A modern cowboy, but without the stereotypical bowed legs and lid of chaw in his back pocket, Bob “Action” Jackson has settled down on his little Yellowstone on the south fork of the Chariton River near Promise City, Iowa.
Bison graze in the shade of a spreading oak savanna. Some of the trees have been growing for over 300 years. Around 150 years ago, stagecoaches left ruts still visible on Jackson’s land.
Before retirement, he chased outlaws on horseback with a .44 Magnum on his hip and a lever-action .45-70 Marlin rifle holstered in an old military saddle scabbard. Jackson caught and convicted many of those poachers, but he believes a few were shielded by some of the most powerful men in the world.
“You needed a hot round that worked for both people and grizzlies,” Jackson said. But it was impossible to meet that requirement in one casing. Therefore, he chose big bores with jacked-up loads. “A 405-grain bullet going 1,850 feet per second—that’s a huge amount of lead going pretty fast, to go with a 305-grain .44 round traveling 1,350 feet per second.
“And with those Louis Lamour reading, horse traveling bad guys, they’d charge at you if they didn’t know who you were as a ranger. You’re on foot, and they’d charge, reins whipping that horse, and it’d be just like on the baseball mound. You’d wait until they got right to you, and then you sidestepped them.”
Anywhere else in the United States, that would constitute assault on a federal officer. However, with prosecuting attorneys who had difficulty distinguishing between movies and real life, the waters of morality got muddied. Regardless of how an outfitter viewed Jackson, usually as an obstacle between overfed road hunters and a rack, they could never say he did not firmly believe in the difference between right and wrong.
Growing up seven miles south of Fort Dodge on a farm, the high school yearbook dubbed Jackson and his brothers the Great White Hunters.
In 1982, the family and their bison moved to Wayne County, where one of the brothers often traveled to hunt.
At the apex, the family has worked 500 bison. They attempt to balance their herd at around 250 to 300. Jackson’s son Scott helps him farm and sell starter herds and the buffalo meat, providing the family’s income.
Both Scott and his sister Sunni graduated from Seymour Community High School. Scott and Jackson’s stepson, Travis Wyman, graduated from ISU. Before that, Wyman was a standout pitcher for powerhouse San Diego State and went on to become a park biologist at Yellowstone.
Scott earned a history degree but would prefer to stay in Wayne County.
Out of college, Jackson had the opportunity to sign as a left-handed pitcher with the Minnesota Twins. He settled for free season tickets while playing basketball and baseball for Bethel College in St. Paul, before moving on to ISU, where he chose studying wildlife over athletics.
“My dad had a regular ballpark, so to speak,” Jackson said. “A large yard with backstops and wire mesh and my own pitching mound. All the neighbor boys would come over and play baseball at our diamond. That continued here with Travis. He was methodical. I helped Seymour head coach Rich Choponis with the pitchers, Travis and Tyson Pershy. We’d have them throwing knuckleballs instead of curveballs, which are hard on a teenager’s arm. The other teams never figured it out. Their coaches would yell, ‘wait for the ball,’ because the kids would swing all the way around before it crossed the plate.”
Sunni is a landscape architect in the South Pacific. Their mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease when the children were young.
That was one half of Jackson’s life. The rest of the year, he chased down outlaws, occasionally with the help of Scott and Sunni, a decision he sometimes regrets because of the danger in which it placed them. Outlets such as The Washington Post, National Geographic, National Public Radio, and even across the Atlantic on the BBC, have told Jackson’s prodigious tale. It appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.
“Originally, most of the publications were in the mountain states, and had to do with poachers I’d catch in Yellowstone,” Jackson said. “The park service would publicize—I was like the star employee they’d use to say, ‘poaching’s going on,’ so they’d get more money from Congress.”
Jackson worked a part of Yellowstone Park called the Thorofare, which was farther from any road than any location in the lower 48 states. It is as wild as the wilderness gets, yet the press still found him, sometimes to the chagrin of his supervisors.
“One time, I asked a photographer where he’d just been,” Jackson explained. “He said, ‘I just got done doing a photo of Russell Crowe in L.A., and I’m flying to New York right after here to shoot Snoop Dogg.’
“I said, ‘Snoop Dogg—who’s that?’”
Jackson has also been the subject of works of both fiction and nonfiction, the most notable being Hawks Rest by Gary Ferguson, which was named 2004 Book of the Year by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.
“Of all the characters in the Thorofare,” Ferguson wrote, “few deserve ink more than Bob.”
People have discussed making a movie based on his adventures, though Jackson’s tale is not always the most pleasant, and not just because of all the bears.
“Some of the influential outfitters made sure they had THEIR game wardens,” Jackson said. “They would see to it those tainted game wardens were assigned to their neck of the woods. Those game wardens would never check that outfitter for violations. For years, this went on in those remote fat-cat hunting camps. Game wardens eating fresh, hot cherry pie in the outfitter cook tent and never once checking the guides, game or hunters licenses. Those same game wardens would also try to find out from me where my stakeout camps were, so they could alert that outfitter.
