Former Top Park Service Officials Say Yellowstone Rangers Likely Saved Many Lives

Former top National Park Service officials told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that the response of Yellowstone Park rangers to a gunman threatening a mass shooting on July 4 likely saved many lives.

Clair McFarland

July 08, 20249 min read

Yellowstone law enforcement respond to an armed man on July 4, 2024, which ended in a shootout that killed the suspect and wounded a ranger.
Yellowstone law enforcement respond to an armed man on July 4, 2024, which ended in a shootout that killed the suspect and wounded a ranger. (Courtesy NPS Ranger News)

UPDATE: Yellowstone Gunman Was Firing Semiautomatic Weapon Toward Dining Area

Yellowstone National Park rangers likely saved a number of lives in an Independence Day shootout with a contract worker who reportedly took a woman hostage and threatened a mass shooting.

The man died and a ranger was hurt, but nobody else, which is a testament to the rangers who responded during the crisis, says a former top official of the National Park Service.  

Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner, 28, of Florida, was reportedly armed and making threats overnight Wednesday in Canyon Village in east-central Yellowstone.

Fussner was an employee of contract company Xanterra, which provides food and hotel services in the park.

A be-on-the-lookout notice from midnight or early morning Thursday said Fussner had taken a female hostage, had threatened to shoot up public places, and had threatened to commit suicide by cop.

At about 8 a.m. Thursday, anywhere between dozens and more than 100 gunshots sounded, according to four guests who spoke to Cowboy State Daily on Friday. After that, park authorities reported that a ranger had been injured and a person, now known as Fussner, was killed.

“(With reports of) dozens, if not hundreds, of shots being fired, the fact that nobody was killed except the shooter tells me the park rangers acted in a very heroic way,” Rob Wallace, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service, told Cowboy State Daily.

Wallace said he’s anxious to know the rest of the details of the incident, but reiterated that the facts made public so far paint a picture of a swift law-enforcement response.

“It wasn’t one of those Uvalde situations where law enforcement sat around for an hour trying to figure out what to do,” he said.

That Law Enforcement Support

Wallace was not the only career National Park Service employee to tip his hat to the Yellowstone force Monday.

Leading NPS law enforcement history expert Paul Berkowitz pointed to the rangers’ response as an example of sound management.

“I want to compliment the management at Yellowstone today,” said Berkowitz, who is also an award-winning author and a former NPS special agent with experience in multiple parks and Washington, D.C. “I think that because of the superintendent they have, Cam Sholly — who himself has a solid law enforcement background — I believe the rangers were supported in their law enforcement role and were given the resources they need to provide professional-level law enforcement.”

Berkowitz’s book “The Legacy of the Yosemite Mafia” confronts some officials’ urge to preserve a benign, hike-leader image of park rangers, though they often face dangerous situations in which law enforcement experience and standards are necessary.

He said rangers’ support as law enforcers can vary from park to park and from manager to manager, which has been a recurring critique of NPS.

“From everything I heard and saw, (the Yellowstone rangers’) response and their program there is probably as capable of any comparable size police or sheriff’s organization, and I think that’s a credit to the program Yellowstone has,” said Berkowitz.

  • Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner
    Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner (Facebook)
  • Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner, 28, of Florida has been identified as the man killed in a shootout with Yellowstone National Park rangers on the Fourth of July. He was a worker for park contractor Xanterra Travel Collection.
    Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner, 28, of Florida has been identified as the man killed in a shootout with Yellowstone National Park rangers on the Fourth of July. He was a worker for park contractor Xanterra Travel Collection. (Facebook)
  • Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner
    Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner (Facebook)
  • Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner
    Samson Lucas Bariah Fussner (Facebook)

Thorough Training

Before they can be commissioned as law enforcers, park rangers go through extensive training, Wallace said.

That training happens typically at the federal training center in Georgia and involves 720 hours of classroom work, followed by 12 weeks of field duty with experienced and certified rangers.

Some commissioned rangers take it a step further and train with the FBI to be part of a special response team, an onsite unit equipped to address hostage situations, active shooters or a “dynamic entry,” which consists of executing a search warrant or forcibly entering a structure.

Many rangers have multiple roles.

“Most of the people you see in parks, they’re certified park medics, skilled in whitewater rescue or structural fire, wildland fire,” said Wallace. “They’re even training … drone pilots now.”

The rangers’ emphases vary from park to park.

The Virgin Islands National Park, the Everglades and the Oregon Pipe Cactus National Monument are remote, which makes them vulnerable to drug-trafficking and other crimes prevalent along the southern U.S. border.

Wallace was in the Everglades in the late 1990s doing drug interdiction when he noticed the “bad guys had much better equipment” than the federal rangers, like fast boats and satellite tracking phones, he said.

Among other factors, that’s prompted authorities to bolster ranger law enforcement training and support over time.

