Letter to Paulsen

This is a copy of the letter sent to criminal investigator Dirk Paulsen telling him to avoid the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

Out of concern for his safety, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks criminal investigator in northeastern Montana has been told by his superior to not have any interaction with Fort Belknap Indian Reservation tribal members.

In a Feb. 19 letter, investigator Dirk Paulsen was told to avoid conducting “any business on tribally owned lands, the reservation and sub-marginal lands nearby.” The letter was signed by Region 6 supervisor Mark Sullivan. A copy of the letter was acquired by The Gazette through a third party. Sullivan could not be reached for comment.

If Paulsen has to drive through the reservation, the letter advised him to stick to the main highways and to avoid stopping except in the case of an emergency.

“You are not to travel on any other roads within tribal lands,” the letter stated.

“I’m just heart sick about this deal,” said Steven Vinnedge, a retired FWP warden who now serves as executive director for the warden’s union. “This is an undeserved punishment for a job well done.”

In a letter forwarded to The Gazette via email, Pete Paulsen, Dirk’s father, writes that his son has been accused of being racist, which he vehemently denied. He also encouraged others to contact the governor and members of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ staff to “Tell them to stop using Dirk Paulsen as a scapegoat for their lack of taking tribal hunting rights seriously.” Pete Paulsen was the Blaine County sheriff from 1996 to 1999.

Dirk Paulsen was detained by armed Fort Belknap tribal members in September 2014 after they blocked his FWP vehicle on a rural Blaine County road. The tribal officers cited a resolution passed by the tribal council as the reason for the stop. The resolution read in part “ … that State Fish and Game access to and across Tribal lands, whether in fee or trust, shall be deemed denied, unless authorized.”

Although the incident ended peacefully after 5½ hours, a criminal investigation was launched by the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation. The investigation was completed and turned over to the Blaine County attorney, although no charges were filed.

Blaine County attorney Kelsie Harwood was out of the office when contacted on Thursday. FWP director Jeff Hagener said he has never seen a copy of the investigation, adding it was handled by the attorney general’s office.

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Vinnedge said the case was squelched by Gov. Steve Bullock’s office in order to ensure he received the tribal members’ votes. A message was left for Tim Crowe, communications director for Bullock, but he had not called back by press time. Calls to Fort Belknap Indian Community Council president Mark Azure were also not returned.

Hagener said the governor’s office has not told him how to deal with the allegations against Paulsen. But he did say he was directed to resolve the issue at the heart of Paulsen’s detention by tribal members — use of what’s known as sub-marginal lands, lands owned by the tribe but not part of the reservation. Hunting on reservation lands is governed by the tribe but the sub-marginal lands fall under state jurisdiction — a point some tribal members have contested. Paulsen has issued citations to tribal members for illegally hunting on the sub-marginal lands which may have racheted up tensions.

Hagener also said that despite claims made on Facebook, Bullock’s office has never told him to fire Paulsen.

The director wouldn’t go into details surrounding the letter to Paulsen saying it is a personnel issue. Complaints were made to the department about Paulsen, Hagener said, so the agency is required to investigate. He added that there “may be some safety issues” but no direct threats were made against Paulsen.

“We’ve used extreme caution in other areas where threats were made,” Hagener said.

The letter sent to Paulsen said the “restrictions are not meant to be punitive. Rather, they are being put into place out of concern for your safety, while we work to determine an appropriate plan to move forward in the future. Your failure to follow these restrictions may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

Paulsen declined to talk on the record considering the nature of the incident. Last year he was promoted to criminal investigator for the region in northeastern Montana after applying for the job. Fellow wardens also honored him as warden of the year in 2015.

“It’s very unusual for a law enforcement officer to be told to stand down,” Vinnedge said. “These guys want Dirk gone.”

The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation is home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes and is located 40 miles south of the Canadian border and 20 miles north of the Missouri River. It is the fourth-largest reservation in Montana with 7,000 enrolled members.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.