By: Randy Tucker
Wind River was an unexpectedly popular film featuring the life of fictional government hunter and trapper Cory Lambert. Predator control, working with game and fish wardens and local law enforcement, and maintaining relationships with the tribal, county, state, and federal governments may seem like a stretch from reality, but it is the real day-to-day experience of one man on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Art Lawson is the director of the Shoshone and Arapaho Game and Fish office. With two wardens and an office manager, Lawson patrols the vast 2.2 million acres of the Wind River Reservation.
His responsibilities involve licensing, game code enforcement, timber permitting, law enforcement with the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Police, Fremont County Sheriff’s Department, and local police departments in Riverton and Lander, Wyoming.
The job is a daunting one, and an inventory of the weapons Lawson and his two wardens carry in their vehicles tells the tale as well as any narrative could.
Lawson carries a Glock .45 ACP on his hip, but has a semi-auto .308 caliber AR-15 in his truck along with the standard 12 gauge of law enforcement, the Mossberg pump, and an interesting rifle that epitomizes the challenging nature of working in the rugged, isolated Rocky Mountains: a lever action Marlin .45-70.
Lawson also works with Wyoming Game and Fish in grizzly bear management.
“We have about 30 active bears above Fort Washakie,” Lawson said. “The bears don’t pay much attention to national forest or reservation boundaries.”
Lawson came to the department after three years as a BIA police officer; prior to that he worked as a carpenter in the tribal housing department.
As a police officer, Lawson dealt with all the daily challenges and occasional horrors that patrolmen and deputies face across the nation. Murders, fires, rape, child abuse, and many, many automobile accidents were daily, difficult realities.
Lawson always had an interest in the outdoors growing up in rural Fremont County, and graduating from Wind River High School in Pavillion, population 320.
In 1983, the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes adopted a game code based on federal regulations in the face of over-hunting and a dramatic drop in wildlife numbers on the reservation. The legislation has been a tremendous success with the number of antelope, mule and white-tailed deer, moose, elk, and Big Horn Sheep now restored to record levels.
There are trophy animals walking the ridges and draws of the reservation that will score high in Boone and Crockett.
In the midst of this resurgence in game population, poaching has followed close behind.
Crime scene investigation is a key part of the Game and Fish enforcement, and Lawson’s experience as a police officer and in taking federal law enforcement training in Artesia, New Mexico is invaluable.
When approaching a poached carcass, Lawson treats it as any crime scene.
“We photograph the scene from every angle,” Lawson said. “Then we search the area for trash, cigarette butts, empty cans, and bullet casings, anything that might contain DNA evidence. If the bullet is still in the animal, we’ll dig it out, and we send everything to one of our federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife labs.”
Lawson also works closely with private companies like the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, which have professional guides and backcountry instructors on staff.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of his job is working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to monitor and track big game animals. Collars placed on reservation moose, deer, and elk provide valuable information on feeding habits, game trails, and habitat areas.
One cold winter day with the temperature dipping to 36 below zero, Lawson set out with a Wyoming Game and Fish biologist to set a deer carcass in a tree at the foot of Black Mountain on the northwest boundary of the reservation.
They set game cameras up around the carcass in hopes of photographing wolverines scavenging the carcass.
All went well on the way in. They parked the truck and trailer on the highway and started out on snow machines for the backcountry.
The streams they crossed were frozen solid in the sub-zero weather, and they set the cameras and carcass without incident. But on the way back, the biologist fell through the ice on his machine and was waist-deep in the frigid water of Crow Creek.
Lawson tried to pull the sled out with a tow strap tied to his snow machine, but the current was fighting against them.
In desperation, he jumped in the water with the biologist, and by brute strength, they were able to lift the stranded machine onto an ice shelf and get traction enough to drive it back onto the trail.
They were sweating in spite of the -36 temperature, but in the course of an hour-and-a-half ride in the 5:30 p.m. darkness of wintry Wyoming, their clothes froze solid.
When they finally made it to the truck, it took another half-hour for the heater to warm up. They made it back to Fort Washakie with all their equipment, and found great wolverine photos a few weeks later when they went back.
All in the day’s work of one of three men responsible for everything outdoors on nearly 3,500 square miles of Wyoming wilderness.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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