The Truth About Yellowstone's Zone Of Death

So we all know about those disturbing Purge movies, right? One night a year when any crime is okay, even murder, in order to "purge" the frustrations of a pent-up citizenry? So what if, just for discussion's sake, there was a place where folks could purge 365 days a year? Provided, at least, someone wandered willy-nilly into their 50-square-mile patch of government-owned wilderness.  

Enter Yellowstone Park: America's gorgeous, untamed, geologically diverse, geothermically active home to elk, bison, grizzly bears, the geyser Old Faithful, and of course, Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo (per the National Parks Service). What better place to bump into a sociopath while hiking or camping and possibly disappearing, as Outside Online relates has happened to 1,600 other people across multiple national parks? But at least Yellowstone has an excuse for people dying within its borders: it has a "Zone of Death."

See, Yellowstone rests at the intersection of three states: Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Most of it, though, as UNESCO points out, is in Wyoming, at 96 percent, with 3 percent in Montana and 1 percent in Idaho. The whole park, though, has fallen under Wyoming's jurisdiction as a federally-owned land since 1872. Per the Sixth Amendment, any federal crime committed within the tiny Idaho portion of the park would have to be settled by jurors from that portion, as Atlas Obscura explains, plus jurors from the federally-owned Wyoming part. The catch? This is impossible because there are no legal inhabitants in the Idaho portion of the park.

At least unprosecutable murder sprees can't happen in Montana or Wyoming

So how could this have happened to begin with? Well, as the hunting site The Meat Eater says, the federal government bought the land and made it into a park before Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho were states. Estimates for the states' boundaries were imprecise, and when Congress created the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming in 1890, they just plunked all of Yellowstone's legal purview into Wyoming's lap. Or, as Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt published in his 2005 article "The Perfect Crime" (readable on Digital Commons), "It must have seemed too much trouble to divide Yellowstone between Wyoming and two other districts, especially when crime was rampant in the park and going unpunished." 

As Vox explains, this whole nonsense, thanks to book reader and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), finally caught the attention of the Department of Justice in 2007 following the release of Free Fire by C.J. Box, a thriller that utilizes the "Zone of Death" as a plot mechanic. The response? It's a mere "harmless error," which Kalt explains as, "[I]t would create a new and unwelcome burden if environmentalists could use this foothold to challenge the Park Service's management decisions in the liberal and quirky Ninth Circuit." Yay, politics.

Thankfully, though, unprosecutable murder sprees can't happen in the rest of the park because about 2,000 people live in the Wyoming part, and about 40 (low, yikes) in the Montana part.