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O’ Holy Night

in Column/Range Writing
O Holy Night
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth”
- Adolphe Adam, 1847

It’s the holiest of days and nights, with believers of different faiths around the world sharing in celebrations. While our family honors the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger, others will observe Hanukkah, Posadas Navidenas, Ashura, Kwanzaa, and other religious holidays. 

We live fairly far out in the rural countryside and since we tend to sheep as part of daily life, Christmas brings reflections on the birth of a baby in a manger, and the lessons set forth by the Good Shepherd.

While our small household no longer participates in shopping-and-Santa outings, we celebrate the season with other traditions – some old, some new. Our treasured gifts are books and wool socks (because there is nothing more luxurious than wool socks and a good book). And food, generous food gifts sent by thoughtful friends and loved ones: cookies and candies made by messy little hands under the cheerful supervision of young parents; steak or fish sent by friends from afar who we think of and talk about as we prepare these family meals; boxes of luscious chocolates crafted by bakery artisans and sent from fellow natural resource advocates; and buttery cookies from grandma.

We enjoy reading and displaying cards and letters that arrive in the mail, setting out festive decorations, making donations, cooking and drinking together, writing thank-you notes, collecting pinecones into small bowls, and placing juniper branches in glass vases.

We make snowy treks to chop down a tree or sagebrush, enjoying the earthy smells brought into our living room. We place a string of small white lights, add handcrafted wooden ornaments and sheep bells, and our Sherpa/Shepherd Santa graces the top of the tree. The tree is firmly tethered upright by strong cotton yarn so that the wild kittens we adopted a few months ago don’t pull it down in their nighttime escapades. Hud, our bearded collie herding dog, especially seems to enjoy the atmosphere of the festive tree in a darkened room on a cold winter night. Carrying the sign of the cross on their shoulders, the burros nudge through our coat pockets, seeking out the gingersnaps they know hide there. The animals seem to understand the changing ambiance of the season, the change from long darkness to light. Of course, the animals understand; the animals have always understood.

I play Elvis Presley’s Christmas songs on Christmas morning, and Jim and I usually end up dancing across the living room. The outside ranch chores are still first priority, and we heap extra feed to the flock. Hud finds a new stuffed toy, and all the working dogs get full bellies with warm treats. Although we don’t prepare any special feast for the day, after the chores are done, we often find friends and neighbors resting their elbows on our kitchen table, breaking bread with us – whatever form that bread happens to take any given year. We prepare and deliver food for other friends living or working alone nearby.

Our thoughts turn with fond remembrance to those who have left their earthly confines but still share our lives and hearts. And mostly importantly, we pray for comfort and refuge for those who are suffering from illness, or loss, or loneliness, or from whatever harsh darkness shrouds them.

Each beautiful winter morning serves as our reminder to show gratitude, and love, as we look out across the quiet beauty of a wild Wyoming landscape. As we set out feed for the flock, we celebrate this special season through traditions of shepherds before us, fully aware that from the humblest of places comes the greatest of joys.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cameras in classroom would increase school accountability

in Column/Education/Ray Peterson
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By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY 

Accountability from our schools has been an ongoing concern for years as the Legislature has struggled to understand how much the state spends for the results received. I remember a bill I sponsored years ago in an attempt to address this issue. 

The measure was nicknamed the “camera bill,” but its actual title was “Improving Teacher Evaluations.” It passed introduction, only to fail in the Senate Education Committee by one vote. Simply put, it was a concept for a pilot program to put cameras in the classroom to use for evaluations and provide security for both teachers and students. 

I thought it was an ideal time to implement the concept as we were building schools at a fast pace. The pilot program was to involve four schools, each of a different size, around our state. The program would continue for one year and a report on its effectiveness would be given to the Legislature.

The nexus of this concept came when I asked a few retired teachers how they were evaluated over the many years they had taught. Their answers were varied and inconsistent, which led me to believe that teacher evaluations across our state were somewhat of a “hit and miss” process. Stories of teachers suing school districts for wrongful termination or superintendents being reluctant to fire teachers with guaranteed contract status because of the personal hits they took led me to take a serious look at the evaluation process or how we might improve the process to address these concerns.

Think of it! The student and teacher would never know if the principal or instructional facilitator were watching! This alone would have a positive affect for both the student and the instructor. 

I only wish that every citizen from our state could have seen my presentation of this bill to the Senate Education Committee. Many certainly would have been entertained while listening to the point/counter-point between the Wyoming Education Association representatives and myself. It was classic. Perhaps this is where I made myself an enemy to these folks. 

Anyway, this idea was meant to be an additional tool an administrator could use to evaluate teachers. No disruption of the classroom with personal visits, no tip-off to give the teacher a chance to prepare. And the best part? Now a recording could be reviewed by the teacher, principal, the instructional facilitator and one of the parents of a student. 

