All the gun-toting cops from Idaho’s most visible federal agencies could fit comfortably into a local pub.
A few could even bring friends.
Despite their small numbers, weapons-carrying government agents in Idaho increasingly are under fire from politicians and residents fearful of what Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has deemed “an armed federal entity.”
Many of the few gun-carrying officers stationed here suspect residents would be surprised at their numbers.
“They think we’re everywhere,” said an officer with the Bureau of Land Management. “It’s just not true.”
Tallies from 16 agencies show fewer than 150 pistol-packing federal government officers are stationed in Idaho.
That’s less than the number of police and sheriff’s deputies patrolling Kootenai County. It’s also less than the number of armed U.S. Customs officers in neighboring Washington.
In fact, there are more than 900 armed federal cops in Washington, not including prison authorities and members of the U.S. Border Patrol.
Yet it’s the role of federal cops in Idaho that has become controversial since the 1992 siege on Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge cabin.
In recent months, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM have joined the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Idaho’s federal agent hot seat.
Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, promised in March to demand federal agents get permission from local sheriffs before wearing their sidearms in Idaho.
Sen. Craig in April questioned whether land and wildlife departments should have their own law enforcement arms at all. He said residents grow fearful when they see forest workers packing handguns.
Craig has said he supports cops. But his remarks frustrated and angered those connected with federal and state law enforcement.
Paul Weyland, a special agent with Fish and Wildlife, was criticized for his handling of a wolf-shooting investigation last spring. Weyland and fellow agents were accused of intimidating residents and failing to contact the local sheriff before investigating. Weyland, however, said there was no violence and he was just doing his job.
“All this talk from the politicians just riles people up for no reason,” he said.
Recent anti-federal agent talk also riled Barbara Jacobson, widow of Forest Service officer Brent “Jake” Jacobson, who was shot and killed in a shootout near Sandpoint in January 1989.
“Law enforcement is getting the shaft,” she said. “Maybe it’s time to let all the politicians go out there and enforce the law with their pencils.”
Even state game officials - who have spent years defending their police powers before the Legislature - are uneasy. In the wake of Chenoweth’s hearings in Boise in March, an association of the state’s 88 armed game officers is compiling statistics to show they have a good record.
“We are full-time, front-line peace officers; we work alone, we work at night, we stop suspicious vehicles,” said Steve Agte, with Idaho Fish and Game. “You wouldn’t get anybody to do this job if he wasn’t armed.”
Land and wildlife managers maintain their duties are seldom different from that of police officers.
“The clientele you get in a national forest is the same as it is outside the forest,” said Manuel Martinez, director of the Forest Service’s law enforcement division in Washington, D.C. “A lot of criminal activity is moving to forests.”
Idaho has 31 armed forest workers - equivalent to the number of Idaho agents from the FBI, ATF, Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration combined.
These forest cops patrol more than 20 million acres. They drive marked vehicles, investigate thefts and arsons, help fight poaching and often police drug traffickers, Martinez said. The agency employs about 680 armed cops.
Only one person in the past 20 years has been shot by a Forest Service agent in the line of duty, Martinez said.
The agency also assists other federal investigators and local sheriffs departments. Just last week, the Kootenai County Deputy Sheriff’s Association voted unanimously to show support for its current relationship with federal agents.
“We have no trouble cooperating the way things are now,” said Sgt. Dan Soumas, association president.