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Fires burn historic lodges in Pinedale, Togwotee Pass

in Bill Sniffin/News
Fire at Brooks Lodge in Dubois
Fire at Brooks Lodge on Togwotee Pass between Dubois and Jackson on July 28. (Photo courtesy of the Dubois Volunteer Fire Department.)

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

July was not a good month for beautiful mountain lodges in Western Wyoming.

On July 12, fire destroyed the lodge at the White Pine Ski Resort east of Pinedale.

On July 28, the historic Brooks Lake Lodge on Togwotee Pass between Dubois and Jackson suffered major damage from a fire.

Robin Blackburn, owner of White Pine, said the fire that ravaged the impressive building that contained virtually all of the operations of the ski area, was caused by a fire inside the building. Sublette County Unified Fire Public Information Office Mike Petty said the blaze was completely contained inside the lodge.

“There’s was no brush fire, there’s no damage to the forest. It was totally contained in the lodge,” Blackburn said. “The lodge is a total loss, but the people from the Department of Criminal Investigation are up there trying to determine the cause of the fire at this stage. Nothing has been said.”

Meanwhile, north of Dubois, an early morning fire damaged Brooks Lake Lodge on Togwotee Pass on Sunday, but a quick response rescued much of the historic structure.      

Lodge General Manager Adam Long discovered the fire and tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher. He also called 911 at 2:32 a.m., said Jeff Golightly, chief advisor to Brooks Lake Lodge owner Max Chapman.

Golightly said the fire is being investigated by Eric Siwik of the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Golightly said the fire is suspected to have started in an old fireplace in the historical building.

The fire comes on the heels of a July 2 fire at Cafe Genevieve, a historic downtown Jackson property also owned by Chapman, with other investors.

Meanwhile, back in Pinedale, emergency responders were notified of the report of a wild land fire at the resort at approximately 1:20 a.m. Emergency responders arrived on scene to an active fire in the lodge itself instead of a wild land fire. There were no injuries to responders and no extension of damage to the neighboring structures or forest.

The response included multiple personnel from Sublette County Unified Fire, Sublette County Sheriff’s Office, Sublette County EMS, Sublette County Emergency Management and Bridger Teton National Forest.

Fire crews contained the fire to the lodge building and monitored the surrounding areas to ensure the fire didn’t spread to the surrounding forest or buildings.

Blackburn said she was notified of the fire around 4 a.m. when the fire was all but put out. Now the process of taking the next steps begins.

Following inspections by the insurance company, Blackburn said she and her husband Alan intend to rebuild the structure. She also said it doesn’t appear that any damage was done to the ski lift lines either.

“We need to rebuild it. It’s a really important part of the community,” she said. “The ski area serves not only Sublette County, but Sweetwater and Fremont, and I think it would be a huge loss to everyone if we didn’t rebuild.”

Blackburn said the damage is extensive, including one corner of the lodge that contained the boiler below and extending up into the kitchen area.

Blackburn said they may consider putting up a temporary structure to get them through the winter. With contractors booked out repairing and rebuilding homes in the area following the Roosevelt Fire last summer, it might be some time before the project begins.

“I mean it’s really early days for us to know what to do or what to say. But our intent is to go forward and provide something again for the community,” she concluded.

Meanwhile, up at Togwotee Pass, the response to the Brooks Lake Lodge fire was amazing. “It’s just unbelievable,” Golightly said.

The Dubois Fire Department and Fremont County Fire Department responded in about a half hour and successfully extinguished the blaze over the course of several hours, Dubois Fire Chief Mike Franchini said. The response included eight engines, a water tender and an air unit.

“Firefighters attacked the fire from the interior and cut vent holes on the roof,” Franchini said. “The historic building was saved.”

Eric Siwik of the State Fire Marshal’s office said the fire started in a confined space. It very well could have smoldered for quite awhile before being discovered.

He said his office is working closely with insurance investigators in exploring the cause.

No employees or guests were injured, and damage was limited to the ceiling and roof of the “tea room” and part of the dining room. Golightly estimated about 10 percent of the building suffered damage.

“None of our cabins were damaged, none of our lodge rooms were damaged, the lobby, the bar wasn’t damaged,” Golightly said. “We’re lucky that our GM caught it, and we’re lucky that the Dubois Fire Department and the Fremont County Fire Department all showed up and got it put out in a pretty reasonable amount of time.”

The 98-year-old lodge is still hosting guests although the dining room and tea room are closed, Golightly said. The bar, lobby and lodging remain open.

Golightly said it was a close call, and he’s grateful the general manager spotted the fire in the middle of the night, and for the firefighters’ fast response.

“It was just an incredible job by those guys,” he said. “We were very fortunate. No guests and no employees got hurt, that’s what’s important to us.”

Built in 1922 and originally named the Two-Gwo-Tee Inn, Brooks Lake Lodge is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

(Reporting from Jackson Hole News & Guide, Buckrail, County 10, and other sources contributed to this article.)

Symons: Groundwork laid to improve government transparency

in Column/Transparency
Wyoming government transparency

By Gail Symons, member of the Transparency Working Group, special column to Cowboy State Daily

While it is easy to “want what I want when I want it,” the challenges of government transparency are much more complex than simply asking for data and receiving it immediately.