Wait, a parent? How dare we suggest such a thing! Hold on, let me explain. The parent was to attend the viewing and submit a simplified evaluation form. Did the teacher seem prepared? Did he or she seem to maintain class discipline? Simple and basic questions. Then the parent representative would be asked to leave. Then the three people remaining in the room would get down to business while making recommendations and assignments for improvements as needed. The instructional facilitator would be assigned to work with the teacher in certain areas and all three would be required to sign off on the evaluation report. A work plan for improvement would be made, assignments given and a follow-up visit would be set to re-evaluate for these areas to be worked on. Think of the effect this would have on wrongful termination lawsuits. Or more importantly, how the schools could address the strengths or shortcomings of a teacher or administrator!

So why the parent involvement? In order for this to work, we must first, insure that the evaluations are happening. The parents group representative attends the monthly school board meeting to report on how many evaluations parents have participated in that month. Now everyone is on the hook! Not just our teachers and students but everyone from parents to administrators. No personnel problems or employee confidences are threatened. Just a quick report on whether the evaluations are happening to the school board and superintendent. 

Make no mistake, evaluations are the hardest part of school administration, but also the most critical. New school buildings and curriculum have less to do with a student’s education than a teacher’s desire and ability to teach. I would encourage parents around our state to ask their school administrators how teacher evaluations are performed in their own school districts. How often they are performed? How is the follow up performed? Who is involved in carrying out the improvement plans for an under-performing teacher? What you may find out could surprise you. It is as varied as you could imagine, from no evaluations to some. 

When I asked for myself, I was surprised to find out that the teacher was asked by the principal if the principal could attend a class sometime in the future. The time was set by the teacher and I’m sure the preparation began. I’m sure everything went to plan and the evaluation was deemed a success. I thought to myself, ‘How many things were wrong with this type of an evaluation?’ From reporting the evaluation to the effectiveness of the actual evaluation. Where was the hook or accountability for any of the players that we deem critical to our child’s education?

Second, we would reduce the wasteful wrongful termination lawsuits. Not only would we have documentation of the evaluations signed by all parties, but also from the instructional facilitator. This person is the best qualified teacher in each district, assigned the task of assisting other teachers become better instructors. The principal and the instructional facilitator would both work at improving the quality of teaching in our schools. This would also reduce concerns of personal attacks, inconsistent evaluations, new administration, personality conflicts and surprise terminations. Proper and consistent evaluations should remove all of these concerns.

Third, this proposal would involve and make more players accountable than just our teachers. Parents need to be more involved. How could a principal use the recording of a parent’s child struggling in one of their classes? How could parents reporting to the school board each month help improve the performance of our principals in conducting regular evaluations? If I were serving on a school board and the parents reported to us that they had been invited to only one evaluation that semester in a school with more than 20 teachers, I would think that we have a problem in evaluating our teachers consistently and properly.

Finally, this program would focus the efforts of not only our teachers and students but also our instructional facilitators, principals, parents, school board members and superintendents on educational excellence. If we really believe that education is the most important thing we do in this state, then I would ask the question, what is wrong with this concept? These are public institutions of learning and we have the technology to improve our efforts, so why not implement a pilot program to see what the effects might be? 

As a closing thought, having cameras in most parts of a school would only add to the security of our students and faculty. Bullying would be handled properly with video evidence being used to show all parties involved. 

Throwing additional money at a problem does not always solve the problem. Sometimes more effort is required. Maybe some courageous legislator can blow the dust off of my old bill and introduce it again. But beware of those that want nothing to do with accountability in our schools because they will come out in droves in opposition to this effort. More money is what they want.

I remain convinced that if implemented, this one improvement could do more for the quality of education in this state than anything else we could possibly do. More so than additional money or higher salaries, new buildings, more activities or even improved curriculum. This one effort to improve evaluations in our schools would hit the bullseye for boosting the quality of education in Wyoming. It would certainly eliminate the wrongful termination lawsuits. It would blow a hole through the guaranteed contract status of teachers and would provide the proper incentive to continually improve education efforts in schools. 

I’ve always believed that if evaluations were done correctly, we would have better teachers, happier teachers, accomplished teachers and better test scores for our students. Is it any wonder why our friends at the WEA were opposed to this concept? It did not fit with their desire for higher wages, guaranteed positions with less accountability. Perhaps it’s time for a new organization that puts our students first. W4E. Wyoming For Education. I would hope that such an organization would not fear innovation, technology, accountability, and responsibility.

Now who is serious about educating our children?

Ray Peterson served as a state senator for 13 years, from 2005-2018. He lives in Cowley.

Future Proofing our Kids for Tomorrow

in Column/Technology
Microsoft
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By Dennis Ellis, special to Cowboy State Daily

It’s been amazing to watch Wyoming become a national policy leader on growing computer science opportunities for our kids, enriching their education and giving them skills to compete in the future.

It’s no surprise that computing jobs are the number one source of new wages in the U.S. and that nine out of 10 parents want their children to learn computer science. Many even suggest that 70 percent of students will work in jobs that don’t even exist today. Technological change, economic turbulence and societal transformation are disrupting old career certainties and it is increasingly difficult to judge which degrees and qualifications will be a passport to a well-paid and fulfilling job in the decades ahead.

