Law Enforcement

Law enforcement within Yellowstone is provided by a compliment of rangers.  The Chief Ranger is based at park headquarters in Mammoth, and has several components of park operations that report to him/her. Officially, the Chief Ranger is the head of the Resource and Visitor Protection Branch.  Two Deputy Chief Rangers work for the Chief, one of whom is responsible for managing field operations and the other who is responsible for managing support operations.

Resource & Visitor Protection Org Chart

The Deputy in charge of Field Operations is responsible for managing the law enforcement rangers most visitors see patrolling the park.   Yellowstone rangers have exclusive jurisdiction over all park territory, but have mutual aid arrangement with many city, county, and state law enforcement agencies to provide cross-jurisdictional assistance if the need arises.  The field rangers are first responders and are responsible for investigating crimes, motor vehicle accidents, complaints of misbehavior and damage to park resources, etc., not unlike any other police department.

Yellowstone is divided into seven Ranger Districts, as depicted in the following map.  Each has a primary ranger station and one or more substations.

Yellowstone Ranger Districts

Each District Ranger is responsible for all law enforcement and visitor/resource protection operations within that district.  The District Ranger typically has several other rangers who work for him/her, each of which is a certified law enforcement officer.  Many also have training in high-angle and other technical rescue operations, emergency medical care, wilderness search and rescue, water rescue, and a variety of other special operations.  Some are also trained firefighters and respond on structural fire calls as well.

Yellowstone park ranger boat

The seven Ranger Districts are subdivided into thirteen subdistricts:

  • The Mammoth District, based at the Old USACE Building in Mammoth.
  • The Lamar River District, based at the Buffalo Ranch, and includes the Northeast subdistrict (based at the Northeast Entrance Station) and the Tower subdistrict (based at the Tower Junction Ranger Station).
  • The Canyon District, based at the Canyon Emergency Services Building, and includes the Norris Subdistrict (based at the Norris Ranger Station).
  • The Lake District, based at the Lake Ranger Station, and includes the East Subdistrict (based at the East Entrance Station).
  • The Snake River District, based at the South Entrance Station, and includes the Grant Subdistrict (based at the Grant Emergency Services Building).
  • The Old Faithful District, based at the Old Faithful Ranger Station across from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge (there is also a field ranger station at Madison).
  • The West District, based at the West Entrance Station, and includes the Bechler Subdistrict (based at the Bechler Ranger Station).  The West District has responsibility for U.S. 191 as it passes through the northwest corner of the park.

Support Operations

The Deputy Chief for Support Operations oversees the variety of functions that provide support to the daily law enforcement and emergency services operations within the park.

  • Visitor Services:  The rangers and others who provide the initial contact with visitors at the Entrance Stations.
  • Structural Fire Branch:  Includes the Structural Fire Chief, the mechanic, the fire inspectors, and the volunteers who comprise the various fire departments throughout the park.
  • Wildland Fire Protection Branch:  Includes the Fire Management Officer and the various personnel who provide wildland fire protection services throughout the park.
  • Law Enforcement Services Branch:  Includes a criminal investigator and a support assistant.
  • EMS/YCC Ranger, who oversees field medical operations and the Youth Conservation Corps.
  • The Communications Center, which provides the 24/7 communications and dispatch operations for the park.
  • Corral Operations, which houses, feeds, and cares for the horses and other stock used by the ranger staff.
  • Trails Operations, which maintains safety of the various trails throughout the park.
  • Back Country Office, which coordinates backcountry campsite permitting and other functions.

Law Enforcement in Yellowstone

Yellowstone has its own jail, court, and magistrate, all of which are housed in the new Yellowstone Justice Center opened in 2006. The new Center includes a courtroom, judge’s chambers, interview rooms, ante room, temporary holding facility (four cells), law enforcement offices, administrative support spaces, and evidence and records storage areas, and a sallyport for loading/unloading prisoners.  In the event the NPS has more prisoners than they can accommodate at the Justice Center, they have an agreement with the West Yellowstone Police Department to house prisoners there temporarily if necessary.

An FBI Special Agent is assigned to Yellowstone as well to provide investigatory assistance for crimes that are beyond the scope of those handled on a daily basis by the park’s staff (i.e., homicide, rape, etc.).

Crimes committed in Yellowstone National Park are federal offenses, and the park falls under the jurisdiction of the District of Wyoming federal court, which is part of the 10th Judicial Circuit of the United States, with an assigned U.S. Magistrate. The Judge at Yellowstone is responsible for all initial appearances on all federal cases (misdemeanor and felony) originating in Yellowstone and for all trials, motions, and sentencing hearings in misdemeanor cases. All such procedures must be conducted within the District of Wyoming.

NPS park rangers and special agents have the authority and responsibility to enforce all federal and state laws within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. This includes judicial security, transport and housing for federal prisoners, and execution/service of federal arrest warrants.  While the NPS is responsible for providing a holding facility and transport of prisoners prior to their initial appearance before the U.S. Magistrate, after their initial appearance, federal prisoners are the responsibility of the U.S. Marshals Service.

The U.S. Marshals Service has statutory authority for security of the federal judiciary, transportation and detention of federal defendants, service of federal arrest warrants, and apprehension of federal fugitives. The U.S. Marshals Service has been assisting YNP rangers and agents with judicial security, prisoner housing and transport, and service of federal warrants since 2003.

Search and Rescue

Park rangers constitute the bulk of the search and rescue (SAR) capability within Yellowstone as well, with most rangers having been trained in wildland rescue techniques, water rescue, and many having specialized training (such as high-angle technical rescue).  The park maintains a dedicated SAR rescue vehicle, and has an agreement with Grand Teton National Park for the use of their helicopter-based rescue team if necessary.

A Yellowstone National Park ambulance. (Photo by Leah Collins)