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The Poaching and Saving of Yellowstone's Wildlife

by Rick Lamplugh
Aug. 9, 2015

In February of 1894, Ed Howell, a Cooke City resident, and his partner dragged a sled bulging with supplies into Yellowstone National Park. They set up camp along Astringent Creek in Pelican Valley. Their plan was simple: kill all the bison they could find, remove the heads and hang them in trees, wait for spring, return with packhorses, and sell the heads for up to $300 each. After arguing with his partner and sending him away, Howell settled into his tipi to await the morning and what he hoped would be the start of a profitable winter.

 It’s hard to imagine this scene happening today, but in the early years of the world’s first national park, no one knew how to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife. If anything, the  attention generated by Yellowstone only encouraged some people to grab their weapons, get to the park, and gun down some animals. Why not? There was no law under which park officials could prosecute poachers, and $300 in 1894 would be the equivalent of about $8,000 today. It would take many years and many people to make poachers pay.

 Ed Howell was one in a long line of poachers. In the spring of 1875, for example, scoundrels slaughtered scores if not hundreds of park moose and bison. Most of that slaughter was not for food, says Yellowstone historian Aubrey Haines; usually just the tongue and hide were taken. To make matters worse, the poachers laced the carcasses with strychnine to kill wolves or wolverines that dared to dine on the remains. Officials recommended prohibiting hunting, but poachers continued to sell the prized bison heads to nearby taxidermists—just as Ed Howell hoped to do that winter.

 Unbeknownst to Howell, his entry into Yellowstone had not gone unnoticed. Haines writes that soldiers stationed at the Soda Butte outpost had discovered the sled trail left by Howell when he snuck by their outpost under the cover of darkness. A few weeks later, a scouting party found another sled trail that was too old to follow but appeared to be going toward Cooke City. This was not a good sign: the mining town near the northeast corner of Yellowstone had history as a haven for poachers.

 Three years earller, the park superintendent, Captain George Anderson, learned that a local taxidermist had mounted the heads of three or four Yellowstone bison. Anderson investigated and captured the poacher—E.E. Van Dyck of Cooke City—who had supplied the heads. Anderson had his man, but no law under which he could bring him to trial. All he could do was stretch his legal power and make an example of Van Dyck. Anderson illegally held Van Dyck in the Fort Yellowstone guardhouse for a month and legally confiscated his personal property. 

 A year later, Anderson captured another bison poacher from Cooke City, held him in jail for a while, and confiscated his property. That wasn’t much of a penalty but it was better than nothing. And it was the only means officials had to save Yellowstone’s bison herd, which—with the help of poachers—was down to just 400 head.

 So when another sled trail leading toward Cooke City appeared in the park, Captain Anderson, worried about wildlife, sent an Army detachment to investigate. On the morning of March 12, Sergeant Troike and a civilian scout, Felix Burgess, strapped on long skis, left the Lake Hotel where they had spent the night, and skied into a terrific storm. Early the next morning, according to a report written by Anderson, they followed snowshoe tracks and found six bloody bison heads hanging—like obscene ornaments—in a tree. They continued on into Pelican Valley and came upon an encampment with lots of human tracks. A little further on the two slid to a halt when they heard gunshots. In the distance, they saw a man shoot a bison, and they watched as he began removing the head. 

 Troike and Burgess wanted to capture this poacher, but had to weigh the considerable danger they faced. First was the guns. Captain Anderson reported that the two had only one weapon between them, a single army-issue revolver. They were 400 snowy yards from the poacher, a distance that made the revolver useless. The poacher, on the other hand, had a dog that could warn him of their approach, and a repeating rifle powerful enough to kill bison and quick enough to kill two careless men. 

 Next was the snow. Though the scout and the soldier were experienced skiers, they could still hit a patch of crusty snow and break through with a crunch that would resound in the silence of the remote valley. The noise could alert the sharp-eyed poacher, who could spot the intruders, and figure there were no witnesses around. No one to stop him from defending himself.