It was an early morning meeting the second week of the 2019 Wyoming Legislative Session.  The newly installed Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines brought to order the first meeting of the Transparency Working Group to a packed room in the Jonah Building.  On the phone was the CEO of OpenTheBooks, an organization that had brought suit against the previous Auditor for failure to produce five years of state spending data and vendor files.  A Wyoming based group, Equality State Taxpayers Association, joined in that suit. After being provided an opportunity to air their grievances and expectations, the CEO threatened to add Auditor Racines to the suit if the requested data was not produced in 30 days.

In September 2018, then candidates Governor Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines announced the Transparency Working Group to explore means to improve financial and operational transparency in Wyoming government.  The Working Group includes Sen Cale Case (R-Lander), Rep Tom Walters (R-Casper), Cheyenne attorney John Masters, Sheridan Press Publisher Kristen Czaban and myself, a civics wonk with 30 years’ experience in data-based process improvement.  Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines serve as co-chairs and are supported by policy advisor Renny MacKay.

Fast forward to the end of February and the close of the Wyoming Legislative Session.  The Auditor’s office had released the remaining spending records, refunded the $8,000 paid by the two groups and the suit had been dropped.  For the first month in office, the Auditor’s team had concentrated on completing the manual scrubbing of the records.  

During this same session, the Joint Corporations Committee had introduced SF0057 Public Records with short time frames for response and felony penalties.  After a committee meeting where it became clear that the impact on state agencies and their ability to comply had not been considered, an unusual working committee meeting was held. 

With input from advocacy groups, private citizens, state agencies and special districts, a substitute bill was crafted and subsequently passed. This removed the felony provisions, eased the time restrictions, required a public records person to be designated in each entity and created an Ombudsman position in the Governor’s Office.  The Ombudsman role is to serve as a mediator between requestors and government entities.

Fast forward again to mid-July.  The State Auditor has rolled out an online state checkbook developed in-house by the office’s IT individuals.  The checkbook can be found at www.WyOpen.gov.  This is static data that has filters and scrubbing applied to state financial data extracts to comply with privacy and other statutory protections.  The Auditor is encouraging use of the site and feedback to increase usability.

Also this summer, Interim Topic priority # 2 for the Joint Judiciary Committee has advanced.  That is a two-year study on public records and public meetings statutes to modernize in light of changes to law, technology and promote realistic transparency.  For 2019, the committee is reviewing the public records law to expand and improve on the work started with SF0057.

The Legislative Service Office has provided a summary of the current Wyoming Public Records Act including the wide range of exceptions to disclosure.  That report cabe be found online here.  To understand the financial and operational impact of records requests, a survey across all entities was conducted on the volume of requests, elapsed time to comply and costs in applied times.  The results are available here

The next Joint Interim Judiciary Committee meeting is scheduled at Casper College, Room EI 100 on August 15th and 16th 2019.

This past week, five candidates are being interviewed for the Ombudsman position by members of the Working Group and the Governor’s staff.  In addition to providing mediation, the individual will receive complaints, establish timelines for release of records and may waive fees charged by an entity.  Given the certainty that a new bill will be introduced by the Interim Judiciary and the uncertainty on exactly what are the exceptions to disclosure and how to apply them, the Ombudsman is expected to also provide policy and guidance.

On June 4th, 2019, Governor Gordon issued a letter to the state Elected Officials and Directors providing guidance on budget preparation for the 2021 -2022 Biennium.  In addition to expecting this to be a true biennial budget, meaning it will last for two years rather than be amended after one year, he emphasized his commitment to transparency with the requirement for having the budget be more readily understood by the public.  New this year is a State of the Agency covering all aspects of the operations and tie directly to the budget request. This letter, agency budget instructions and a budget request strawman can be found on the Budget Office website at https://ai.wyo.gov/divisions/budget.

There is significant truth to the saying, “if it was easy, it would already be done.”  Great strides have been made in reconciling perceptions of transparency (or lack thereof) with statutory, organizational, systemic and human realities.  In a very short period of time, groundwork has been laid to establish improved capabilities at all levels of state and local government with consistent processes and policies. 

The real success of these collaborative efforts will be tested in the upcoming 2020 legislative budget session.

Sniffin: Two Cowboy State road trips show state is green and clear

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

By Bill Sniffin for Cowboy State Daily

Road trip! 

Is there any better place in the world to take a road trip this time of year than Wyoming?

Recently, we made two such trips and saw a bunch of wonderful sites in our great state. Two things stood out:

First, I have rarely seen the countryside as green as it is now this late in the year. 

Second, for the first time in a long time, you can see for 100 miles or more.  There are no smoky horizons blocking views because of California or Canadian fires. What a relief that is. 

The book The Big Sky by Montana author A. B. Guthrie Jr., was actually writing about the big sky in Wyoming, not Montana.  The state of Montana was smart enough, though, to grab that as one of their primary mottos. Our Big Sky has never been prettier than now here in the Cowboy State.

We took two trips, both of which ended up out-of-state. The first one headed north. The second headed south. Here are my observations:

Yellowstone National Park is my favorite place on earth. I have probably visited our country’s first national park 120 times. I just cannot get enough of it. This park is the main draw for tourists coming to Wyoming. 

There are three Wyoming entrances to the park.  The northernmost is the Beartooth Highway out of Park County—wow, what a ride that is!

Also, the east gate over Sylvan Pass west of Cody is one of my all-time favorite drives. The Wapiti Valley is a showcase in its own right.

We took the southern gate from Moran and worked our way through the check-in gates for Grand Teton Park and for Yellowstone Park. 

We were traveling on July 2 and the park was at near capacity over the Independence Day holiday.  People from all over the country and all over the world having a great time. We are so fortunate to have Yellowstone in our state. 

Ran into a Mr. and Mrs. Eisenheiner at the Old Faithful parking lot. They were riding a motorcycle to Alaska. They had started in Los Angeles. Wow, what a ride. I believe that the name Eisenheiner is German for “Iron Butt.” 

On this trip, we left Lander about 8 a.m. and took US Highway 287 north through the Wind River Reservation. The gigantic Wind River Mountains were looming on our left and were just awesome.  Next comes Dubois, one of the state’s prettiest little towns and it was jammed with tourists.

From there, we headed over Togwotee Pass, which tops out at about 9,600 feet near Brooks Lake.  As you head over the pass to Jackson Hole, the spectacular Tetons are shining in the distance – a million dollar view. As you descend into Jackson Hole, it is common to see a grizzly or two, but not on this warm day. 

This is one of the most beautiful drives in the state and is just keeps getting better, the closer you get to the national parks.  Then, on this day at least, it got a little crowded.

I was headed to a meeting in Bozeman, MT, one of the fastest growing cities in the country at 112,000 people. 

My trip home involved coming through Cody, Thermopolis, Shoshoni, and Riverton. Everything is so green! 

Our next road trip involved heading to Montrose, CO by way of Rawlins and Baggs. Then over to Denver to see my 95-year old mother and back home via Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins.

Wyoming is famous for its wildlife. No other state in the lower 48 even comes close to the antelope, deer, elk, moose, bear, coyote, and jackrabbits you see along our roadways.

Some of the biggest antelope herds in the state can be seen along the route we took. Not sure we can call them wildlife, but the state’s biggest herd of wild horses roams the Red Desert between Lander-Rawlins-Rock Springs-Pinedale areas. 

Wildlife Worth the Watching was a program used for many years to promote folks visiting Wyoming to see actual wild animals, actually in the wild.  A great program.

We made the mistake of taking Colorado’s Interstate 70 going east into Denver on a Sunday afternoon. Spent an extra two hours jammed in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Horrible experience.

Cheyenne was gearing up for Frontier Days, Laramie looked prosperous, as did Rawlins, as we sailed through on our way home.

Great trips, but a little too purposeful for me. I prefer to travel slowly and stop and visit interesting folks and interesting places. Will do that on our next trip.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.

Bill Sniffin joins team at Cowboy State Daily

in Bill Sniffin
Bill Sniffin

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin has joined the  team at the Cowboy State Daily, the state’s foremost digital daily news platform.

The veteran Lander journalist will be writing a weekly column, assisting with the daily newsletter called Coffee Break and will help with strategic planning as the digital site continues to expand and grow.

“I have been impressed by the Cowboy State Daily,” Sniffin said. “Wyoming needs a dedicated statewide digital news source and I am glad to be part of their team.”

Sniffin has written a weekly newspaper column for over 50 years.  It turned into a statewide Wyoming column 17 years ago, after he lost in the 2002 Republican governor primary election.

His column currently appears in more than 20 newspapers and digital services in the state and is exposed to more than 100,000 readers each week. It is the most widely distributed column in Wyoming.

In recent years, Sniffin has published three coffee table books about Wyoming that have sold over 34,000 copies.  Prior to that he published three other books about his columns.

He and his wife Nancy have owned all or part of more than 20 newspapers, magazines, print shops, ad agencies, and internet companies.  They published the Lander Journal for 29 years.

Sniffin was president of the Wyoming Press Association in 1980 and has been awarded a Lifetime Membership.  In 1999, he was given the highest award the Wyoming Tourist industry can offer, the Big WYO award.

The Sniffins live in Lander and have four children, 13 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Conflict Prevention Takes A Genius

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Be bear aware

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and presidential hopeful known for his animal advocacy and veganism.

John Barrasso, a conservative Republican from Wyoming who serves in a top leadership position for Senate Republicans, is known for his support of animal agriculture and our nation’s energy industry.

What do they have in common? Both have an interest in reducing human-predator conflicts. Barrasso is the primary sponsor of the bill, but Booker joined together with Tom Carper (D-Delaware), and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), to cosponsor Senate Bill 2194, Promoting Resourceful and Effective Deterrents Against Threats Or Risks involving Species (PREDATORS) Act. If enacted, the bill will amend the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act to establish the Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize for reducing human-predator conflict.

Last week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony about the possibility of providing a financial incentive for the development of non-lethal, innovative technologies that reduce conflict between human and wildlife predators.