State Lines And Unfazed Bison

National parks can span multiple states, so “commissioned,” or law-enforcing park rangers, have to know which state they’re in when they want to ticket or arrest someone and which laws apply, according to Greg Jackson, former deputy chief of the NPS division of law enforcement, security and emergency services, and who now runs NPS Park Ranger News.

Rangers also need know things like civil rights and proper policing.

“This is a very serious business,” said Jackson. “And if you’re going to detain people or arrest people you better have a darn good reason.”

Commissioned rangers learn how to drive in their respective terrains, deescalate tense situations, interview suspects and witnesses, and handcuff people, to list a few skills.

The training program can be an investment: there’s no guarantee the credential will transfer over to another agency like a metropolitan police department, said Jackson.

Despite the increasing law-enforcement approach, park policing is still unique from urban policing. Because the concessionaire workers remain for one or more seasons at a time, they’re recognizable from day to day. That makes it easier to track a worker-turned-suspect.

But tourists flood the parks each day as well; their features and ways are new each day, said Jackson.

Park rangers need to know more about poaching than most agents, and they may have to take gritty, commonsense actions like putting a truck-stricken bison out of its misery.

That can get silly if you don’t know how to do it, Jackson said. He recalled an incident from the 1980s, when a park ranger had to dispatch a bison. He chose a large-caliber weapon and shot the bison in its hump. The slug sank into a layer of fat and the bison merely looked at the ranger.

When the ranger shot the hump a second time and the bison didn’t sigh, spectators looked on like, “This is just really embarrassing,” said Jackson with a chuckle.

The Paradox Of Grandeur

Rangers work in some of the most beautiful environments on the planet. But they can’t melt into the grandeur, because they’re still duty-bound.

For some, the sights have borne crime scenes they can’t forget, said Jackson.

When Jackson worked as a Yosemite National Park ranger, he found he couldn’t relax until he took a vacation outside the park, the inverse of most tourists.

Humans don’t discard their problems at the edge of an earthly paradise, he said. They can bring their domestic stresses and their vices along with them. And some park guests are actual fugitives trying to vanish into a park’s remoteness, he said.

“It changes your perspective after you’ve seen this enough,” he said. “You realize, yes, even out here, bad things can happen.”

Yellowstone law enforcement on Thursday, July 4, 2024
Yellowstone law enforcement on Thursday, July 4, 2024 (Courtesy: NPS Ranger News)

Violence Nothing New

Human violence has been happening in national parks for more than 100 years, Berkowitz said.

His book “U.S. Rangers, The Law Of The Land” traces ranger-involved shootings going back to the early 1900s.

His research refutes a 2016 NPS Centennial publication placing the first NPS ranger-involved shooting in the 1970s, he added.

Berkowitz said the public is often shocked when violent scenes unfold in national parks not because they don’t happen, but because for decades those scenes weren’t well-documented.

The reasons for that stem from the isolated and rugged way of life in the early park days, starting in the 1870s; a failure of park leaders to communicate with each other or with Washington D.C., and what Berkowitz said was a deliberate suppression of information to ease public relations, especially in the middle of the 20th century.

He detailed a 1953 ranger-involved shooting in which a young ranger, Elton Davis, was seriously wounded and returned fire on the suspect in Grand Teton National Park.

When Berkowitz called park authorities to learn more about it, they said they had no record of it, he related. But Berkowitz said he tracked down Davis, by then in his 80s, and Davis handed over his own medical records and newspaper clippings from the shootout.

“He’s this one great example of what intrigued me (into) researching this sort of thing,” said Berkowitz.

Yellowstone law enforcement on Thursday, July 4, 2024
Yellowstone law enforcement on Thursday, July 4, 2024 (Courtesy, NPS Ranger News)

A Conservative Count

At least 120 gun-violence incidents involving rangers have unfolded at NPS parks to date, Berkowitz said, adding that’s a conservative count based on his own documentation that doesn’t involve suicides and accidental discharges.

Nor does it include non-firearm incidents like knife, club, rock, broken bottle, chain, vehicle or bomb attacks. It also doesn’t include firearm beating, aka “pistol-whip” incidents, he said.

Berkowitz’s list says the following:

• The first ranger-involved shooting happened in the mid-to-late 1910s in Yosemite.

• The first known incident in which a suspect shot at a ranger and the ranger returned fire was sometime between 1916 and 1920 in Yellowstone, he said.

• The first one in which a ranger killed a suspect was May 30, 1970, at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

• The first known gunfire murder of a ranger in the line of duty was March 12, 1927, at Hot Springs National Park.

• At least nine rangers have died by “hostile” gunfire, including outright murders and manslaughter.

• The first three known incidents in which rangers were shot and injured by hostile gunfire but survived happened in the 1930s at Rocky Mountain National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park and Glacier National Park.

• At least 15 rangers have been shot in the line of duty.

Clair McFarland can be reached at

Share this article



Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter