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What Is Yellowstone’s “Zone of Death”?

What Is Yellowstone’s “Zone of Death”?

Like most people, you probably don’t know about the Yellowstone zone of death.

It sounds like something out of scary movies, but it’s a real place. 

Keep reading to learn all about the zone of death, including its location and whether or not you should avoid it. 

Let’s dig in!

What is the Yellowstone Zone of Death?

Yellowstone National Park spans 2.2 million acres in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Inside the Idaho portion of the park, a 50 square mile area (32,000 acres) has an interesting legal loophole. 

The sixth amendment of the constitution has precise rules regarding juries. Federal criminal cases must have juries made up of citizens from both the district and state where the accused committed the crime. 

However, in the zone of death, the only citizens are elk and grizzlies. Due to this, a jury could not be assembled, which means that a person could commit a serious crime such as kidnapping or murder without legal ramifications. 

Brian C. Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University, discovered the loophole. He published his findings in a 2005 essay to encourage the government to fix the loophole. Idaho legislator Colin Nash continues the fight, pushing for federal district court jurisdiction for the Idaho section of Yellowstone. 

Pro Tip: Avoid the Zone of Death by using these tips on How to Spend a Day in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park scenic image with tourists taking photos.
Yellowstone draws in many tourists each year, but should they fear the Zone of Death?

Can the Loophole Really Be Used?

In 2005 a man named Mike Belderrain illegally shot an elk in the Montana area of Yellowstone. Belderrain’s lawyer claimed that he couldn’t be prosecuted because he needed a trial jury of Montana residents from within the park. There are technically enough people to make up a jury. However, it would be difficult to assemble them.

In the end, a judge denied Belderrain’s request. The judge ruled that Belderrain’s crime, committed in Yellowstone, would be tried in Wyoming with a jury made up of Wyoming residents. Additionally, this ruling suggests that other judges could make a similar decision for other severe crimes committed in the Zone of Death. 

Has Anyone Died in Yellowstone’s Zone of Death?

To date, no one has died in the Zone of Death. However, every time there is a high-profile disappearance in the area, theories about the loophole start showing up in the media. 

Most recently, the disappearance of Gabby Petitio in 2021 sparked interest in investigating the Zone of Death. Petito made one of her last calls to her family from the Grand Teton National Park, just two hours outside Yellowstone. 

Pro Tip: Want to camp in Yellowstone? Make sure to use these 5 Yellowstone Camping Hacks on your next trip.

Should I Be Worried About the Yellowstone Zone of Death?

The short answer is no. Remember, Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres, and the Zone of Death is only 32,000 acres of hard-to-reach wilderness. 

The likelihood of being kidnapped, killed, and disposed of in that specific area is very low. And, as we saw with the illegal elk shooting, it’s unlikely that a judge would allow such a crime to go unprosecuted. 

In general, you’re more likely to drown, get into a vehicular crash, or fall and slip in a national park than to die at the hands of a murderer. That’s not to suggest that you ignore common-sense safety concerns. Always report suspicious activity, be aware of your surroundings and others, and leave if anything just feels off. 

Boy looking at bison at Yellowstone
32,000 acres of hard-to-reach wilderness make up the Zone of Death.

Has the Zone of Death Been in Movies or TV?

In 2016 Adam Levins directed Population Zero, a crime thriller film about the Zone of Death. The movie was shot in a documentary style and told the story of a fictitious 2009 triple homicide in Yellowstone. The murderer confessed to the shootings. 

However, his lawyer used the loophole, and his client never gets prosecuted. After years of the murderer walking free, a documentarian begins investigating the murders, searching for evidence, and questioning why he’s a free man. 

There’s a TV show, Yellowstone, about a fictional family that lives on a cattle ranch in the Montana section of the park. The series premiered in 2018 and stars Kevin Costner as the patriarch of the Dutton family. 

The Duttons own the six-generation ranch bordering Broken Rock Indian Reservation and land developers. There are constant attacks and drama between the Duttons and their enemies. 

Violence escalates, and the Dutton family kills and dumps their enemies’ bodies in a lawless zone they call the “train station.” Bringing someone to the “train station” means taking them to the Zone of Death.

The Yellowstone Zone of Death

What, at first glance, seems like a bit of fiction is, instead, a bizarre loophole that the government ignores. Do you think it’s the place for a perfect murder or someplace that’s safe to ignore? Let us know in the comments. 

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Joanne M. McCracken

Monday 14th of March 2022

There is a mystery novel by C.J. Box titled "Free Fire" that uses the constitutional anomaly as an intricate part of the story. An excellent mystery as are all his books. He has taken time to explain why this loophole may work. Also, the law review article that you mention is worth reading. I used the novel and the law review articles as a basis for part of a final in my Legal Research and Writing class one semester.

Michael Grooms

Saturday 12th of March 2022

Been thru the area.

Ken VanHook

Thursday 10th of March 2022

Are you sure the first photo of tourists taking photos is in Yellowstone? It looks more like the Grand Tetons.

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