You can bet your paycheck I want my kids to have at least a basic fluency in computer science so they can be more impactful in whatever career they choose, as nearly every job becomes a technology-driven job, and future proof their careers. Our kids need to move beyond just consuming technology, and begin to learn how to create technology.

For Wyoming to continue to make leaps in giving our children a bright future in the face of such uncertainty, it takes a strong commitment from our policymakers, education system, business community and parents. Here are some great examples of this commitment I see around the state:

Governor Gordon signs a 2019 Computer Science Week Proclamation with Array School students on hand
  • Governor Mark Gordon recently signed a proclamation declaring Computer Science Week, recognizing the importance of providing our students new opportunities.
  • In 2018 Governor Matt Mead signed seminal legislation requiring each school to include computer science and computational thinking opportunities for all Wyoming students.
  • The State of Wyoming is developing K–12 computer science standards, blazing trails on how to provide professional development and micro-credentialing for in-service teachers to bridge the gap in teaching capacity.
  • Last year 60 percent of Wyoming high schools taught at least one computer science course. That’s the third highest rated state west of the Mississippi River and eighth best in the country!
State by State offerings for Computer Science in High School

Addressing the STEM Gap

Because I have two daughters, I’m highly concerned about the gap in STEM and computer science participation for females. We all should be.

Alarmingly, in 1995 just 37 percent of computer scientists were women. Today, only 24 percent of women. If we do nothing, in ten years the number of women in computing will decrease to just 22 percent. We can and must do better. 

No alt text provided for this image

Fortunately, for the sixth year in a row, the percentage of female AP Computer Science exam takers rose, steadily chipping away at the gender gap in high school computer science. Closing the participation gaps in computer science will take years, but there are clear signs that states are on the right path. Wyoming has already launched five Girls Who Code chapters to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

Microsoft recently partnered with the Array Foundation, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and Girls Who Code to launch Cheyenne’s first chapter. The chapter will enable girls to learn computer science from a female role model in the tech industry. Research shows that 31 percent of middle school girls and 40 percent of high school girls believe that jobs requiring coding are not for them. Increasing the amount of female role models can play an important role to shift these perceptions.

Girls Who Code Chapter launch with Array Foundation

Anyone interested in bringing Girls Who Code to their town, or get engaged in other areas of building a strong ecosystem of computer science in your community, contact me or the Array School of Technology and Design and we can help show you a simple playbook to help shape a bright future for Wyoming!

Tracking Wild

in Agriculture/Column/News/Range Writing/wildlife
Good deer
Researchers use radio collars to track mule deer migration through the Wind River Mountains. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

There are probably thousands of tracking devices installed on wild animals in Wyoming.

From collars or eartag transmitters placed on big game animals and large carnivores like wolves and bears, to backpack harnesses or neck bands installed on a variety of bird species, and the surgical insertion of devices into fish, the amount of wildlife tracking conducted every year in Wyoming is astounding.

The collar on this migrating mule deer in May 2019 was too loose, rubbing the hair off the animal’s neck and hitting it in the head when the animal grazed.
The collar on this migrating mule deer in May 2019 was too loose, rubbing the hair off the animal’s neck and hitting it in the head when the animal grazed. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

But the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WG&F) can’t tell you how many animals are wearing these devices. I know that because I asked: first informally, and when that didn’t yield any information, I was instructed to submit a formal request, which I did. The response noted “there is not an easy way to show how many animals actually have collars on them at this point.” I was told that “it would take quite a few hours to go through each permit report” to see how many animals were actually collared under each permit issued by the department even in a single year, but if I wanted to pursue the matter, the agency would send me a cost estimate for that effort. I declined. 

I had naïvely assumed there must be a central electronic location accessed by wildlife biologists to see the status of monitored animals, but that is not the case. Even the University of Wyoming’s Wildlife Migration Initiative’s Migration Viewer provides simple summaries of ungulate movements. WMI notes in bold type that “the raw location data can only be obtained by contacting the original data owner,” and “This allows us to share ungulate movement data with a broad range of users, while protecting the integrity of the datasets and the proprietary study or project needs of the many researchers that collected and own the data.”

This bison in Yellowstone National Park had its radio collar tangled in its horn.
This bison in Yellowstone National Park had its radio collar tangled in its horn. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Some of the tracking devices placed on wild animals in Wyoming are conventional, very-high-frequency (VHF); others provide satellite tracking; and still others make use of the global positioning system (GPS). But all wildlife research in Wyoming that requires live-handling of animals to attach tracking devices begins with obtaining a permit from WG&F. Although wildlife researchers have until January 1 of the year following their permit expiration to file a detailed report with the agency, it’s unfortunate that data-sharing with our state’s wildlife managers is limited to by-then dated information.

When the Teton County Planning and Development office contracted with Biota Research and Consulting, Inc., to identify, describe, and map important habitat features for a range of wildlife species as part of its county comprehensive plan process, Biota worked to develop GIS overlays for all wildlife species in the county. That process required identifying all available datasets in existence, held by both private and public entities conducting wildlife research. Biota ended up developing unique data sharing contracts “in the interest of meeting the various concerns about misuse of data from each of the project contributors.”