While human fatalities caused by grizzly bears are a concern to Barrasso’s constituents, the committee also heard testimony about shark attacks, as well as conflicts involving mountain lions and alligators. Brad Hovinga of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department provided testimony, as did Animal Planet’s Extinct or Alive host Forrest Galante, and Dr. Nick Whitney of the New England Aquarium.

Hovinga told the committee: “Wildlife agencies use a variety of innovative, non-lethal technologies to aid in reducing conflicts. These technologies include the use of chalk and pepper balls, weapon-fired beanbags, a variety of pyrotechnics and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Wyoming recently trained personnel in the use of conducted electrical weapons, commonly known as tasers, for use as an aversion tool for wildlife.”

Hovinga talked about the both the importance and limitations of pepper spray, and the need for innovation in improving conducting electrical devices for use as both an aversive conditioning tool and a temporary immobilization tool.

“Improvements in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drone technology, that allow for the deployment of aversive conditioning tools would greatly improve our ability to keep people safe and influence the behavior of habituated or aggressive wildlife. Developments in FLIR and thermal camera technology for the use with UAVs would significantly increase human safety when assessing dangerous situations.” Hovinga said. “Lastly, long-range acoustic sound devices, or sound cannons, are devices that directionally deliver sound over long distances. The potential for development of long-range acoustic deterrents for wildlife management exists. Work to develop an appropriate aversive conditioning tool for addressing wildlife conflicts would be greatly beneficial.”

One difference I noted between both the senators speaking during the hearing, and the witnesses giving testimony, was perspectives on encroachment – whether humans are encroaching on animals, or animals are encroaching on humans. While some conflicts occur when predators in Wyoming come into urban areas seeking prey (such as mountain lions pursuing deer in urban developments), Delaware Senator Carper noted that human-predator interactions are increasingly common as more people recreate “in wildlife habitat.” Carper said “as humans continue to encroach upon wildlife habitat and compete with predators for the same space and the same natural resources, our relationships with these animals can become, in some cases, adversarial.”

Some committee members emphasized the need to address habitat loss and protect predators, while others expressed the need for more scientific research to understand changes in animal behavior due to climate change, and pressed for public education about wildlife species.

Near the close of the hearing, Barrasso pointedly asked Hovinga: “since the goal of the Genius Prize we are considering is to protect both predators and humans, regarding predators, the key to protecting their lives involves preventing conflicts with humans in the first place. Can you explain why, from your years and history and knowledge, after a conflict with humans occurs, it may be necessary to euthanize some of these predators?”

Hovinga’s reply reflected the reality involved when large predators come into conflict with humans. He said: “That is an unfortunate reality sometimes with wildlife management and wildlife behavior, that we have to realize. With a lot of wildlife, bears specifically and other large carnivores, those behaviors that end up becoming a part of an animal’s everyday behavior, that becomes dangerous toward humans, those are learned behaviors. Those are typically learned through successes over time. It usually revolves around those successes in obtaining food.”

Hovinga gave an example of a black bear that learned when it approached people, the people would drop their backpacks and run away, allowing the bear to receive a food reward from the backpacks. Over time, the bear repeated the action, and the more aggressive the bear became, the higher the probability the person would drop the backpack and run away. He added, “Fortunately, we were able to intervene in that situation, prior to that becoming dangerous and actually somebody becoming injured.”

He continued: “Those learned behaviors are very, very difficult for animals to unlearn. They typically don’t unlearn them. It is irresponsible for us as a wildlife management agency to allow animals to remain on the landscape that engage in behavior that is dangerous toward people. Unfortunately, sometimes those animals need to be removed from the population. The populations are nearly always doing well enough that those removals are not significant in the scheme of the population management, but certainly, a requirement to keep people safe.”

This is an issue all state wildlife managers have to deal with and must justify to the public when wild predators are killed to protect human safety. Listening to the testimony before the committee, it became evident that to some, living with wild predators is more of an idea than a reality. It’s a reality for wildlife manager Hovinga, and to a majority of Barrasso’s constituents. 

As it should, the committee hearing provided a forum for a variety of views on a diversity of predator-human interaction issues. That Democrats from densely populated areas would have differing views than Republicans from sparsely populated areas is to be expected. That they are talking and sharing their experiences for a wider audience is important.

Both Barrasso and Hovinga represented Wyoming well.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Nature Below The Knee

in Column/Range Writing
Wyoming sage grouse

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The natural world on the ranch provides for daily wonders. Each spring we watch the pronghorn antelope fawns speeding past with their mothers, and get “barked” at by the bucks. We relish the bugling trills of sandhill cranes calling across the landscape in the dawn hours, and admire their gangly grace. But much of nature’s wonders at this time of year occur below knee-level to a human.

Last week my son Cass reported that there were thousands of fat tadpoles sprouting back legs in our grassy irrigation ditch, so we took turns going over to have a look at them before they completed their metamorphosis to frogdom.

