It was 1887, and William James was desperate. He had been expelled from Yellowstone National Park for poaching. In that era there were no laws that required jail time for such an offense. Expulsion and confiscation of killed game were the only penalties for poaching, but the resulting publicity made it hard for James to find a job. Consequently, on the evening of July 4th, James and a comrade planned a robbery just inside the park’s north entrance.In the bars of Gardiner, Montana, it was “common knowledge” that the Army payroll was transferred from the railroad terminus in Gardiner to park headquarters at Fort Yellowstone via stagecoach. James had decided that this robbery would be easy and would set him up for a long time. However, as so often happens, a “hitch” developed. The paymaster and his precious satchel passed by the unsuspecting robbers in a buggy. So, instead of an Army payroll, the stagecoach robbery netted $16 and two exotic coins, which the robbers took from Judge John F. Lacey of Oskaloosa, Iowa. Judge Lacey would not
forget his experience in Yellowstone.

Until the Yellowstone Park Act was passed in 1872, most resource-related laws of the post-Civil War era were designed to promote industry and expedite the exploitation of the nation’s resources. Not only did the Yellowstone Park Act set aside a large tract of land as a “public pleasuring ground,” but it directed the Secretary of the Interior to enact regulations protecting the park from “wanton destruction.” Unfortunately, the law did not provide for enforcement of those regulations.

By 1886 widespread poaching and vandalism of park features resulted in the government sending the U.S. Cavalry to Yellowstone to provide some protection for park resources. Regular patrols were sent into the park in all seasons to stop poaching and provide an authoritarian presence. Felix Burgess (a civilian scout) and Sergeant Troike were on just such a winter patrol in Yellowstone’s backcountry investigating a faint sledge trail that appeared to run from Cooke City to Astringent Creek in Pelican Valley. On the morning of March 13, 1894, Burgess and Troike found and followed a faint snowshoe track. The tracks led to six buffalo scalps suspended in a tree and then to a newly erected cabin on Pelican Creek. The scout and the sergeant shortly heard shots and discovered Ed Howell removing the scalps from five freshly killed bison. Burgess, armed with a pistol, had to cross 200 yards of open meadow without being discovered by the well-armed poacher or his dog. The surprised poacher assured his captors that they would not have taken him if he had seen them coming, and punctuated his sincerity by trying to kill his derelict dog.

On the return trip to Fort Yellowstone with Howell in custody, the patrol came across Emerson Hough, field correspondent for Forest and Stream magazine. Hough was exploring Yellowstone as part of the magazine-sponsored “Yellowstone National Park Game Expedition.” Hough and his editor, George Bird Grinnell, were both ardent conservationists, and Hough was incensed by the story of Howell’s bison killing. While the soldiers stood by, Hough wrote a dispatch about Howell’s poaching for the soldiers to telegraph to Grinnell in New York City when they got back to Fort Yellowstone.

Under the laws of the time, the only punishment that Captain George Anderson (the Fort’s commander) could administer to Howell was confiscation of the bison and expulsion from the park. However, Editor Grinnell published Hough’s dispatch in Forest and Stream, and then he and influential friends went to Washington to lobby for a means to stop such blatant acts.

Less than two weeks after Ed Howell’s capture, Representative John Lacey of Iowa, personally familiar with Yellowstone’s lawlessness and now chairman of the House Committee on Public Lands, introduced the Yellowstone Park Protection Bill: “An Act to protect the birds and animals in Yellowstone National Park, and to punish crimes in said park, and for other purposes.” The bill affirmed that Yellowstone National Park was under the “sole and exclusive jurisdiction” of the United States and placed it in the Judicial District of Wyoming. It directed the Secretary of the Interior to protect, “all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonderful objects within said park . . . and to protect the birds and animals of the park from harassment and destruction.” The bill also directed that a magistrate be appointed to hear and act on complaints for violation of the Act, to issue warrants, and to determine whether people charged with felonies should be held for trial in District Court. It set the magistrate’s salary at $1000 per year and directed the Secretary of the Interior to build a jail and an office for the magistrate. The penalty for violating the Act was a fine of up to $1000 and/or imprisonment for up to two years and forfeiture of all equipment (including firearms and means of transportation) used during
the commission of any crime. The Act was signed into law in May. Captain Anderson proclaimed that Howell’s crime was “the most fortunate thing that ever happened to the Park.”

In an ironic ending to this tale, Captain Anderson caught Ed Howell sitting in the barber’s chair at the Mammoth Hotel in July 1894. Howell was subsequently convicted for “returning after expulsion,” making him the first person prosecuted under the Lacey Act.