“Although some potential collaborators willingly shared their data, other potential collaborators in both the private and public sector clearly articulated their unwillingness to share data, or failed to provide data that they agreed to share,” Biota noted.

What prompted my interest in the issue was the appearance of radio-collared mule deer and pronghorn antelope on our place, and some of those collars were not properly fitted. Since some of the mule deer have an easily-read bright numbered tag attached to the outside of the collar, I assumed our local WG&F biologist would be able to provide information on when the collar was placed, and to what end (the goals of the research project). Alas, that is not the case. The public or private entity conducting the research retains the real-time specifics, while WG&F has more a general knowledge of what research projects are taking place, and can access the annual reports from those research projects.

Research on the impacts of natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline resulted in the collaring of this pronghorn antelope which was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar during frigid winter temperatures.
Research on the impacts of natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline resulted in the collaring of this pronghorn antelope which was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar during frigid winter temperatures. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Open sores and hair loss are frequent adverse effects from the use of radio-collars and other telemetry devices, as are animal entanglements in the collars themselves. Ill-fitting collars cause wounds and infections, and too tight a collar can restrict air flow and swallowing. As some researchers have pointed out, “ill-fitting collars and problems associated with them clearly influence research results and have implications for ethics within the wildlife profession.”

Behavioral impacts from the use of radio-collars are often discounted as insignificant, but there has been little research into this issue. Still, some research has revealed that collared moose in Norway keep in groups separate from non-collared moose. Brightly-colored collars on deer have resulted in higher harvest rates by deer hunters able to see these colors from a distance. Water and ice build-up under and around collars has been an issue for young ungulates. Other research has found impacts to a broad range of species, from voles to penguins.

There is no doubt that telemetry is an important tool in the research and management of many wildlife species. It’s my hope that researchers will strive for a better understanding of the potential negative consequences of strapping telemetry devices to wild animals (altering behavioral patterns should be a significant concern). And as science and technology advances, agencies like the WG&F may have to put in place better data-sharing mechanisms for the information harvested from wild animals in Wyoming.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cowboy State-oriented gifts perfect for this year’s Christmas

in Bill Sniffin/Column
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By Bill Sniffin

So many gifts – so little time.

I reached out to my network of friends about their ideas for the best Wyoming-oriented Christmas gifts and it was an inundation!

Wow, what a great selection.  Let’s hope I can do them justice by listing a bunch of them here.

Books were mentioned a lot with Cheyenne’s Steve Horn having a new Sam Dawson mystery out that is getting rave reviews. Two former colleagues of mine published books.  Charlotte Dehnert published Lester Callaway Hunt, which started as a series she wrote for the Wyoming State Journal back in the 1970s.  Gail Schilling wrote a wonderful book called Do Not Go Gentle – Go to Paris, which has the great tagline “Travels of an uncertain woman of a certain age!”  Jean Haugen is pushing Sara Wiles’ new books about the Arapaho Tribe called The Arapaho Way. These are great gals and great books, too.

Jim Hicks of Buffalo touts products from Mountain Meadow Wool Mills in his hometown.

Also hailing from Buffalo is a State Poet Gene Gagliano, whose great book C is for Cowboy is promoted by Paul McCown, who says it was great for his kids and for him, too, since he is a newcomer to the Cowboy State. Susan Guy’s artwork is splendid. 

Thanks Paul for also suggesting people buy some coffee table books by some local named Sniffin.  Eric Molvar also touts his coffee table book called Red Desert, which is splendid. Lauren Throop suggests Wyoming Migrations, a terrific book that tells the stories of the work involved in discovering migration routes of Wyoming native animals 

A truly great book with international historical significance is From Fidel Castro of Mother Teresa by long-time AP reporter Joe McGowan, who served Wyoming for a long time.  Incredible adventures of our own.

Ray Hunkins’ new coffee table book is a great read, too. It is called The View from Thunderhead.  The Louisa B. Swain Society published it. She was the first woman to ever vote in an organized election, in Laramie 150 years ago.

Of course, any books by Ron Franscell, Craig Johnson, and CJ Box make wonderful Christmas presents.  Pete Illoway of Cheyenne also touts Doug Chamberlain’s new book Bury Him: A Memoir of the Viet Nam War. Chamberlain is a former Wyoming legislator.  Another terrific book about Vietnam is from former Wyomingite Bill Jones, called The Body Burning Detail. Riveting.  Former Wyomingite Scott Farris wrote an amazing book called Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect. He also wrote a great book about early Wyoming filmmaker Tim McCoy. 

Candy Moulton’s latest book is The Mormon Handcart Migration. Well received. A timely new book here during the state’s 150thanniversary of women suffrage is Esther Hobart Morris by Kathryn Swim Cummings. It is published by Nancy Curtis’ High Plains Press of Glendo. 