When Maggie dipped her toes in the water, the tadpoles came over to inspect her feet, and soon a tiger salamander made an appearance as well. Salamanders prey on tadpoles, so it was terrific to watch both predator and prey in their shared aquatic habitat, especially since there is much concern about declining amphibian populations worldwide. Since I know next-to-nothing about Wyoming’s amphibians, I then sought out our go-to site for such knowledge in the state: The Wyoming Naturalist (wyomingnaturalist.com), which is operated by Dan Lewis out of Douglas and is highly recommended.

In the early mornings while I drive out to check the sheep and feed the livestock guardian dogs, I encounter broods of sage grouse feasting on insects in the irrigated meadows. When the sun gets too high, the grouse will fade back into the nearby sagebrush habitat to escape the heat.

Skirting around ant mounds, as we walk through the sagebrush and into the meadows we kick up multitudes of small grasshoppers and crickets, and are pleased to see both the diversity and density of insect life. Why would we be pleased by having so many insects? A thriving insect population can be a sign of ecosystem health. Importantly, certain insects provide the path to survival for sage grouse chicks, especially orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, etc.) and coleoptera (beetles) and hymenopterans (wasps, bees, ants, etc.).

Newly published research in the journal Environmental Entomology links the importance of these ground-dwelling arthropods with persistence of birds like sage grouse, and details the role of livestock grazing. Montana State University and University of Montana researchers compared arthropod populations in land that had been retired from livestock grazing for more than a decade to land subject to rest-rotational livestock grazing in Central Montana from 2012 to 2015. They found that bird-food arthropods were twice as prevalent in managed pastures as compared to idled lands. The idled pastures had at least double the number of predatory arthropods (such as spiders), including a fivefold increase in wolf spiders. These species are not considered to be a food source for grouse.

“In contrast, managed lands supported a more diverse assemblage of ground-dwelling arthropods which may be particularly beneficial for birds in these landscapes if, for example, diversity promotes temporal stability in this critical food source,” the researchers wrote. “Our results suggest that periodic disturbance may enhance arthropod diversity, and that birds may benefit from livestock grazing with periodic rest or deferment.”

Unfortunately, the Montana researchers didn’t find higher numbers of dung beetles on grazed land despite presumably greater dung beetle resources (livestock manure). The researchers suggested that the reduced dung beetle population may be associated with the use of veterinary parasiticides used on livestock, since parasite treatment residues may pass from the treated animal to the pasture through dung.

A walk through our rangeland pastures reveal that most piles of cattle dung (cowpies) have been flipped over by birds as they seek out dung beetles. These beetles are an important part of our environment that we strive to keep in good health, which in turn helps to keep the grouse population in good standing. Dung beetles provide an additional service to livestock by reducing intestinal parasite survival in pastures in arid climates. As one researcher put it, “If dung-beetle populations are allowed to thrive and recover, they can help naturally control the parasites farmers are treating.”

The next time you take a rangeland walk, spend a little time looking at the environment found below the knee. You may be surprised by the treasures you find there.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Extremism, Not Journalism

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Extremism not journalism

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

“This Land Was Your Land.” With a headline like that, I should have known that it was click-bait. But I took the bait and clicked on The New York Times opinion piece last weekend, only to see that the author was none other than Christopher Ketcham. His work is currently widespread in anticipation of the release of his book “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West.”

Don’t bother to read the NYT piece. It’s largely fiction, the creation of an extremist who only sees ugly if a trace of humankind is evident. The Brooklyn, New York-native Ketcham is billed as an “environmental journalist” but I’d say he’s an environmental extremist with a tendency for getting paid to write bulls**t stories that aren’t fact-checked by editors. If you make use of public lands in any way other than for environmental extremism, you’re probably on his list of vile enemies. Really.

Extremist? Edward Abbey was the guy’s hero. According to a pre-release book review posted to Outside Online (which noted Ketham’s “tendency to follow in Edward Abbey’s footsteps to subject us to a bit of macho bravado”), Ketcham wrote that groups like the Wilderness Society should “either take up the fight armed to the teeth or disband and get out of the way.”

Two years ago, Ketcham wrote about his opposition to killing coyotes with “I walked up the mountain in the howling snow and the drifts and the flashing of the moon behind the clouds, looking for coyote traps to sabotage.”

While the Camp Fire was burning last year – California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, killing at least 85 people – Ketcham wrote a Counterpunch column titled Build In A Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve: “I’ve always hated the human infrastructure in California, and so I can’t say this is a bad thing.”

The guy calls for the decommissioning of roads in national parks, an end to public lands grazing, and the use of the Endangered Species Act to “smash the entire exploitative economy on the public lands.”

In March 2016, Ketcham penned “The Rogue Agency: A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species” – a look at USDA Wildlife Services, the animal damage control experts used by other wildlife agencies to control or kill predators killing livestock, and to keep birds from hitting planes at airports across the country.

Ketcham described the article as detailing “the stupid, cruel, wanton waste of the USDA’s wildlife slaughter program called Wildlife Services.” That Ketcham relied on grossly outdated and inaccurate account didn’t matter, and USDA administrator Kevin Shay responded, “We will not apologize for putting people’s livelihoods and the interests of human safety on equal footing with the noble cause of animal conservation.”

Hatchet jobs are Ketcham’s specialty. In 2015, he wrote for Harper’s Magazine on “The Ruin of the West: How Republicans are plundering our public lands” – another assault on public lands livestock grazing, and, as always, using an anti-grazing activist as his primary source.