“But you kept on doing it, whether corrupt law enforcement was around you or not, because it was the only way you could. You went after poachers, and then you were the one who took care of all those horse-related injuries. I was the only law enforcement back there for 30 miles who could call in a helicopter if someone got kicked in the head by a horse.
“And any horse pounding its way to my cabin in the middle of the night meant getting out of bed quick, calling in horses, saddling up and then moving fast between five and 15 miles in the dark to assess that rider’s injuries. A horse good at night-riding was a must.”
On his rounds in the most isolated region of the continental United States, Jackson experienced a life of gruesome images, more than he ever cared to witness. It made for nightmares, no matter how prepared a ranger was for those scenes. Some had been mauled to death by grizzly bears. Others were murder victims covered in branches and left to carrion.
“It was like the Wild West,” Jackson said. “Everyone packed a .44 with an extra leather belt hung over their saddle horn and carried a rifle in their scabbard. It was a recipe that translated into what you see in the movies.”
Though he never had to shoot a man or a bear, there was no doubt which species was more dangerous.
“I still have deputy sheriffs who call me up on cold cases. About every third year, someone would get murdered back there, or they’d never find them again. They’d take a ‘friend,’ supposedly, back there to hunt, they’d shoot them at the end of fall, and then the bears would eat them, and there’d be no sign of them ever again. That was a great place to kill people.
“We had situations where you had to be really armed going in.
“Every cabin had a M1 Garand and a pump 12-gauge shotgun. If there was another ranger in the area, you gave him a 12-gauge, told him to stand by a tree 40 yards from the bad guys, and never say a word for whatever time it took to get confessions and guns away from them. Sometimes it meant that ranger stayed put for hours. The bad guys didn’t know if he was a green horn or seasoned ranger, as long as nothing came out of that guy’s mouth.”
Then there were the grizzlies—and bears off the beaten path are much more dangerous. It was their turf. But to catch outlaws, that is where Jackson roamed.
“You had to be quiet, waiting for poachers to come down the game trail after I heard shots. Even though my dominate horse never whinnied, I still tied him a quarter-of-a-mile away during those tense times—my horse would not whinny, but the poachers’ horses might. Then all I heard was the sound of horses crashing down through timber.
“But being quiet, in the dark and waiting for hours behind a tree or cliff meant the grizzly bears would get surprised. I’ve had my scalp move four different times because of grizzlies, they were so close, and you’d hear a big, ‘woof,’ and if you’re within 25 feet of Mr. Griz when you surprise him like that, you’ve got a 50 percent chance he’s coming at you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a .44 Magnum or a rifle ready—you won’t have a chance to use them.
“Every time you’d stay in a cabin at night, you’d have your pistol and extra ammo, your rifle, a flashlight and an axe. And every night after the Coleman lantern was turned off, you practiced reaching for that gun. This went on for 30 years.
“People ask, ‘Why the axe?’
“Because what happens when a griz tries to get in your cabin? If you wake to smashed glass going all over your floor or bed, or the screen door ripping open, then the door or window entry is next. You don’t try to shoot him in the cabin—you’ve got to get out of the cabin, so that’s what the axe is for. On most of my cabins, I installed inch rebar on those window openings, and heavy bolt sliders on the door. Before that, other rangers would prop a shovel against the door, digging it in deep into the floor, and holding on for dear life.
“Every night, the same way if you’re on stakeout camps, you drink a bunch of water so you can urinate around the tent walls, and put a bunch of brush against the outside so the bear can’t get too close. Then, when you hear them huffing and moving around the tent, circling at night, snapping that brush five feet from you, you follow it with your gun, just in case it rips into the tent.
“Most rangers didn’t want to go off the trail or camp out because of legitimate fears. One fall, we had eight grizzlies killed by charging hunters, and four guides and hunters mauled down in my country.
“And when my poacher carcass patrol was just inside the line, all those meat-stuffed griz knew where they could sleep undisturbed. Inside the Park. They’d day bed in tall grass. The only way to keep from getting mauled or thrown off a horse in those situations was to have a very good horse, one with few manners. And for my part it was always toe tips and very light reins. Waiting for the explosion of bear and horse. My horse would sense those sleeping griz and abruptly make a 50-yard half circle. Then get on with the route of travel. In one day’s patrol on the boundary, my horse might make four or five diversions like this. He was the horse that kept you alive.
“If you go out of the cabin at dark, you always bang on the door to make sure you don’t have a grizzly checking out your porch. Those cabin doors and frames were full of claw rips and canine teeth an inch or two deep. One time, I rode into one of my cabins at night and the bear had made a Dutch door out of the heavy barn door. Two by twelves z-patterned, and bolts going through everything. Blacksmithed hinges anchored in solid logs.
