The Serendipitous Villainy That Gave America Its First Wildlife Law

The Lacey Act has been kicking butt and taking names for more than 100 years.

The Cavalry officers who captured Edgar Howell, an infamous Yellowstone bison poacher, in 1894 pose with some of Howell’s victims.

Credit: National Park Service

“The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility
to preserve.”

U.S. Congressman John F. Lacey, 1901

From 2007 to 2010, a six-person crew at Loncarich Guides and Outfitter made tens of thousands of dollars by trapping bobcats and mountain lions, hobbling them with a gunshot wound to the paw or gut, and then releasing them so that wealthy hunters could come to Colorado and Utah and gun down easy trophies.

It should go without saying that this is illegal. You cannot simply capture, torture, and then profit off animals found in the American wilds. And fortunately, as of this September, all members of what I’ll call the Shameless Six received some sort of punishment for their crimes. (The sentences ranged from 27 months in a federal facility to fines, probation, house arrest, or community service.)

“As someone who studies cougar ecology and who cares about our environment, the story honestly made me sick to my stomach,” says Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist at the University of Minnesota. “Regulated, ethical hunting is one thing, [but] this is another entirely, and it’s disgusting.”

Interestingly, it wasn’t the Endangered Species Act that these horrible human beings violated. Nor was it, perhaps obviously, the Migratory Bird Treaty, the Marine Mammal Act, or any other legislation you might know by name. Instead, it was the Lacey Act—a little-known but extremely useful law that’s been on the books for more than a century. In fact, the Lacey Act was the first federal law protecting wildlife in the United States.

And man, does it have a fun story behind it.

First, wildlife laws in America looked a lot different back in the late 19th century. Acts of poaching and other wildlife-related crimes were punishable only by confiscation and expulsion. Literally, you could scalp half a dozen bison in Yellowstone National Park and lose nothing more than the pelts you’d taken and the right to visit the gift shop. (This is not a hypothetical example, by the way.)

The story begins in 1887 with a wretch named William James who was caught poaching beavers within Yellowstone and subsequently given the boot. And while James’s punishment included no jail time, the outlaw soon found that his reputation precluded him from finding other, more honorable employment. So James did what any backwoods brigand would do in his situation—he sent the captain of the local army contingent a letter promising retribution and then promptly set the woods on fire.

But arson didn’t solve James’s money troubles, so like every good down-on-his-luck heist movie villain, James began plotting one final big score, a stagecoach robbery.

At this time, Wyoming and Montana had yet to become states, so local law enforcement was pretty much left to the U.S. Cavalry. And in those days before direct deposit, a government paymaster would travel each month between Fort Yellowstone and the nearby town of Gardiner, Montana, delivering the payroll. The temptation proved too much for James. Not only would holding up this stagecoach full of cash set him up for a life of leisure on the lam, but it gave him the chance to stick it to the cavalry, which had been dispatched to Yellowstone primarily to protect the park from poachers such as himself.

Unfortunately for James, he was no Danny Ocean. (Honestly, I’m picturing him more like Richardson from Deadwood.) Lying in wait on the night of July 4, he somehow missed the paymaster’s stagecoach and ended up robbing some other passerby instead. That person, as fate would have it, was the esteemed lawyer John F. Lacey of Oskaloosa, Iowa, a former assistant adjutant general in the Union Army during the Civil War. You’d better believe ol’ Lacey didn’t take kindly to some beaver-poaching ne’er-do-well pointing a gun in his face—even if it cost him only $16 and two rare coins.

Despite the botched job and the pittance he rode away with, James just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He bragged about his crime and within a few months was in custody. The two men who came forward also said James had this weird coin that, wouldn’t you know, matched the description of one of the pieces Lacey had on him when he was robbed.

The very next year, Lacey unseated a four-term Greenback candidate to become a member of the U.S. Congress. A few years later, in 1894, after an incident of bison-poaching gained national attention, Lacey sponsored an act that aimed to “protect the birds and animals in Yellowstone National Park, and to punish crimes in said park, and for other purposes.” The act passed, giving Yellowstone the legal backing it needed to go after poachers with more than a slap on the wrist.

Getting burgled by the likes of James must have really ticked Lacey off, because he didn’t stop there. Six years later he set his sights on another, broader law that would protect wildlife across the country. And it’s this piece of legislation, the Lacey Act of 1900, that nabbed the puma poachers of the present day.

Congressman John F. Lacey circa 1903
Credit: Library of Congress

The Lacey Act basically makes it unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase fish, birds, and other wildlife from any state, tribal territory, or foreign nation where doing so is prohibited. That may sound a little redundant, but the act closed a very real loophole that allowed enterprising poachers to sell animal parts by the wagonload by simply taking that wagon elsewhere.

Take egrets, those great white wading birds of the American South. Around Lacey’s time, the fashion industry was hammering egrets and many other bird populations for their plumage to decorate the hats of fancy ladies. (Marie Antoinette is said to have inspired the trend.) Many states realized the problem and enacted laws to protect their birds from being sold. But a law against selling egrets in Florida couldn’t protect the birds from being transported somewhere else where the egret trade was legal. And that’s where the Lacey Act came in. According to the new law, people were expressly forbidden from knowingly trafficking in or receiving animals or animal products (say, feathers) deemed illegal where they originated.

And Lacey is still sticking it to poachers today. Not only does his act punish scofflaws like the Shameless Six for trapping and maiming big cats for sport, but it helps us make sure animal populations are being maintained properly. States spend a ton of money studying their wildlife, and poachers throw all of that science out of whack.

“Well-regulated, well-researched wildlife management is very clearly the best way to conserve populations,” LaRue says, “but in order to do that we need disincentives to cheat the system, and that’s what the Lacey Act [and other legislation like it] does.”

But wait, there’s more! The Lacey Act also helps regulate the import and transportation of various species that cause problems outside their natural habitat, such as large constrictor snakes like reticulated pythons and green anacondas. The law also helps protect native species from the spread of foreign contagions, such as chytrid, a fungus that’s currently decimating amphibian populations. In 2008, the Lacey Act was even amended to include plants, which is what gave the government grounds to raid a Gibson Guitar plant under the suspicion that the company had been illegally importing Madagascan ebony and mahogany.

And to think, all of this has been able to happen because some schmuck robbed the wrong stagecoach way back in 1887. Thanks, William James, though you knew not what you wrought.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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