Ketcham spreads his vile message to other magazines as well. In its “The Earth Died Screaming Issue” in May 2015, VICE published another Ketcham piece about his lawsuit “against the National Park Service in protest of the government’s brutal and stupid policy of slaughtering wild bison” as they exit Yellowstone National Park and enter Montana.

For those of you who know about the complexities of brucellosis transmission involving elk, bison, and cattle, don’t expect to find a nuanced (or even balanced) discussion of this issue, because what you’ll find is more of Ketcham’s rabid blathering as he explains why he joined the ACLU in suing the National Park Service: “The goal of the ACLU lawsuit was to see, smell, and hear, up close, bison corralled, beaten, whipped, raped, sorted, and moved onto the trucks that carry them to their death.”

Yes, Ketcham claimed that bison were “raped.” Of course they lost the lawsuit, after a federal judge denied their request for an injunction, agreeing that the Park Service had not violated their rights by applying reasonable limitations for watching the culling process.

When wolves in the Northern Rockies were removed from the list of federally protected species, Ketcham wrote in his “Wolves to the Slaughter” piece that “the federal government last year scheduled wolves to be killed in huge numbers across the Northern Rockies.” To Ketcham, removal from federal protection is the same thing as “scheduling wolves to be killed in huge numbers.” Ketcham’s slant is impeccably transparent.

In a May 2014 piece for VICE, Ketcham was at it again, “How to kill a wolf – An undercover report from the Idaho Coyote and Wolf Derby” in which Ketcham and two Idaho activists infiltrated a coyote derby, apparently because, Ketcham wrote, “I wondered whether the residents of Salmon were looking to kill wolves out of spite. They hated these creatures, and I wanted to understand why.” They had to pretend to be hunters, Ketcham wrote, because: “Many pro-wolf activists across the American West, especially those who have publicly opposed the ranching industry, have reported similar threats and acts of aggression — tires slashed, homes vandalized, windows busted out with bricks in the night.” The coyote hunt organizers were so convinced of the Ketcham clan’s authenticity that they helpfully “suggested spots in the surrounding mountains where we could find wolves to shoot illegally.”

Ketcham noted: “The number of cattle and sheep lost to wolves and other predators each year is negligible. In 2010, just 0.23 percent of cattle in the US died from ‘carnivore depredations’ (as wolf attacks on livestock are officially categorized).” No mention that wolf depredations do not occur at the national-herd level, but at the local herd/flock level.

But cattle are despicable, according to Ketcham, “In fact, cows mess up just about everything in the ecosystems of the arid West.”

Of course, no wolves were killed during the two-day coyote derby, despite the “How to kill a wolf” title of the piece. Contempt for those who would kill predators, or graze livestock on federal land, drips throughout Ketcham’s writings – a hallmark of sorts.

Ketcham consistently uses the same sources – sources known for their anti-grazing activism, including Brian and Natalie Ertz of Idaho, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds Project. The result is agenda-driven ranting.

It’s unfortunate that humans in the West are a villain to Ketcham. He’d prefer cow-free, car-free, human-free landscapes. Ketchum can’t see through his own hateful vitriol to the beauty that surrounds him when he visits here.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Retired At One: The Story of Boo

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Boo a Wyoming livestock guardian dog

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I could hear the livestock guardian dogs raising hell that morning a little over a year ago when I stepped outside to begin to check how all the animals had faired during the night. The sheep had fled their bedground, and most of the dogs were half-crazed in their aggression directed toward the rocky ridge that rises just behind our house, so I knew that wolves had paid a nocturnal visit. I spotted six-month old Boo flat on her side in the sand along the ditch, just below the rocks. I called out to her, but she didn’t lift her head. I hurried over to her wounded, bleeding body, but Boo remained unmoving except for her naturally stubbed tail, which she wagged gently when I said her name. In the wee hours that summer morning, the wolves had caught young Boo and taken her down. 

I screamed for help, and within minutes Cass had scooped the limp dog up into his arms, cradling her in the back of the truck as we hurried toward the house. As we’ve done before, I called the vet clinic an hour away so they would be ready for our arrival.

We had high hopes for Boo’s survival. As the vet shaved her bloody mane, he noted that much of the blood in that section of her body wasn’t Boo’s: she had inflicted some bites on her attacker during the battle. But she had deep bite wounds to her neck, the top of both hips, and nasty scrapes on her underside. She was hypothermic, going into shock, so the team administered antibiotics and painkillers before placing her in warming blankets. They would clean out her wounds once she rested a little, giving the painkillers time to work.

Boo recovering on the living room couch after being wounded in a wolf attack in Sublette County. (Photo courtesy of Cat Urbigkit)
Boo recovering on the living room couch after being wounded in a wolf attack in Sublette County. (Photo by Cat Urbigkit.)

None of us believed her wounds were life-threatening that morning. But after I left, and the vet went to clean the wounds, he found just how severely the wolf had injured our brave Boo. It grabbed her neck in its powerful jaws, clamped down and shook her. The other dogs must have intervened, or else Boo wouldn’t have survived.