“Going to the outhouse was like watching for Indians. You shine your light around, keep yelling “here bear” and with your lever action you go your 50 yards to the outhouse, and you make it back every night. For my kids it was the same thing. Except I would be the one carrying the gun and flashlight.
“Then, every morning, it’s such a beautiful morning.”
“Basically, I was saying the outfitters were putting salt to draw elk out of Yellowstone. That is illegal in the forest service wilderness areas. And after my case, Wyoming legislature made it illegal anywhere in the state. Why so honorable? Because those eastern American fat cats didn’t want to hunt over baited fields. The outfitters were losing clients.
“One outfitter, who happened to be friends with Dick Cheney, was packing in up to 2,000 pounds of illegal salt by pack horse 35 miles into the wilderness. With all the elk being drawn out, you had a lot of elk killed—300 in a 12-mile length within a mile of the boundary with Yellowstone. It was like a salmon-run griz feeding frenzy. Bears were travelling 20 miles from interior Yellowstone to get to Mecca.
“The outfitters didn’t want to take all the meat out. They’d take the skull plate and horns and leave the rest of the meat until morning, and of course by then the bears were on it.
“In some of the larger camps were strings of 200 horses and mules. And with 16 to 20 hunters rotating in every six to eight days, and maybe eight guides, camp bosses, wranglers, packers and other camp help, those camps reminded me of the old gold rush pictures. It was the Wild West.
“Competing camps getting in big fights with each other. Horses being run to the trailheads. Camps and shoeing equipment busted up if a camp was ever left unattended. The guides from one camp would drink the Old Yellowstone whiskey, then defecate on the other camp’s guide’s beds. Real classy folk. And the hunters? They were lost in a land with no way out except by being packed out by that outfitter. In that environment I was the only law down there, so far away from any help. But also protected being a federal officer. They threatened to shoot me, but never did.”
In turn, bears scavenged the elk carcasses, making fatal encounters with humans more likely. It is not just a matter of senseless slaughter. It is an issue of safety for the thousands of tourists who visit Yellowstone Park every year. A habituated bear, one who associates food with humans, whether over an elk carcass or an ice chest in a Yellowstone campground, meant that bear was eventually a dead bear.
“I’d write a report for the pre-hunt interagency meeting we held each year and tell them what was happening in the backcountry, which was not good. I’d be staying back there sometimes six months a year, and the closest you’d get to a road was 19-and-a-half miles. I had six cabins I’d patrol out of, up to 2,000 square miles I’d cover every year, and of course half of this was dangerous off-the-trail travel.
“In the patrols you did on these people, it was just like in the Western movies. They’d go up the streams on horseback—everything up there was horseback. According to the L.A. Times, who researched it, I probably traveled more miles on a horse than anyone in the United States, almost 80,000 miles. In the summer, I had my kids with me. In retrospect I don’t know if I’d have them in that environment again. It’s dangerous being around horses all the time. An adventure for sure, but we were lucky.
“I’d get them out of there when summer ended, because fall was all guns and wild running horses, and I’d be tracking poachers. They’d come out of the streams maybe a mile in. A couple of times, I had actual rundowns, flat-out your horse chasing the bad guys. You don’t want that type of confrontation. It meant I was ill-prepared. But it happened. Flip the packhorse lead rope over his pack and take off. Once they get to the trees you don’t keep going, because you can’t see them anymore and they can shoot you. That is what is different than the movies.
“The park service didn’t really know what was happening back there, so you pretty much had to do it on your own. The support of the infrastructure was a big help, but as far as people understanding what was happening and what the danger was….
“I had my horses poisoned two different times. The outfitters would put porcupine quills in the mule’s roll spots, so they’d come up with those quills on them. For 20 years, any time you’d come in after dark into a cabin, you’d always have to sift through the dust of roll spots to make sure no one had covered over them with porcupine quills.
“It’s an area of high testosterone, everybody had .44s, everybody had high-powered rifles, everybody had horses, and it was way in the boonies. For me it was the real world, but unfortunately for many of the drugstore cowboy guides, and roll-your-own cigs camp bosses, it was a Walter Mitty world.
“There were a lot more cases I could’ve had for poaching. If they didn’t know what they were doing and got lost, I wouldn’t charge them. But for the heavy hitters—every one of them, except for one outfitter who was a pathological liar, one who I caught twice, once with an elk and another time when he poached a mountain lion—everyone would break down in the back country.
“And they’d cry.
“Then you’d get out your little government pocket notebook and ask them to write it down. And if the paper got too wet you’d tear off that page and ask them to start over. You’d get the confessions. It wasn’t like you were trying to make them cry, but it was such a stress situation that finally they’d break down.
“They all hated you two weeks after that, because they’re identity with their buddies—being able to poach in Yellowstone—was shattered.”
To be continued in Part Two, the tale of how Senator Charles Grassley came to Action Jackson’s aid after he tangled with a buddy of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s, and almost lost.