The recent blizzard reminds us of the Snow Chi Minh book by John Waggener, a true history of why Interstate 80 is built in such an awful place.  Jerry Kendall of Hudson is promoting his book Wyoming Treasures. A timely book is A History of the Wyoming Capital by Stanley Talbott Thompson and Linda Graves Fabian. 

Tammy Green of Lander promotes all good people, all good projects, and all good things.  Among her favorites are works by Joy Woods, Chris Hulme, Verna Burger Davis, Tina Brown Jones, Shawna Cargile-Pickinpaugh, Lennie Poitras, Bill Yankee, Lane Nelson, Scott Robison, and all the folks at Alchemy in Lander. 

Robb Hicks is promoting Margo’s Pottery and Fine Crafts in Buffalo. Bonnie Cannon loves mywyodesigns.com, based in Riverton. 

Nancy Ebbert raves about Sweetwater Studio with Jenny Reeves, Noelle Weimann Van Dijk, and JC Dye.  Christine Marie endorses Brown Sugar Coffee of Riverton.  

One of the state’s finest photographers Daryl Hunter of Jackson promotes lots of wonderful gift retailers from his web site fineartamerica/packstring-wyoming. 

Marsha Redding of the famous Spanky’s in Evanston touts Samantha Hartman on all her hand made items. 

Ron Gullberg of the Wyoming Business Council suggested you could always refer people to Made in Wyoming too: madeinwyoming.org. He also reached out to their regional folks who came up with this list: 

– Surf Wyoming-Big Horn Designs in Sheridan fulfills several Wyoming companies with logo apparel (and Big Horn Designs recently opened a shop in Cheyenne too).

– Bison Union in Sheridan roasts their own coffee beans and sells locally made gifts. Also Merlin’s Hideout in Thermopolis. 

Creativity-cards in Wright makes fun, snarky greeting cards and coasters on an antique paper press.

– Sheridan Soap Company sells locally made products, EK Jewelers in Gillette sells beautiful handmade jewelry, PDB Bear Pottery Art in Buffalo, Fish fossils from Kemmerer, and Casull firearms from Freedom Arms in Freedom.

Many craft brewers now around the state. Also craft distillers such as vodka from Cowboy Country Distilling, Jackson Hole Stillworks, and Backwards Distilling.

And finally, we need to support all our local merchants in our Wyoming cities and towns this season. I love the attitude taken by Central Wyoming College President Brad Tyndall: “I feel my broader family includes all the great folks in our county with small shops. It’s fun to try to make it to as many as I can to buy a thing or two for presents and stocking stuffers. In going up and down main streets in Riverton and Lander you can find so many good things that are either from Wyoming or our Fremont County neighbors.”

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 more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

Education is already state’s top expense — why spend more?

in Column/Education
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By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY

I never served on the Senate Education Committee, but participated in many discussions on school funding formulas, education expenses, school construction, curriculum, teacher salaries and administrative costs. 

I did have the opportunity to serve six years on the Appropriations Committee and on the latest Recalibration Committee as well as the School Facilities Select Committee and so, like most legislators voting on these matters, I couldn’t help but learn about the issues facing education.

Recently the Joint Education Committee met and narrowly passed a proposal for a $19 million increase to the education funding model. This bill will go to the full Legislature in February for a vote. 

I question the need for yet another increase to education funding, considering the fact spending on our public schools is already the largest of all the state’s budget expenditures. In addition, an annual automatic adjustment to education to account for inflation already adds $15 million a year to the cost. So Wyoming ranks No. 1 in our region for education spending and No. 5 in the country.

It leaves me shaking my head that the Education Committee is once again recommending even more spending increases. It begs the questions: Where will the money come from? Which budget will we rob from or what tax increase is coming? 

The explanation for the proposed increase from committee leaders was that Wyoming’s Supreme Court required education to be the Legislature’s top funding priority. My answer to that is that K-12 education is already the largest segment of our ever-growing state budget. 

Where we spent $1,234 per student in 1979, we are now spending $16,381 in 2019. The Legislature has elected to spend more than the funding model suggests every year since 2001. And yet we need to spend even more? Since 1979 our K-12 education budget has grown nearly 400 percent! 

Also consider that most school district superintendents in Wyoming — we have 48 — make more than our Governor

Folks, no one seems to driving this runaway train and sadly, I don’t see any stop to it. All of this leaves me with the question: How much do we need to spend or how much is enough for our schools to be happy enough to prevent them from suing the Legislature a fourth time. 

Personally, I say bring it. 

What evidence do our schools have that they are not our top priority? Most districts have new buildings, new buses, the highest starting salaries in the region, low class sizes, top-of-the-line benefits packages and the best students in the nation to work with. I for one grow tired of the threat of a law suit. Times have changed over the last 40 years and frankly, they do not have a leg to stand on. 

Finally, I would add this: If our Supreme Court rules again that our school districts need more money, then I would challenge our justices to balance our state budget. Are roads important? Water, sewer and other infrastructure that make our communities nice to live in, are they important? How about health care? Emergency services, law enforcement? 