 Regardless of the risk, Burgess took the revolver and the two started skiing quickly and quietly across the wide-open valley floor. As they closed the distance, the snow stayed quiet, the dog remained oblivious, and the poacher concentrated on beheading. That is, until the two had just 15 to 20 feet to go. At that moment, the poacher dropped his knife and went for his rifle. Burgess pointed the revolver—a useful weapon at that distance—and yelled for him to drop his rifle and surrender. 

 Ed Howell was caught bloody-handed while killing five bison on March 13, 1894, the first capture of a poacher in the act. This would not be Howell’s only first. Burgess and Troike would receive written commendations for their bravery.

 The scout, the sergeant, and the poacher began the long ski—at least 40 miles—to the guardhouse in Mammoth Hot Springs. When Captain Anderson learned of the capture, he was overjoyed by this public relations coup, according to author Jeff Henry. Anderson, coincidentally, was hosting a dinner with the journalist Emerson Hough. He and photographer, Frank J. Haynes were part of a group exploring Yellowstone under the sponsorship of the New York weekly magazine Forest and Stream

 Anderson arranged for Hough and Haynes to meet the poacher at Norris Geyser Basin. There, Howell bragged to Hough, according to author Jim Davis, that his punishment for killing those bison would be nothing more than expulsion from the park and forfeiting gear worth less than $30. Hough sensed a story and wrote the tail of the thrilling capture of unrepentant Ed Howell. Haynes set up his camera and the poacher and his captors posed. The story was telegraphed to Forest and Stream

 Hough’s account of a crime without punishment so moved the editor, renowned naturalist George Bird Grinnell, that he vowed to do more than just publish it once. Instead, according to an online history of Yellowstone from the National Park Service, he filled each week’s Forest and Stream with Hough’s articles about Howell’s case. He wrote editorials demanding Congressional action. He encouraged readers to write their representatives and complain that no law existed for punishing Yellowstone’s poachers. Once the national press picked up the story, enraged citizens inundated Congress with letters and petitions.

 Not satisfied to just use his magazine to fan the fire of discontent, Grinnell gathered influential friends and headed to Washington, D.C. They told the tragic tale of the slaughter of wildlife by poachers such as Howell who had no reason to fear retribution. Their powerful presentation and the public outcry did the trick: on March 26—just 13 days after Howell’s arrest—Representative John Lacey of Iowa introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife, prohibit hunting, and punish poachers.

 While Grinnell publicized the capture and Lacey introduced his Act, Howell faced down authorities at Fort Yellowstone who were still powerless to prosecute him. Determined Captain Anderson resorted to the only tool he had: illegally hold Howell in jail for a month and legally kick him out of the park and order him to never return without permission.

 On May 7, 1894, a few weeks after Howell got out of jail and left the park, the Lacey Act—which had sailed through the House and Senate—was signed into law. The Army now had the authority to prosecute, not just expel, criminals like Howell. 

 For a while, Howell honored his expulsion and avoided Yellowstone. But the lure of the park was too strong, and in late July—two months after the passage of the Lacey Act—Howell headed back. The park superintendent, says Haines, found Howell “coolly sitting in the barber’s chair in the hotel.” He arrested him on the spot—for returning without permission—and hauled him off to jail again. 

 This time Howell received more than a slap on his wrist. On August 8, 1894, Ed Howell became the first person to be convicted under the Lacey Act, the law which his poaching had helped to pass. He was sentenced to a month in jail and fined $50 (about $1,250 today).

 The Lacey Act decreased poaching and saved the lives of the park’s few remaining bison. But even today, poaching occurs. In March of 2014, for example, some despicable characters gunned down three bison and left them lying dead in the snow near the Grand Loop Road. But now, thanks to the efforts of Captain Anderson and many others who cared about Yellowstone, if those poachers are found, they can be arrested for a federal offense and be punished under the Lacey Act, just as Ed Howell was 121 years ago this month.

 Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.


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