JURIST PRUDENCE Park judge's job includes punishing stupid tourist tricks


YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- U.S. Magistrate Steven Cole often works seven days a week. And not just as judge, but as his own secretary, clerk, court recorder and bailiff in what may be smallest courtroom in the West.

The 48-year-old federal judge's sole jurisdiction is Yellowstone.

The only federal judge to live in and oversee a national park, Judge Cole is only the fourth magistrate in the past 100 years of park history.

His docket is routinely crowded with drunken-driving and drug-related cases, since serious felony cases such as rape and murder are transferred to the U.S. District Court in Cheyenne.

But there are unusual crimes as well, the kind that could happen only within Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres: geyser vandalism, elk horn collecting, poaching on federal parklands and amateur photographers who pester park bison.

In one recent case, a tourist was fined a few hundred dollars for tossing hunks of dry ice into the Giantess Geyser to make it erupt, which it did. A few years ago, Judge Cole fined another man for tossing chunks of a wooden desk into Old Faithful just to watch them get burped out.

These and wildlife harassment cases have convinced Judge Cole "not to expect a heck of a lot from human nature."

"I've seen people try to pet elk on the nose; that's really stupid, because they can really hurt you," he said. "And every year we get people stomped into strawberry jam for trying to put their arm around a bison for a photograph."

Judge Cole has little patience with repeat offenders who persist in defiling geyser formations or stealing park resources such as shed elk antlers, which fetch on average $6 a pound for uses that include trophy mounts, jewelry and medicinal remedies.

Chronic violators can expect hefty fines, even banishment from the park.

Judge Cole is a descendant of Wyoming cow punchers. In 1974, the then-lawyer and ardent fisherman first learned that Yellowstone had its own magistrate.

"At first I wondered, 'What . . . does a judge do in Yellowstone?' " he recalled. "Then I thought, 'Well, he probably fly-fishes a lot. I better keep my eye on that job.' "

That paid off in the summer of 1980, when then-Magistrate James Brown became ill and temporary replacements were RTC needed to handle his docket. Judge Cole volunteered.

A few months later, he succeeded Judge Brown, who retired after 30 years on the job.

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