I could go on and on with other budgets that will continue to be robbed in the name of education. Look at the numbers. Look at what we spend. Look at what we have spent with the funding increases over the last 40 years and then tell me with a straight face that more is needed to maintain the quality of our education. And please don’t tell me that I don’t believe in education as much as you do. Or that I just don’t understand how education works. I see what goes in and what comes out, and I’m left thinking that we can do much better.

Chronic Wolf Depredation

in Agriculture/Column/News/Range Writing
wolf
Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I recently attended a meeting of fellow sheep and cattle producers who raise livestock in the part of Sublette County that is outside Wyoming’s trophy zone for wolves.

Wolves in the trophy zone are subject to regulated harvest as determined by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WG&F) with hunting seasons and quotas, but in the predator zone, wolves can be killed at any time, for any reason.

If a livestock producer has wolves preying on their livestock in the trophy zone, it is the WG&F’s responsibility to both take care of the problem and to provide compensation for livestock losses to wolves. Not so in the predator zone. Although there is no regulation on the “take” of wolves in the predator zone, there is no state compensation program for livestock losses due to wolf depredation.

The state does have a program to help local predator boards pay for wolf control in the predator zone when there are confirmed livestock depredations, but again, no compensation program.

At the meeting, I listened to two of my neighbors who belong to a grazing association discuss their historic annual herd death-loss rate of 2%, and how that rate has now increased to 10%. The increase comes despite the application of intensive animal health protocols, and active herding by range riders living with the cattle. This is the same scenario as that faced by cattle producers experiencing grizzly bear depredation on their herds in the Upper Green River region of the same county.

With losses now 10% or more, several Upper Green producers said they wouldn’t be able to stay in the cattle business without the WG&F compensation program.

Two of my neighbors in the predator zone ended the grazing season short a total of 48 calves. A few calves were verified as wolf kills, but the majority of the missing calves simply disappeared, as is typical when a large carnivore species preys on livestock in rugged terrain. If each of those calves were sold at $700 per head this fall, that’s a loss of $33,600 in revenue between the two neighbors.

Five other neighboring producers (including me) didn’t disclose their losses, but all had enough losses to wolves to bring us all into the same room for a discussion. I can think of two other neighboring producers who weren’t able to attend the meeting but are in the same boat as the rest of us.

Our portion of the southern Wind River Mountains has become known as a chronic wolf depredation area. This area was not included in the trophy wolf zone specifically “because of the high potential for persistent conflicts with domestic sheep and cattle that are grazed on both public and private lands in these areas.”

There are other areas of the state’s predator zone in a similar situation, including in areas in Lincoln, Park, and Fremont counties. Wolves have even hit herds in Natrona and Carbon counties.

The livestock losses in our region are occurring with relatively high hunting pressure on the wolf population, since wolves can be taken anytime and without a permit in the predator zone. As one young cattleman questioned, “Who thinks this is working, when you’ve got wolf hunting and calf losses are at 10%?”

Hunting pressure has made wolves in the predator zone smarter and more elusive, but it has not stopped wolves from killing livestock – as we all knew it wouldn’t. But it has made controlling problem wolves more difficult.

Without radio collars on wolf packs in the predator zone, we have no way to monitor wolf pack movements, so we lack a method of tracking problem wolves. When we did place a radio collar on a wolf on our place, she would be at our ranch one night, and 15-20 miles away the next night. We always know the wolves will return, but what we never know is when. Sometimes it’s three or four nights a week, but sometimes it’s only about once every three weeks.

What has now been proven is that the Wyoming legislative declaration of wolves outside the trophy game zone as a predatory species with no limits on take does little to resolve depredation problems. While hunters can legally kill wolves at any time in the predator zone, most have learned that it’s easier to talk about hunting wolves than actually succeed at killing one. Even when they succeed in harvesting a wolf, most often they are not targeting wolves involved in livestock depredations. 

Targeting depredating wolves requires a sustained effort by skilled professionals: USDA Wildlife Services, the professional animal damage control experts that wolf advocates love to hate. After our recent livestock producer meeting, Wildlife Services agreed to devote more ground time to our chronic damage area, and within a few days was able to trap and radio collar another female wolf – a member of another wolf pack living in the area. With this federal agency’s help, we hope to get more collars placed on wolves in the predator zone. Then we can respond to livestock depredations by taking not just any wolf, but the wolves responsible for livestock depredations.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Antarctica? Cowboy State was a sea of blowing snow during Great Thanksgiving Blizzard

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Snow
2480

By Bill Sniffin

Travel in Wyoming was horrific on the days leading up to the 2019 Thanksgiving holiday. Heavy snow and high winds struck at least three-fourths of the state. It was a mess.

For a while, the state was land-locked. There were few people able to get in to or out of Wyoming.  Interstate 80 was closed. Interstate 25 was closed. And most other major roads were closed.

Of course, this was occurring on Thanksgiving week and people were on the move.  AAA estimated 55 million would be traveling more than 50 miles and a good number of them planned to head through Wyoming. The snow not only affected people with connections to Wyoming but also folks east and west of the state that were hoping to travel across the state. Not on this week, at least for a while.