It would be a long 24 hours of waiting to learn if the damage was simply too much for Boo’s young body to bear. But while the vet clinic crew worked on her, Boo continued to wag that silly tail. When I went to see her late that afternoon, she woke up long enough to wag while I kissed her velvety nose. Sweet, sweet girl.

I went up the mountain that evening and sobbed, as only a mountain could cope with such sorrow. Later that night as I slept fitfully, the wolves returned to our pastures, but the remaining guardian dogs kept them from inflicting further damage. The wolves moved on, into the neighbor’s cattle herd, killing two calves.

Armed with wound-care instructions and medications from the vet, we brought Boo home the next afternoon, as her best chance for recovery would be in familiar surroundings. Jim and Cass took turns carrying Boo outside so she could relieve herself, and would then carry her back to the security of the house, gently placing her in a favored spot on the couch. We brought lambs into the yard so she could spend a few minutes each day interacting with those she loves best. The next week was a blur, filled with rough days for the young dog, and for us as the wolves made repeated night-time visits, trying to get into the sheep flock. We killed a few wolves but others remain, and I suppose there will always be wolves here.

Boo’s body eventually recovered from the attack, and she tried venturing back out with the range sheep, but she no longer had the heart for it. The attack had changed her, and she was afraid. 

Boo now spends her nights locked in the safety of a kennel, and ventures out during the day to the relative safety of the ranch yard where there are always a few sheep and guardian dog retirees. She plays joyfully in the ditch in the summer, and naps on the hay feedline set out for the sheep in the winter. She hunts gophers in the sagebrush and seems content enough with her new life, but I wonder if she’d be better off as a couch dog in a house full of children. Every now and then, we’ll see a flash of her old spunk, and it saddens me that such a young dog has chosen to retire from a life she loved. The wolves changed her.

Boo wasn’t the only dog injured by the wolves last year in our area of the southern Wind River Mountains. Two dogs were killed at a nearby shepherd’s camp, another had to be put down, and huge Bear-Bear fought nearly to death but survived. Two other dogs, our top two guardians, simply disappeared. But the pain is still too fresh for me to tell their story.

Livestock guardian dogs are noble beasts: gentle to weaker animals, yet fierce in their defense of others. Through the repeated wolf chaos of last year, the guardian dogs kept our sheep and cattle safe, even as our neighbors suffered losses. But it wasn’t easy, and it came at a cost.

There are increasing calls for ranchers to use non-lethal means such as livestock guardians to keep livestock safe from large carnivores, as if guardian animals are merely tools to be used. While our guardians are an excellent deterrent to predators, the coexistent relationship with wolves is not non-lethal. Sometimes protection comes at great cost: the death of a beloved working dog, the loss of a working partner.

Some may love the thought of wolves, but we loved Beyza, and Mos, and other dogs we’ve lost to the crushing jaws of wolves.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Why a Federal Agency Kills Millions of Animals

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing/wildlife
USDA Wildlife Services

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Within the last week Wyoming Wildlife Advocates has been busily posting on social media about USDA Wildlife Services, including this statement: “Wildlife Services kills millions of animals in the U.S. each year for no purpose.”

That is a lie – a deliberate falsehood.

With WWA spreading fabrications about this federal agency and its activities, it should have come as no surprise to see that a WWA supporter responded to one such post with “Kill those who allow this senseless slaughter of innocent animals.” When questioned whether the poster was advocating the murder of humans, the poster replied, “let me just say I am for preserving wolves over humans.”

WWA left the post advocating murder of human beings in place without comment, but when someone posted in support of wolf hunting, WWA had repeated responses about why wolves shouldn’t be killed. WWA’s lack of response to the murder advocate is a rather revealing tell, as they say in poker.

Groups like WWA love to hate USDA Wildlife Services, the federal agency specializing in wildlife damage management. They call Wildlife Services a “rogue agency” and cite the millions of animals killed by agency personnel each year in order to generate outrage.

Let’s take a look at what Wildlife Services actually did last year:

  • Worked at 843 airports to reduce aviation strikes with wildlife, and trained nearly 5,000 airport personnel in wildlife identification and control methods.
  • Collected more than 46,000 samples from wild animals to test for 37 different wildlife diseases and conditions in wild mammals, birds, and reptiles. One-third of these were for surveillance of avian influenza, and another third were for rabies testing.
  • Killed 2.6 million animals – half of which were invasive species. Eighty percent of the animals lethally removed (killed) were either European starlings or blackbirds removed under a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service depredation order because of damage to food crops, other commodities, property, and livestock. The agency used nonlethal methods to move another 41 million starlings and blackbirds from areas where they were causing damage.
  • Protected 185 threatened or endangered wildlife and plant species from the impacts of disease, invasive species, and predators, including removing more than 55,000 non-native Northern pike minnow in the Pacific Northwest to protect federally threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
  • Of the 42.9 million animals encountered in damage management activities, 94 percent were dispersed unharmed.
  • Removed more than 73,000 feral swine, a 12-percent increase in removal of this invasive and destructive species.
  • Coyotes were the native mammal most often killed, with 68,000 killed in 48 states (for comparison, hunters and trappers in 39 states took 440,000 coyotes in 2014-2015).
  • At the request of other agencies, killed a total of 357 wolves in five states in response to repeated livestock depredations, or to protect localized wildlife populations.

