Elk crossing Village Road

Traffic slows to a stop as an elk crosses Highway 390 near the Aspens shortly before sunrise in late October. Teton County and Prosecuting Attorney Erin Weisman raised legal questions about a program West Bankers were using to fund wildlife patrols on the Village Road, leading the sheriff to put the program on hold. Citizen backers are dismayed.

Wildlife advocates were upset to hear that citizen-funded patrols on the Teton Village Road aimed at curbing the number of moose killed on the West Bank byway are on hold.

The reason is a potential legal issue.

“I feel gut punched,” said Paul Hansen. “This was such a great, successful program that everybody loved.”

Hansen is a Melody Ranch resident and News&Guide columnist. He spearheaded the effort, in which people raised about $25,000 to be spent reimbursing Teton County Sheriff’s Office deputies for patrolling Highway 390, also known as N. Moose-Wilson Road and, colloquially, the Village Road. Deputies would volunteer for patrols during the twilight hours when day and night shifts switched over. If they did so, they would get paid overtime: $100 per hour, with $70 going to the deputies and $30 going to the Sheriff's Office as an administrative fee.

The money raised was enough to fund patrols through the spring migration, Hansen said.

Because of the program, flashing blue and red lights became a common sight in the evening, though before patrols were rarely seen. That was in part because the Wyoming Department of Transportation manages the state highway, and it’s in the Wyoming Highway Patrol’s jurisdiction. Patrolling that road proved difficult for both Highway Patrol and the Teton County Sheriff’s Office because it diverted resources from elsewhere in the county.

In November and December, police officers stopped 166 people, issued 135 warnings and cited 31 people. At least two people were caught going 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.

Sheriff Matt Carr confirmed that he’d suspended the program last week, after Teton County and Prosecuting Attorney Erin Weisman raised legal questions about it.

Weisman told the News&Guide she was concerned about Wyoming Statute 6-5-104, which prohibits public servants like police officers from receiving financial upsides. Specifically, the statute bars public servants from accepting or agreeing to accept “a pecuniary benefit” for performing an official action if they would otherwise be “required to perform that action without compensation or at a level of compensation lower than that requested.”

“That statute raised concerns and could have possible implications based on the plain language,” she said, declining to comment further on the legal advice she offered.

Cops were paid for the wildlife patrols via the department’s special event and special duty policy, which is typically used for policing music festivals like Targhee Fest and Fire in the Mountains, or providing security detail when dignitaries like the First Lady visit Jackson Hole. Deputies volunteer to staff festivals and organizers reimburse the county for their overtime. The department provides security details free of charge for the federal government.

Carr said special event work is usually a financial boon for his employees. But this summer, they weren’t able to do so because of COVID-19. The speed patrols filled that gap.

“It was a good opportunity for our deputies, and we felt like we were fulfilling a need,” Carr said. “And again, the only way that I felt comfortable fulfilling his need was outside of our normal roles because it was a specific area requested by a specific part of the community for specific enforcement.”

Carr acknowledged that having private individuals contract police services could be a slippery slope, and that the privately-funded patrols could be on that hill.

But, he said, his department is “not a gun for hire.”

“We will always want to make sure that we’re maintaining the public’s best interest,” he said, adding that this program was, in his mind, in that interest.

“It also allowed us a time to collect the data point to see if we really did have a problem,” Carr said. “So far with the data collected, yes, I would agree that there is a problem with people exceeding the speed limit on that section of 390 in particular.”

Save for a deer killed last weekend, Village Road resident Carla Watsabaugh saw a reduction in wintertime roadkill.

“Normally this time of year we would be seeing some loss, and we’re not,” she said, adding that she didn’t know what exactly to “chalk that up to.” Any number of variables could have played into the decline in wildlife-vehicle interactions.

With citizen-funded patrols off the table for now, and an earlier refusal from WYDOT to lower the speed limit on the road, West Bank residents are left with few options for speed mitigation on the road. That’s something they’ve long touted as a possible curb for moose deaths.

Carr and Hansen both felt like there could be a way forward. Weisman didn’t know whether there was.

“But I am open to having the discussion,” she said.

Commissioner Luther Propst was interested in finding a path, potentially with county funds.

“Is there another way to skin this cat?” Propst asked, rhetorically.

Hansen wanted to find a way to allow Carr’s staff to continue policing the road through the spring migration period. He also said he was interested in approaching the legislature for a clarification around the state statute in question.

Hansen, Weisman and Carr are set to meet in the next week to see if there’s a future for the program. Watsabaugh hopes there is.

This article has been updated to clarify how deputies were paid. The Sheriff's Office received $100 an hour for the wildlife patrols, with $70 going to the deputies and $30 going to the department as an administrative fee. — Eds.

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

Teton County Reporter

Previously the Scene editor, Billy Arnold made the switch to the county beat where he's interested in exploring Teton County as a model for the rest of the West. When he can, he still writes about art, music and whatever else suits his fancy.

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