Besides highways, there were businesses, schools, colleges, and the University of Wyoming closing early for the holidays because of the storm. 

Last I checked we had 21 inches of snow on the ground at my house in Lander. And yet, we had it pretty good compared to some folks around the state.

Cheyenne was a disaster zone. Pete and Chloe Illoway recently moved north of the capital city and found themselves battered by wind and snow.

“We live in an area they call the ranchettes just south of the Torrington Highway so there is nothing to stop the wind or snow except for shelter belts. Our drifts are hard and high. They may not melt until early spring,” Pete says.

“It was quite a storm for early in the season. I do not have a gauge to measure the wind but it was strong enough we never went outside. It was a Doozie,” Illoway concluded, as he spoke for most Cheyenne residents.

Saddest story I heard was about Dean and Kathi McKee of Lander. They were headed to Casper to catch a flight to Fort Lauderdale. They had intended to join their daughter and her husband on a Caribbean Cruise to Jamaica.  They were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

They made it to Casper but their flight was cancelled.  They could not make it to Denver on time so headed back home.  They ended up spending the night in a rustic nine-room motel in Jeffrey City.

When they went to get breakfast next door the next morning, the restaurant service was slow because the exhausted bartender had been serving drinks to stranded travelers until 4 a.m.  He was asleep in a lounge chair.

Kathi reported: “The people who own the hotel are the freaking best!”

She said: “A snowplow did come to escort us and eight other vehicles safely out of Jeffrey City on a closed road. Thank you WYDOT!”

Apparently there were a dozen carloads of folks stranded down the road at Muddy Gap, too.  Three Forks convenience center there takes good care of people.

Wyoming’s biggest heroes during the holidays were Highway Patrolman Sam Szott and an unidentified passing motorist who saved a person’s life in a terrible crash near Wheatland.

Just after midnight on Tuesday, Szott saw a pickup on fire down the embankment.  The driver was unresponsive and the two men got him out before the entire truck was engulfed in flames.  The driver recovered later. 

Press reports stated: “Without this trooper’s actions and the Good Samaritan’s actions, this guy wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to be around for the holidays,” Lt. Kyle McKay said. “By their quick thinking, they saved this guy’s life.”

Kudos go out to Gary Michaud who runs the Wind River Transportation Authority in Fremont County. His crew sent a bus to Laramie to pick up Lander and Riverton UW students so these young people would not be out driving on dangerous roads.

One of those students was my grandson, so this is a pretty great service it seems to me.  Wonder if any other counties in Wyoming are providing this service?  If not, maybe they should.

Fremont County students headed back to Laramie Sunday in the safety of the bus, being helmed this time by Del Nelson.

Dave “Pop” Lukens was visiting Minneapolis prior to the storm. He says: “Donna and I were in MSP for Thanksgiving with our other two grandkids.  There is this web site called morecast.com where you can find out the weather for your route and we plugged in our trip back to Lander on Friday. 

“At 3 a.m. mountain time, we got an alert from this web site that said, “LEAVE NOW! And we did.  We drove those 970 miles in fog, snow, black ice, and heavy snow from Shoshoni to Lander. And with stops, somehow we averaged 66.8 mph including potty and gas stops.   

“Now keep in mind that all the signs said to turn off cruise control, so I did, but that resulted in much higher speeds. Happy we didn’t get stuck behind a big RV.” 

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 more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

On Bone Broth, and Coexistence

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Guardian dogs
2455

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The morning after Thanksgiving our house was once again filled with the smell of cooking turkey. But this time it was because we were boiling the carcass remains from the previous day’s feast. The bones are placed in the garbage once the broth is complete, but we pour the bone broth with chunks of meat in canning jars for reheating and pouring over the kibble of our working livestock guardian dogs on cold winter mornings.

Bones from a beef roast, leg of lamb, or leftover bird carcass all provide for delicious bone broth that can be used to make soup, but we like providing a nutrition boost for hard-working dogs and females raising pups.

livestock guardian dogs

On Thanksgiving we got the turkey in the oven before daylight and proceeded to outside chores at the first welcoming rays of light. The sheep were still on their bedground with their dogs, so we went across the ranch to check our game cameras, a vital part of our wolf monitoring program.

Fresh wolf tracks in new snow confirmed that wolves had paid an early-morning visit to our sheep range – their third nocturnal visit in a week. A resident female wolf that we helped radio collar a year ago has mostly kept to herself, but after we eliminated her mate a few months ago, she’s brought in another large male to the ranch, and their excursions are becoming more frequent. This male wolf’s track is large and distinct, and I suspect it’s the elusive male we had trouble with last fall and winter.

After we lost our two top guardian dogs, the male had become emboldened, and as I checked the cameras every morning, I would find his tracks atop my boot prints from the day before. As I tracked the wolf, he tracked me, marking and tearing up the ground where I walked, and he began coming to the rocks behind the house. He avoided the cameras, approaching them from behind, until one night in a fit of rage last November he attacked a camera, taking 85 selfies in the process.