Half of Wildlife Services’ funding last year was spent to reduce or prevent wildlife hazards to human health and safety, while 25 percent of funding was spent protecting agriculture, and the remaining quarter went toward property and natural resources protection, including threatened and endangered species. The agency provided technical assistance to more than a quarter-million customers nationwide in 2018.

Wildlife Services does not attempt to eradicate any native wild animal population. The agency is charged with managing problems caused by wildlife, and does so in cooperation with other federal, state, and local agencies. To pretend that Wildlife Services is out to kill millions of wild animals with no purpose is as illogical as pretending that human/wildlife conflicts don’t exist. It’s simply not true.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Range Writing: Moving Away From Nature

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Wyoming sheep dog

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan has done it again, proclaiming in a “Fake Meat Will Save Us” piece that “At a moment when animal-based agriculture is near the top of planet-killing culprits, ditching meat for substitutes, faux or otherwise, is the most effective thing an individual can do to fight climate change….”

Not distinguishing between types of ag operations, Egan complains about animal agriculture, while conceding that the new meat alternatives that will save humankind “are highly processed Frankenfoods hatched in a lab.” But hey, at least industrial ag isn’t as bad as the current president, which Egan calls “the worst threat to the planet now.” Given his political agenda and tendency to exaggerate, it’s hard to take Egan seriously. But his column is a reflection of some troubling public policy questions.

When I read about global-scale food and agriculture policies, my mind most often goes to the people of rural Africa, and I question how that policy or advance in technology will help my friends in that landscape. Most often these policies and new technologies are advanced and touted by elitist white men inhabiting cities in industrialized countries.

These people know nothing of cattle and sheep production on the western range, of migratory livestock herds in Africa, or even that meat production occurs outside of feedlots, and that not all animal production is done on an industrial scale. That there are people all over the globe who live close to nature and know how to feed themselves doesn’t receive a thought.

When Egan writes that it takes 660 gallons of water to create a burger, I realize that a person who would advance such a notion has never looked at an African cow and how it is raised.

The current view that new food technology will be our salvation results in a drive that pushes the human population further away from nature and away from a reliance on the land to sustain our bodies. When it comes to food production, it’s a predictable cycle, with a predictable outcome. I’ve just finished reading a book that is an excellent study for those of us who tend sheep but would hold little interest from most of the general public called The Art & Science of Shepherding: Tapping the Wisdom of French Herders, edited by Michel Meuret & Fred Provenza.

The book sketches the history of agriculture in southern France. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, sheep raising in southern France was not for wool or meat production, but for the production of sheep manure to maintain fertility in two-year cereal crop rotations.

Most flocks were wethers that were not slaughtered until they were four or five years old. Later agricultural modernization resulted in the view that rangelands were worthless, as producers turned to “new, high-performance animal genotypes, which require a standardized, nutrient-rich diet for meat or milk production.”

Scientists advised that productive herds be kept indoors or on forage crops where ration optimization could be calculated, based on feed value tables. As ag operations became specialized, they became concentrated on arable lands, and rangelands were abandoned or planted with trees.

What was lost in the process? Shepherding skills, and the knowledge of the natural world. Industrialized agriculture in France resulted in ag production growing by 250 percent from 1954 to 1992, and farm labor productivity increased tenfold, while the farm population declined to a quarter of its former size.

Within a few decades, southern France’s countryside had lost its diversity of meadows, forests and grasslands, and had become a closed and unmanaged landscape of dense brush and forest, with most human activity confined to the valley floors.

A variety of factors led to the next change, but at last the public and governments took notice of the degraded landscape, abandoned farms, loss of farmers, and noted the need to restore the land. The loss of biodiversity and increased fire hazards could be corrected through traditional livestock grazing.

Livestock could be used as an environmentally friendly way to restore the land, reduce the risk of wildfire, and provide healthy food. At last, the livestock were allowed to be turned back outdoors – and bewildered livestock producers were given financial incentives to do so.

Those former peasants who had herded sheep in the past were suddenly viewed as experts in valuable traditional knowledge, and schools sprang up to help spread this knowledge. The book details the 11 categories of shepherds and goatherders in France, and the various governmental support and structure for these positions. Grazing trusts provide financial support for capital expenditures, including the construction of handling facilities, while other funding may provide for supplies to be dropped on mountain pastures via helicopter.

Public policies, backed by financial support, has livestock producers focused not just on producing a quality meat product, but in providing for a variety of ecosystem functions. French farmers may receive $30-270 per acre annually to provide these ecosystem services.

Half of all the lamb consumed in France is imported, mainly from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and sheep production in France receives support from European Union ag subsidies – which account for more than half of a producer’s net income.

The conservation of nature is a big deal in Europe, and animal agriculture is viewed a key component to maintain outstanding biodiversity. Perhaps the fake meat elitists need to spend some time actually harvesting food grown in nature, rather insist that the public eat something manufactured in a laboratory.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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