Lee Pico’s job has always been a bit easier because he has been surrounded by people who carry a sense of duty to protect wildlands in and around Yellowstone National Park.
The motherly attitude extends well past gateway communities like Jackson and Pico’s home in Gardiner, Montana. The just-retired assistant U.S. attorney recalled an incident about 10 years ago, when Yellowstone rangers were tipped off by a woman in Germany who was watching people play football off the boardwalk around Old Faithful Geyser while America was sleeping.
“She’s watching the webcam in Germany, and she sees these people,” Pico said. “She contacted, by email, the rangers in Yellowstone, and they went to the site and caught these people.”
People these days are getting themselves caught by posting self-incriminating videos on Facebook and Instagram. The “High On Life SundayFundayz” crews’ 2016 blunder at Grand Prismatic Spring is an example, but that type of behavior happens all the time.
That’s now all part of Pico’s professional past. After 47 years as a practicing attorney and 15 years as a federal lands-focused prosecutor, he’ll retire Friday from his post at the Yellowstone Justice Center in Mammoth.
His caseload covered the vast federal lands in the state’s northwestern corner: Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, Bridger-Teton and Shoshone national forests, National Elk Refuge and Bureau of Land Management property along the ecosystem’s fringes.
“As far as I know,” he said, “this is a unique position in the United States.”
Pico tipped his hat to past and present U.S. attorneys for the state of Wyoming who carved out a post focused solely on environmental cases. Matt Mead made the decision to base one of his attorneys in Mammoth, and Kelly Rankin, Kip Crofts and Mark Klaassen — the current U.S. attorney for the district of Wyoming — kept Pico there.
Many of Pico’s cases stemmed from visitors with little grasp of the wild nature of wildlife — people who’d pat bison from a car window, or naïvely approach a cow elk with her calf on foot. If they were lucky they’d see him in the courtroom. Those who were seriously hurt in their encounters, he said, didn’t deserve the added insult of paying a fine.
The biggest media maelstrom Pico navigated was in 1996, before he was based in the park, when a man poached a “massive bull elk” in Yellowstone. Sentencing took place the same day President Bill Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole squared off in the general election.
“The Wednesday after the election, the headline in the Denver Post was not that Clinton had won the election,” Pico said. “It was that the guy who killed the elk in Yellowstone was sentenced to such and such. It just goes to show you that the world is watching what goes on in the northwest corner of Wyoming.”
Federal attorney Stephanie Hambrick, now in Casper, will succeed Pico.