That’s when we spooled up the guardian dogs, penned and fed the sheep, and set out wolf traps. After splitting up his pack, the male disappeared from our range. It had been quiet since I’d last come across his sign, but looking at those fresh tracks in the snow, it’s with a tense familiarity.

We follow the wolf tracks through the area our sheep flock grazed the day prior and see where the wolves and the guardian dogs each marked the same territorial boundary. The sheep and their dogs use the area during the day before being pushed toward the house every afternoon. The wolves wait until darkness falls across the range before moving in to explore where the sheep had spent the day.

Two nights ago, the wind-driven snow pushed the flock into the protected cover in the bottom of Sheep Creek. We tracked the wolves up the drainage to within a half-mile of the flock as they moved in response to the sheep movement below. The tracks in the snow left by the wolves, the guardians, and the sheep, lays out the reality of coexistence on the ground. The wolves are nearby, but are currently maintaining a certain distance.

It’s been a hard-fought coexistence. We deferred grazing this range one year and a pack of six wolves took over the range as their own. When we moved in the next year, the wolf pack come within a quarter-mile of the house and our penned sheep, causing massive brawls between the warring canine cousins. The wolves killed pronghorn antelope and mule deer within half-mile of the house, and the pack lounged atop the rocky ridge overlooking our headquarters, as our guardian dogs struggled to widen the territory of protected space. We had guardian dogs injured and killed, dozens of sheep injured and killed, and we’ve injured and killed wolves.

The sheep flock has its own guardian dogs that move with the flock as it grazes, as do the cattle, and we also have a guardian dog pack that controls the area around the ranch headquarters and pens. The wolves are no longer able to roam the ridge overlooking the house because that territory has been taken by the guardian dogs.

The biggest risk is to the sheep, with their smaller size and ever-changing grazing pattern. The livestock guardian dogs have managed to impose a restricted buffer of protection around the flock, but we know that any weakness of the dog pack – or any strengthening of the wolf pack –will cause this uneasy coexistence to end. 

So we prepare the bone broth, to boost our working dogs on cold winter mornings, to nourish them for whatever may lie ahead.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Esther Hobart Morris Symbolizes Equal Rights

in Column
Esther Hobart Morris
2433

By Nancy Guthrie, Mary B. Guthrie, and Rosalind Routt Schliske

This year, three noteworthy events occurred in Wyoming—the celebration of the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the designation of 2019 as the “Year of Wyoming Women,” and the reopening of the newly renovated Wyoming Capitol.

The July 10 celebration of the reopening of the Wyoming Capitol was an extraordinary event. Wyoming residents are rightfully proud of the fine work done on that special building. 

However, the project is not finished because the heroic bronze statue of Esther Hobart Morris, the “Mother of Women’s Suffrage in Wyoming” and first woman justice of the peace in the world, has been banished to the basement connector between the Capitol and Herschler Building. 

It is unfortunate that the statue was not restored to its proper place in front of the Capitol. 

Since 1963, the large statue of Mrs. Morris has been a reminder to all who visited the Capitol that Wyoming was the first governmental entity in the world to grant women the right to vote and to hold public office.

We have driven by the Capitol thousands of times and have been thrilled to see the statue of Morris, an important reminder of Wyoming’s history and the strong women who settled this state. Regardless of the time of day or weather conditions, visitors posed with and took photos of the imposing statue while marveling at the historic 1869 decision to give women the right to vote.

The state is missing an opportunity to educate visitors about our history and the accomplishments of Esther Hobart Morris and other Wyoming women pioneers. It is shortsighted to consign her statue and all it symbolizes to the basement of a state office building that is only open during business hours on weekdays.

We respect the hard work and dedication of the members of the committee that oversaw the Capitol renovation. Indeed, they are to be commended. But the decision to remove our Esther from the front of the Capitol should be revisited.

While we have heard several reasons for the statue’s removal, including fear of vandalism and aesthetics, these concerns can be addressed by experts.

In this “Year of Wyoming Women,” it would be fitting to celebrate Wyoming women by moving Esther back outside the Capitol where she belongs so that everyone who sees her would be reminded about Wyoming’s  contribution to women’s rights.

We are not the only people who would like to see the statue moved outside. Many have expressed the view to us that Esther should be visible to all at all times.  

The Capitol is lovingly referred to as “the People’s House.” State leaders should listen to and address the concerns of Wyoming people who treasure its rich history.

LET’S BRING ESTHER HOME.

(Note: Nancy Guthrie, a retired state district court judge, was Wyoming’s first female county attorney.  Mary B. Guthrie was the first woman to serve as Cheyenne City Attorney. Rosalind Routt Schliske is professor emeritus of mass media at Laramie County Community College, where she taught journalism for 40 years.   As members of the Cheyenne League of Women Voters, Mary and Rosalind co-wrote the play marking Wyoming’s 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage and performed it at the grand reopening of the Wyoming Capitol on July 10.)

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