What Is the Yellowstone Zone of Death?

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A map of Yellowstone National Park

Many of us have been to Yellowstone National Park. And travelers who haven’t made it to Wyoming yet usually have this park on their bucket list. But have you ever heard of the Yellowstone Zone of Death?

It’s not a thermal feature of the park or a place where visitors have frequently died. It’s a loophole in the Constitution that could have disastrous consequences if not addressed.

However, legislators don’t seem to care too much about dealing with this potential problem. Let’s look at the Yellowstone Zone of Death and learn more about what it is, how it was discovered, and what’s being done (or not done) about it. Let’s dive in!

Where Is Yellowstone National Park?

Yellowstone National Park is America’s first national park. Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park stretches across the borders of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Gardiner, Montana, is the gateway to Yellowstone from the north.

You can also enter the park from West Yellowstone, Montana, in the west or Highway 212 in the northeast. Or you can enter from North Fork Highway in the east and Grand Teton National Park from the south along South Entrance Road. 

The distance from Grant Visitor Center in South Yellowstone to the Colter Bay Visitor Center in Grand Teton National Park is about 40 miles.

A sign for Yellowstone National Park

How Big Is Yellowstone National Park?

Yellowstone National Park is one of the largest national parks in the Lower 48. Death Valley National Park in California is the largest at 3.4 million acres. It’s also the hottest, driest, and lowest place in the country. 

Yellowstone is second, covering 2.2 million acres. Everglades National Park in Florida protects 1.5 million acres of wetlands, the largest tropical wilderness in the country.

The heavyweight champion of all the national parks is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. No other park compares to its 13.2 million acres. In fact, Alaska is home to five of the top six largest national parks in the United States.

What Is Yellowstone Known For?

When you think of Yellowstone National Park, you probably imagine Old Faithful erupting or the dazzling colors of Grand Prismatic Spring. Regardless of which feature comes to mind, many associate Yellowstone with its more than 10,000 hydrothermal features. 

You’ll find approximately 500 geysers here, the largest concentration of geysers in the world. Wherever you visit the park, you’ll see hot springs, geysers, mud pots, and fumaroles.

Many also know Yellowstone National Park for its wildlife. Elk, bison, and bighorn sheep freely roam. You’ve probably seen photos of traffic stopped for a bison crossing. 

Yellowstone is home to the largest free-roaming wild herd of bison in the United States and one of the largest elk herds in North America. It’s also home to one of the few grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48. 

But the Yellowstone Zone of Death has nothing to do with boiling hot springs or charging bison.

View of Yellowstone National Park

What Is the Yellowstone Zone of Death?

So what does the Yellowstone Zone of Death have to do with Yellowstone National Park? Well, not much, really. The Yellowstone Zone of Death has more to do with its location inside the park.

It’s a 50-square-mile area in the Idaho section of western Yellowstone. The federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over Yellowstone National Park. However, in federal criminal cases, the district and state citizens make up the jury.

The problem is this part of the park has no residents. So should a person commit a crime in this zone, the court couldn’t have a jury of district and state residents. 

Because the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury, someone can’t be legally punished because of the inability to receive a constitutional trial.

Pro Tip: If you want to camp in Yellowstone National Park, you’ll need to reserve your camping spot in advance! Check out these Yellowstone Camping Reservation secrets you need to know.

When Was the Yellowstone Zone of Death Discovered?

Michigan State University law professor Brian C. Kalt discovered the Yellowstone Zone of Death. He was researching the technicalities of the Sixth Amendment and found this constitutional loophole. 

When he realized this 50-square-mile swatch of Yellowstone National Park existed, he shifted the focus of his essay. Instead, he attempted to persuade the government to fix this potential problem.

In 2005, Kalt published “The Perfect Crime” essay in the Georgetown Law Journal. Two years later, author C. J. Box wrote a novel called “Free Fire” to bring even more attention to the Yellowstone Zone of Death. To date, no one has done anything to fix this constitutional loophole.

Has Anyone Committed a Felony in the Yellowstone Zone of Death?

Thankfully, no known felonies have occurred in the Yellowstone Zone of Death. But this doesn’t mean future crimes won’t occur there. 

In 2005, Michael Belderrain illegally shot an elk in the Montana section of the national park. He tried to claim the Zone of Death related to his case, but the court dismissed his argument. In 2008, he received four years of jail time for three felony charges.

Is Anything Being Done to Close the Yellowstone Zone of Death?

In 2022, Representative Colin Nash, a Democrat from Boise, sponsored House Joint Memorial No. 3. This legislation asked Congress to “close this potential legal loophole by amending United States Code and placing the portion of Yellowstone National Park located in Idaho under the jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the District of Idaho.”

If this passed, criminals could receive legal and constitutional prosecution by eliminating the need for a jury of peers from that part of Idaho where no one lives. Up to this point, Congress has taken no action to close this loophole in the Yellowstone Zone of Death.

Keep in Mind: Can National Park Rangers Arrest You? Let’s find out!

Will Government Officials Fix This Loophole in Yellowstone National Park?

Government officials seem too busy working on more important issues to deal with the Yellowstone Zone of Death. One Senator, Jim Risch from Idaho, had his press secretary respond to the topic. 

She said the Republican wasn’t aware of the loophole but wasn’t concerned since it’s such a small area of Idaho. Even if someone committed a crime there, the state could prosecute.

However, Brian Kalt, the law professor who discovered the loophole, explained that this wasn’t true since crimes committed in Yellowstone National Park are under the sole jurisdiction of the federal government. 

Kalt went on to say in a news report, “I feel like I’ve done what I can to prevent this; the blood will be on the government’s hands.”

So will legislation be passed to eliminate the Yellowstone Zone of Death? Although individuals believe this needs to be taken care of, it doesn’t appear that a large enough group of government officials think this loophole is significant. 

Only time will tell if a criminal action will occur here and what will be done about it.

Have you ever heard of the Yellowstone Zone of Death?

  1. No one really knew about this section of the park until recently. But really,there is no reason to freak out. It’s not like it’s in the middle of Manhattan.

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