By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
Because New Year’s Eve is always a time for reflection, Cowboy State Daily wanted to give everyone a chance to look back on what may be one of the most tumultuous years in anyone’s memory.
Below, you’ll find our choices for the top five stories of the year, along with some “runners up,” important stories that captured the attention of many of our readers.
Disagree? Have something you want to add? Please, by all means, leave us a comment and let us know what you think the top stories of 2020 were.
Along with the rest of the world, Wyoming fell victim to COVID-19. The resulting hospitalizations and deaths — 405 as of Tuesday — left many residents rattled, but as the year wore on, the number of active cases in the state plummeted sharply, leaving the state to enter 2021 with fewer than 2,000.
Wyoming’s first confirmed case of coronavirus was diagnosed on March 12. While the numbers grew slowly through the summer, by October, it was common to see more than 200 new cases one day, a figure that grew as high as 1,251 in November.
While Gov. Mark Gordon was at first hesitant to adopt a statewide mask mandate, he did issue restrictions on businesses such as bars and restaurants in the early months of the pandemic to slow the spread of the illness. A number of people objected to the rules and critics held protest Marches across the state and at the Capitol.
Businesses were allowed to reopen, with some social distancing rules, in the summer, but when faced with more than 11,800 active cases in the state in late November, Gordon imposed a requirement for masks to be worn in all public places, a limit on public gatherings to 10 people or fewer and orders for restaurants and bars to close from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
The year ended with the statewide mandate in place, although the number of active cases fell sharply through December to total 1,395 on Tuesday.
The pandemic prompted schools to teach many classes online and led the Wyoming Legislature to push back the start of its budget session.
2. State Budget
Faced with a one-two punch of a collapse in the state’s coal industry and the loss of tax income created by the coronavirus, Gordon was forced to cut state spending by more than $250 million, about 10% of the state’s total budget.
Gordon also submitted a supplemental budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 that would reduce spending contained in the state’s biennium budget by another $500 million.
“Our circumstances require that we make further reductions in order to meet our Constitutional obligation to balance Wyoming’s budget,” he said when releasing his supplemental budget.
The cuts were made necessary by predictions that the state’s revenues would fall almost $1 billion short of what was needed to pay for the general operation of the state and $500 million short of what was needed to finance schools during the fiscal biennium that will end on June 30, 2022.
The projected revenue reductions were the result of steep declines in coal sales, along with a collapse in natural gas markets created by an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, and a drop in sales tax revenue associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
Wyoming’s coal production continued to decline in 2020, due largely to cuts in demand as power companies continued looking for sources of energy with less of an impact on the environment than coal.
Layoffs that began in 2019 continued in 2020, as companies such as Navajo Transitional Energy and laid off workers at Powder River Basin coal mines including Antelope near Wright and Montana’s Decker mine. In all, more than 600 workers were laid off.
State officials encouraged Wyoming’s involvement in technology such as carbon capture to encourage the continued use of coal as a power source, as well as the use of coal for non-energy purposes, such as the creation of carbon fibers.
Wyoming cemented its position as one of the nation’s biggest supporters of President Donald Trump, with slightly more than 70% of all those casting votes in November’s general election voting for the incumbent president.
Trump’s apparent loss to Democrat Joe Biden resulted in calls from across the state for Wyoming to get involved with a Texas lawsuit challenging the validity of votes cast in some states. More than 30 legislators and legislators-elect wrote a letter asking Gordon to have the state join the lawsuit.
Gordon ultimately declined to to join the lawsuit, which was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The general election also saw Wyoming voters return former U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis to Washington as the state’s new senator.
Lummis ran against Democrat Merav Ben David for the Senate seat being vacated with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, who served four terms in the Senate.
Lummis served in the U.S. House for four terms before stepping down in 2017. In her race to become Wyoming’s first female U.S. senator, Lummis collected almost 73% of the votes cast.
5. GOP Differences
Several established Wyoming legislators lost their positions during the November election as factions within the Wyoming Republican Party battled over which candidates were the most conservative.
Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, and Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, both lost their re-election bids after being targeted for defeat by Wyoming Gun Owners, a pro-gun group that has labeled officials it opposes as being “anti-gun” despite the fact they often take positions that are supportive of the Second Amendment.
The schism in the party also made itself known as Gordon took steps aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus such as requiring the closure of some businesses and encouraging residents to wear face masks when in public.
Gordon was met with protests at the state Capitol and when he issued a statewide mask mandate in November, organizations including the Wyoming Republican Party objected.
The Wyoming GOP had earlier in the year issued a statement calling for Gordon to rescind the “state of emergency” that allowed him to issue public health orders.
Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne, in a column circulated to Wyoming media, criticized a “vocal minority” within the party of trying to undermine those who adhered to the party’s platform.
He suggested any party member not willing to endorse the majority of the party’s platform should leave the party.
A member of the party’s Central Committee was censured because an organization she established to encourage women to run for office provided funds for the campaigns of several Democratic candidates, but was accused of refusing to provide funds for two Republican candidates.
Below are some stories of 2020 that warrant a mention, even if they weren’t groundbreaking news:
Forrest Fenn’s treasure: Ten years after he hid it, the treasure chest of author Forrest Fenn was found in Wyoming. Fenn had offered clues for finding the chest, which contained gold and precious jewels, in a poem he wrote and hundreds went in search of the prize, knowing only that it was somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
When the treasure was found in June by a Michigan man, other treasure hunters complained, accusing Fenn and the treasure’s finder of collusion. Fenn died in September at the age of 90.
Grizzly 399: The travels of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s most famous grizzlies and her four cubs provided endless entertainment through the summer and late into the fall.
Grizzly 399 was tracked through the season as she roamed through the area, at one point stopping just long enough in Grand Teton National Park to let her cubs play with some traffic cones. Grizzly 399 is one of northwest Wyoming’s older grizzlies and this year emerged in Grand Teton in May.
Stories followed her daily trips — many expressed concern over the fact she had apparently sampled human food and then relief when she went elsewhere rather than becoming habituated to humand, usually a death sentence for bears. One of her cubs developed a limp, but then recovered. Most recently, the bear and her cubs were seen in Grand Teton during hunting season.
Park visitations: Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks saw record visitation as people holed up in their homes during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic took advantage of the social distancing that comes with visiting nature.
Yellowstone saw more than 837,499 visitors in September and 360,499 in October, both records. Likewise, Grand Teton 351,173 visitors in October, the highest number of visitations on record for the month.
CJ Box on television: 2020 saw a second Wyoming author hit the small screen with his creation. CJ Box’s “Big Sky” debuted in November to join Craig Johnson’s “Longmire” as television fare.
“Big Sky” is based on Box’s 2013 novel “The Highway,” about a long-haul trucker who is a serial killer. Box told the Cowboy State Daily the book was the “creepiest thing I ever wrote.”
A Cheyenne hero: Cheyenne’s Bridger Walker became a hero to heroes in 2020 after being badly injured while saving his little sister from an attack by a dog. Walker’s heroic act left him with scars from multiple bites from the dog.
However, it also attracted the attention of many of the cast members of the “Avengers” films, who reached out to Bridger with words of encouragement and gifts. Chris Evans, who played Captain America in the Avengers films, sent Walker a shield.
Robert Downey Jr., who played Iron Man, recorded a video message for the young man and promised him a special birthday present, and Tom Holland, who played Spiderman, called Walker and invited him to the set of the next Spiderman movie.