good spot but that good spot means you’re hidden even more. And so, if the wind was right, the bear could be really on you. That happened four times. That’s where your scalp actually moves, you feel it move, and you got a 50 percent chance. And so, you could say I was lucky.”

To some extent, Bob was also lucky in his success convicting poachers. His secrets? Being in the right place at the right time, which meant riding many miles in tough terrain in the worst weather; support from supervisors; and techniques such as this: “…how I would get the poachers, you let them go through all their stories, and you break them down, and they cry when they’re broken down. Then you get the confessions.”

Bob was on a roll until he brought an elk-poaching case against a hunting guide who had worked for an outfitter named Harold Turner -- a case he discusses in the podcast. The Turner family, which owns the famous Triangle X Ranch in Jackson Hole, is friends with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who predictably unleashed his fury on the Park Service at Harold's behest.

Bob survived the subsequent political storm with the help of the press (here and here) support from Iowa’s influential Senator Chuck Grassley (Bob is from Iowa), and efforts by Professional Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization devoted to protecting whistleblowers.

I admit to being an accomplice in efforts to protect Bob, having introduced him to Frank Clifford of the Los Angeles Times and PEER’s Executive Director Jeff Ruch. Once on the scent of his story, Frank was astonished at attempts by WGF officials to bully him, proving they had no idea who they were dealing with. Hardly a horseman, Frank survived the bruising several-day ride into the Thorofare with longtime outfitters Tory and Meredith Taylor to meet up with Bob. There he saw illegal salting sites, meadows hammered by outfitters’ horses -- herds of up to 70 to 100 animals -- and town-sized outfitter encampments. Frank wrote that Bob was “perhaps Yellowstone’s most revered and reviled backcountry park ranger, poacher hunter, and champion of the grizzly bear.”

Tory was not silent about his experiences either, commenting: “here we have one of the finest places left in the world, a place with the longest traditions of remote, fair chase hunting, and it’s being turned into an industrialized trophy shoot…. Sometimes I get tired of trying so hard to defend hunting in the face of behavior like this. It just gives us all a black eye.”

Despite the controversy, Bob ended his 30-year career still patrolling the Thorofare. Shortly after retiring he wrote about the problems he had witnessed, even submitting formal testimony to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), a group of managers with authority over grizzly bear populations and habitat.

“Garbage Dump Syndrome”

One of Bob’s central complaints