The Iron Creek Incident
Edward R. Ricciuti, Wildlife Conservation, November-December 1995
It was a "potentially explosive" standoff: On one side were Tom Riley, senior resident agent, and two other special agents of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Division of Law Enforcement; on the other side, Brett Barsalou, sheriff of Lemhi County, Idaho, and rancher Eugene Hussey. The confrontation occurred on a remote section of Hussey's ranch on March 8, 1995, when the wildlife agents tried to execute a search warrant. The lawmen on both sides carried firearms, and according to some of the people involved, tempers grew hot.
The Fish & Wildlife agents were looking for empty shell casings from a rifle used to kill a newly released wolf that had been found dead in the Iron Creek area of the ranch in january. Sheriff Barsalou arrived at the site after a ranch worker telephoned to tell him that the agents were trying to serve the warrant. The 74-year-old Hussey, who was not a suspect in the wolf killing, ordered the agents off his land, and the sheriff supported his action. The tense situation could have escalated into a law enforcement debacle. Fortunately, cooler heads eventually prevailed.
This incident -- which led to a congressional hearing on relationships between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies -- illustrates the animosity felt by many citizens and officials in western states toward federal agencies and their representatives....
....The feds taking the most heat are those employed by Fish & Wildlife, the Forest Service, and other agencies charged with enforcing laws to protect natural resources, such as the Endangered Species Act....
The main reason for the anger...is that many ranchers, miners, and loggers rely on federal lands for their livelihoods. The spotted owl and gray wolf controversies brought a slow-boiling situation to the front burner and the front pages. Much of the rhetoric is overwrought, but many private landowners believe that the presence of endangered species on their property imperils their rights to use it -- a justifiable fear in a few cases.
The fears of federal employees are legitimate as well. In October 1994 a bomb exploded at a [Bureau of Land Management] office in Rome, Nevada. Five months later, another blasted a Forest Service office in Carson City, and this past August, a device exploded outside the home of a Forest Service employee in Carson City....
Inflammatory rhetoric is not confined to local zealots. Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) has singled out Fish & Wildlife as among the federal agencies whose armed agents are "scaring" people. She cited the Hussey ranch confrontation as an example of excessive force by Fish & Wildlife agents.
In its May issue, The New American, a magazine fiercely critical of the federal government, claimed that what happened at Iron Creek was part of an "aggressive agenda" by federal agencies "with their radical environmentalist comrades" to destroy the "rural way of life." The article in which these comments appeared was titled "Freedom's Foes, Federal abuse flourishes west of the Rockies."....
Sheriff Barsalou says Lemhi County was a tinderbox, and blames the situation on the Endangered Species Act. At the time of the wolf release, the threat of a federal injunction to close six Idaho national forests to agriculture, mining, and logging in order to protect imperiled sockeye and chinook salmon was looming over Lemhi County. Ninety-two percent of the county land is federally owned, and most of the employment in the county, population 7,000, occurs on federal lands. Barsalou says the closures threatened to economically devastate the area. The coincidental and controversial reintroduction of wolves, he contends, further enraged people who already "were just plain mad. It was bad timing."
Accounts of the Iron Creek incident vary widely....
After agents arrived at the scene of the wolf killing, Hussey appeared and, says Riley, "began screaming and throwing rocks the size of a softball," demanding the agents vacate his land. Riley claims that Hussey raised his fist, tried to throw one of the agents into a creek, and heatedly declared that only the sheriff could serve a legitimate search warrant.
Hussey finally calmed down. But once Barsalou arrived, according to testimony by Fish & Wildlife Director Mollie Beattie, "The situation became more contentious."
....Riley is a bear of a man who played linebacker for the then-Baltimore Colts. He says he and Barsalou stood toe to toe but when the sheriff was told to back off, he did. After that, according to Riley, Barsalou grabbed Hussey and left.
Then Barsalou went back to his office to inform the Idaho governor and attorney general what had happened. The wildlife agents decided that they would not undertake the search until things calmed down and they too left the ranch....
[Idaho Attorney General Alan G.] Lance...accused the Fish & Wildlife Service of failing to cooperate with state and local authorities on the wolf reintroduction program as a whole and the Iron Creek investigation in particular. He noted that when the service could not agree with the state on compensating ranchers for livestock damage caused by wolves, the federal agency decided to undertake wolf reintroduction on its own terms.
Some Fish & Wildlife sources admit privately that their agency should have tried harder to involve the state and to address public sensitivity about the wolf issue. Fish & Wildlife officials say they did not consult with Idaho Fish and Game because its director had instructed his people to deny requests from U.S. Fish & Wildlife for assistance on wolf enforcement. Barsalou, they add, was uninterested in the Iron Creek wolf investigation, a claim borne out in his congressional testimony. Barsalou declared that he felt the wolf had been legally destroyed because it had killed a calf found dead at the scene. (The official veterinary report by Fish & Wildlife states, "The calf probably died of causes related to birthing and was dead at the time the wolf scavenged the carcass.")
....Cool heads kept the clash at Iron Creek to one of words. In another place, at another time, will hotheads prevail?