Breaking down barriers
Life as a Sheriff’s Deputy with Travis Earl
Like so many things in America today, the police are the topic of polarized conversations on a national scale. However, on a local level, it is important to engage in conversations with law enforcement and reveal the humans behind the job.
Travis Earl, or Deputy Earl, fell into his job as a policeman by chance. Between years at Glendive Community College pursuing an associate degree in computers, Travis took a summer job in Bozeman because his sister lived in town. After a few stints at a law firm and life insurance working in IT (Information Technology), Travis took a job digitizing files at the Billings detention center.
While there, he connected with the correction officers. It led him to take a job back in Bozeman at the jail. After three years of work at the jail and two interviews, the Bozeman police department offered Travis a sheriff ’s deputy position in 2007. Travis has worked now for 17 years in law enforcement.
Travis grew up on the south slope of the snowy mountains near Judith Gap. His parents ran an outfitting business off 60 remote acres. They spent their first summer on the property living out of a two-room wall tent as Travis’ parents' hand built a house, three log cabins, pole barn, and chicken coop using a nearby sawmill. They built their dream, Earl explained.
Travis and his sister helped pack and lead trips into the nearby mountains on hunts for deer, antelope, bear, elk and mountain lion. Hunters typically flew in from Billings and donated the meat to the Montana Hunter’s against Hunger. The Earl family did not have trouble filling the family freezer—with Travis and his sister’s help they put enough meat away each year. Travis started hunting at the age of 12. “My parents scraped and worked hard for everything they had,” said Travis.
A few years ago, Travis and his father—lifelong hunters—had a strange encounter in the woods during the fall.
“My dad and I were out calling trying to get an elk in and we heard kind of a weird noise. It was kind of a cross between almost like a raven caw and yowl… Every now and then I would just hear it: “Huh, that’s weird.” It kept getting closer and closer as we were calling.” “All of sudden, about 30 yards from me, a tabby, a female mountain lion comes walking out… So I yelled at her, ‘Get out of here.’ So much for any elk coming in. My Dad’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ Oh, a mountain lion came in.”
“She was looking at us and we were sitting there talking and I swear she gave us a dirty look before she turned around and walked off. I knew it was a tabby because I’m pretty sure she had kittens… You could see milk in her teats. Her belly was waving back and forth when she was walking,” said Travis.
Travis still hunts with his wife, son and extended family. He usually draws tags for both bow and rifle season. This year they had no problem filling the freezer with deer.
Asked for any good game recipes, Travis recalled one of his mother’s:
“My mom would make a homemade sweet and sour mountain lion and it was really good. Mountain lion meat is really good. It’s a lighter meat, kind of like pork… It’s not really dark like beef necessarily. Kind of cube it up and then put it in a crock pot and she’d add pineapple and I’m not even sure what else,” said Travis.
Coming from a small town and ranching lifestyle, Travis enjoys his job as a police officer because of the variety. “I mean it’s kind of like my dad would always say… it’s like every new snowstorm you get when you go out in the wilderness is a new book. You don’t know what you’re going to find or what tracks in the snow you’re going to see. Same with this job. You don’t know what you’re going to get into when you check on shift,” said Travis.
With movements to change the way we police in America, especially after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota drew the nation’s attention in 2020, it is challenging for the public and officers to engage in conversations within their communities.
Travis personally struggles with how the media tends to generalize law enforcement on a national scale by specific moments of police brutality. “Every instance that can be highly politicized and is going to get a lot of attention, that usually is being, that paints cops in a bad light, is usually just smeared everywhere. Everywhere you look,” said Travis.
Asked if there have been any issues or new elements to the job with the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Jan. 2022, Travis explained he hadn’t experienced any issues. Most people are not aware that you cannot smoke in public, explained Travis. Police are also keeping an eye out for folks driving under the influence.
One of the biggest ways Deputy Earl takes a breath from his work and finds equilibrium is through church. His family started attending the Big Sky Christian Fellowship when they moved up, although religion was not much a part of their life before. Travis would show up in uniform, still on shift (he got the okay), with a radio in his ear. He’d take off if a call came through but he enjoyed sitting and listening to pastor Brian speak.
“In this line of work, definitely speaking for myself, a support group is very very important because we deal with some pretty bad things. I don’t think people realize necessarily. They’re like, ‘Okay, you’re good—that’s what you signed up for,’ but we’re just human like anybody else. There are some things that will haunt us that we deal with. Having that support group and just that faith system in place, for me, is huge,” said Deputy Earl.