Thirty years ago this week, a trapper named Claude Dallas gunned down two Idaho Department of Fish and Game wardens trying to arrest him for poaching in Owyhee County. After felling them with a .357 Magnum, he shot each in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
In so doing, Dallas fundamentally changed the relationship between the West and those charged with preserving its resources.
Before Jan. 5, 1981, we had wilderness rangers; ever since we’ve had wilderness policemen. The conservation officer who checks your fishing license nowadays is more likely than not to be armed.
Coming as it did a few weeks before Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, the murders of Officers Bill Pogue and Conley Elms turned out to be one of the defining events of the Sagebrush Rebellion. And as much as any other single incident, it served to turn land users and land managers into adversaries.
That tension persists to this day, echoed in former Idaho gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell’s call for citizens of Idaho County to kill wolves and dare the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do anything about it. Rammell is also charged with poaching an elk near Idaho Falls and then threatening a Fish and Game officer who took it away.
We used to have by consensus a resource management partnership in this state; now we have us vs. them.
In some cases that strain is driven by concerns that are germane, such as federal intervention in what was a largely successful wolf management experience by the state.
But too often, folks who are angry with the government about Obamacare take it out on those we hire to protect our land, our water and our wildlife.
Dallas did 22 years for voluntary manslaughter, but the foreman of the Canyon County jury that convicted him said later Dallas might have been acquitted of all charges had Dallas not delivered the coup de grace to Elms and Pogue. That’s remarkable.
Without officers such as Pogue and Elms on the front lines, Idaho wouldn’t have a wildlife resource left to save.
Dallas, celebrated in story, song and a made-for-TV movie, was never a hero or a defender of traditional Western values. He’s a stone-cold killer.
And, to a large degree, Dallas left us with the uneasy resource management relationship we have today.