CHEYENNE – Agency emails from the Wyoming Highway Patrol show that officers believe a situation similar to the protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline could happen in Wyoming.
The emails were released as part of a public records request by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle at the end of October. They include conversations between Maj. Keith Groeneweg, the field operations commander for the department, and Col. Kebin Haller, the head of the Wyoming Highway Patrol, among several others.
At the heart of the emails is a discussion over sending two officers specifically to North Dakota to observe operations and get a feel for how things were run. The idea being that if a similar situation happened in Wyoming, there would be some experience in the department.
One email from Groeneweg to a member of the Cass County (North Dakota) Sheriff’s Department says: “We acknowledge it is only a matter of time before something like this hits Wyoming, since we have (a) very similar cultural and natural resource makeup.”
The letter also acknowledges that several other departments across the U.S. had taken similar action already.
An email forwarded to Groeneweg from another officer includes a letter from Col. Thomas Butler with the Montana Highway Patrol. In the letter, Butler says: “The protest is clearly being driven by political/environmental issues and historical Native American tribal land issues. My concern is that I have all of those same issues in Montana, and I think most of you have similar situations in your states. From my view, the perceived successes of the protestors and the lack of objective reporting by the media is going to embolden these folks for the next protest coming to a state near one of us in the future.”
In an interview Thursday, Haller said the Wyoming Highway Patrol wound up not sending the two officers and is instead waiting for a more formal debriefing situation when the protests have calmed down. He said it seemed like resources in North Dakota were spread thin already and the Wyoming Highway Patrol going up there may stretch them even further.
Haller said the discussion about sending additional officers to observe and learn came from the realization that agencies in North Dakota were not prepared for the size and vitality of the protests over the pipeline.
“Should there be anything in the future, whether it is pipeline construction or perhaps a current line has a blowout, we need to consider and now think about large crowds,” Haller said. “You try to prepare your troopers for circumstances and events they may encounter; this is one of those events.”
Protesters are at a section of the pipeline that is planned to cross the Missouri River and have concerns over the effect of the pipeline on Native American cultural sites and potential harm the pipeline could cause to drinking water.
Six Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers were sent to the protests and were in North Dakota from Oct. 22 to Nov. 8, assisting the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Troopers were sent under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, an agreement between all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands that guides resource sharing during emergencies.
Haller said there are no Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers in North Dakota right now.
Laramie County Community College political science instructor Dave Marcum said the situation in Wyoming would likely be different than what has developed in North Dakota, if it ever occurred at all. He said he wasn’t aware of any pipelines that are being proposed that would come even close to the Wind River Indian Reservation, but there were some cultural sites in the Powder River Basin, for example, that may create similar situations.
“This is simply an agency looking at potential threats out there so that they are not caught completely unaware,” he said. “There are cultural affinities and similarities, but to assume you are going to have a similar situation is more of a hypothetical.”
Cheyenne resident Charlie Hardy has visited the protest site three times this year. He said he was troubled by what he saw during his visits. He said peaceful protestors were treated as criminals.
“If the Wyoming Highway Patrol is going to take any lesson, it should be not to do what was done in North Dakota,” he said.