by nathan oster
Friends of Tom Easterly’s have used the words selfless, loyal, adventurous and soft-spoken to describe the man behind the red Game and Fish shirt, baseball hat and friendly smile.
But to those who worked closest to him in the public arena, he was a reliable hand, steady in times of crisis, and a passionate voice for the importance of wildlife conservation and habitat.
Easterly, who took over as the G&F’s wildlife biologist in Greybull in 1992, died Thursday while on a ski trip with friends in Montana. He was 50.
A press release from the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office reports that he was found deceased in a hot tub at one of the residential condos near Big Sky Resort early Thursday morning.
The Gallatin County Coroner’s Office is currently trying to determine the cause of death.
“All I’d say is, this whole community’s really going to miss him,” said Mike Nelson, the fire chief in Shell. “He was always willing to help in any way he could.
“That’s what I’ll remember about him.”
Easterly joined the Shell Fire Department shortly after he moved out of Greybull, into a home in the Shell area. At the time of his death, he was the treasurer of the SFD.
Prior to that, he spent more than a decade with the Greybull Fire Department. Paul Murdoch, the current fire chief, described him as “a good hand,” and “someone you could rely on.”
Easterly also spent six years in town government. He was initially elected to serve a two-year term on the Greybull Town Council in 1996. Two years later, he was elected to serve a four-year term, which ran through the end of 2002.
But for the past 22 years, he, along with Game Warden Bill Robertson, have been the face of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Big Horn County.
Robertson said he met Tom while he was a fresh-out-of-college game warden in Lusk, when Tom — fresh out of college himself and working as a biological aide in western South Dakota — came over to help him during one of the more challenging hunting seasons.
“He helped me get through that, and I’ll never forget that,” said Robertson.
In 1992, Easterly settled in Greybull.
Robertson followed him here in 1995.
They’ve been working side by side ever since — Robertson as game warden, Easterly as wildlife biologist.
“Actually, he was one of the reasons I came here,” Robertson recalled. “I wanted to get into the Big Horns, so that was a big factor. But I knew a couple people, too — Tom being one.”
Easterly’s obituary, which appears on page 6 of this issue, contains great detail about Tom’s achievements in Game and Fish matters.
To Robertson, there was a common theme behind all Easterly did.
“Tom was unique in that, because of his background, he recognized the importance of wildlife habitat. In fact, that was the bumper sticker on his truck. ‘Habitat is where it’s at’ … or something to that effect.
“That’s a hard concept for a lot of people, who just want to get a trophy buck. But Tom understood the importance of quality habitat for wildlife species and preached that throughout his entire career — whether it was in hunter safety classes, or a resource management meeting, or in discussions with landowner. You have to have the groceries for wildlife in order for the population to be sustainable.”
Because of his approach and his ability to work well with people, Easterly was “sought after by individual landowners, small ranch owners, farm owners and other land management personnel.
“They’d ask questions like, ‘What can we do to this pile of sage brush to make it better habitat?’ And he’d work with them.”
When asked what he’d miss most about Easterly, Robertson said it was his even-keeled nature. “Tom was my buffer,” he said. “He didn’t rattle very easily. He was very patient. He understood individual personalities really well, and he was able to accept a lot of different personalities, and because of that, conflict was always avoided.
“He was easy going, never sought attention and always wanted to be of assistance. I‘m going to miss a lot of that, professionally, and I’ll miss him as a friend too.”