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Budgets, black eyes, bare knuckles: MMA board keeps Wyoming on combative sports map

in Government spending/News
2523

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Seven years after creating the nation’s first Board of Mixed Martial Arts, Wyoming is still grappling to stay ahead in the evolving world of combative sports. 

“We were the first state to regulate and sanction bare-knuckle fighting,” MMA Board Chairman Bryan Pedersen said, explaining the fighting style was sanctioned in 2018. “It was legal before, but there was no regulatory body. Now, everyone’s doing it. But somebody had to be first, and I’m proud it was Wyoming.”

But, like the fighters it was created to protect, the MMA board has to roll with punches, especially when they hit below the budget belt.

Carbon extraction not only drives the state’s economy, but it attracts combative sports most active demographic — people between the ages of 18 and 25. 

“In 2015, they started capping (oil and gas) wells,” Pedersen said. “For 16 months, we didn’t have one event, because you had an exodus of fans and combatants.”

The board’s budget is funded entirely by license fees, event permits and gate-fee percentages, he explained. 

“We believe we can do our job with no additional funds from the general fund,” Pedersen said. “If this thing ever runs out of money, it auto-collapses.”

Knocking out the books

An MMA fighter, financial adviser and former state representative, Pedersen sponsored the bill to create the board in 2012. As a member of the state’s Revenue Committee at the time, however, he said he wanted to make sure the board could be self-sufficient, so he added language to the proposal that forced it to collapse if its bank account ran dry.

“I’d seen enough of people coming to the Legislature asking for money,” he recalled. “I wanted to make sure that was never this.”

Without a physical location or salaried staff, keeping the board in the black seems like it would be easy even during the slow years, but Pedersen said the devil is in the details.

“We pay the Department of Administration and Information to keep tabs on our account,” he explained. “So, during that down period when nothing was going on, we were paying them to tell us nothing was going on.”

According to information provided by the State Auditor’s Office, the board spent about $2,300 in 2016 and approximately $2,500 in 2017. 

“We nearly ran out of money,” Pedersen said. “At one point, I bought six t-shirts from the board for $2,000 just so we could pay (the Department of Administration and Information). Then, oil came back, and now, we’re having more events.”

After regulating bare-knuckle boxing in 2018, the board’s expenditures more than tripled to nearly $9,000, before dropping back to about $6,000 so far in 2019. Pedersen said after Wyoming sanctioned bare-knuckle fighting, other states followed suit, decreasing the board’s income because of a lack of events.

“We only receive income from fighters’ licenses, promoters’ licenses, event permits and 5 percent of the gate fee,” Pedersen said. “We spend our money on training for officials and our at-will employees as needed.”

The board lists two at-will employees on its website: Board Representative Nick Meeker and Jeremy Arneson, an executive assistant.

To ensure adherence to the board’s regulations, one representative is paid to attend each event. An at-will employee is also paid to attend board meetings and perform administrative duties. Since 2014, the board has permitted 28 events, most of which were MMA bouts, Pedersen said. He did not provide data for events prior to 2014.At-will employees are paid fixed rates for specific services, but not the commissioners.

“No commissioner takes compensation of any kind,” Pedersen said.

The board has also banked $10,000 to settle any disputes over contested match outcomes, he added. 

‘Above and beyond’

BYB Extreme promoter Mike Vazquez said his company presented data about bare-knuckle fighting compared to traditional boxing across the nation before finding an open ear in Wyoming.

“We went around the country showing data we collected, and the crazy thing is — everywhere we went, they agreed with us,” Vazquez said. “But, (Pedersen) and his group were really the first to act on the data.”

In a traditional boxing match, about 700 punches are thrown, more than half land and landed shots are typically to the head, he explained.

“With bare-knuckle boxing, our rounds are shorter and there’s less of them,” Vazquez said. “Our fighters don’t have gloves, so they don’t throw a lot of shots to the head.” 

During a typical bare-knuckle fight, he said less than a hundred punches are thrown, fewer connect and less than half land on the head, he said.

“Having Wyoming take that step has now let other states take the step,” Vazquez said. “We’ve seen at least five other states regulate the sport, and I’ve heard several others are in the works.”

BYB Extreme hosted a bare-knuckle event at the Cheyenne Ice and Event Center in April.

“Wyoming was great, the people were so welcoming,” Vazquez said. “We stayed at the haunted hotel there – the Plains Hotel — and the MMA Board was fantastic to work with. They went above and beyond.”

Despite the number of notches in its belt already, the board has big plans ahead, Pedersen said. 

“We have a huge drive from promoters and fighters to regulate boxing,” he said. “They want to legitimize their bouts, because if a person fights in an unsanctioned bout, it doesn’t count.”

While the MMA board regulates MMA, kick boxing and bare-knuckle boxing, traditional boxing is not currently in its purview.

“Right now, a commission is coming from Kansas and regulating a few bouts,” Pedersen said. “The Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), the governing body of boxing and MMA nationwide, permits sanctioning bodies to regulate interstate.”

In order for boxers’ fights to count toward their official record, ABC requires them to be licensed by their home state, he explained.

“We don’t have licensure body,” Pedersen said. “All these guys that are out there putting in the blood, sweat and tears cannot get a license.” 

The board plans to pursue authority to issue licenses to Wyoming fighters utilizing its current funding method, which would require no additional funds from the state, he said. 

“We do this out of a passion for the sport,” Pedersen said about his service on the board. “I love Wyoming, and I’m not going anywhere. I hope to be doing this for a long time to come.”

Capitol’s new furniture might not be delivered until after 2020 Budget Session

in Government spending/News
2519

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Months after Wyoming hosted a grand reopening of the state Capitol building, legislative and executive staffers are still working with folding tables and temporary furniture.

During a Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group meeting Nov. 15, group members voted to rework a Request For Proposal (RFP), which could provide furnishings for the newly renovated building. 

Oversight Group member Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said the group originally hoped to see the Capitol furnished prior to the 2020 Budget Session. But reworking the proposal could prevent that goal. 

“We’ve had several issues that have arisen out of our original RFPs,” Bebout explained. “We specced this RFP to a certain greater quality, but the manufacturer that could meet those specs went out of business.”

Additionally, he said the group wanted to ensure Wyoming furniture suppliers had an opportunity to bid on the reworked proposal. 

“The original RFP went out about 3-4 months ago,” Bebout said. “It’s a long RFP, because it gets into the specifics.”

Bebout did not have the specifics on hand at the time of his interview, but instead, directed Cowboy State Daily to the Wyoming State Construction Department for details regarding the furniture RFP.

Construction Department spokesperson Travis Hoff said the agency declined to comment on the RFP details, process, amendments or creation, because the document was being reviewed by the Wyoming Attorney General’s office. 

In an email, Hoff provided the state statute used to create the RFP, which specifies that the agency issuing an RFP can ask for certain specifications or products. However, the law also states if the specified product is not available to “responsible Wyoming resident suppliers,” that fact cannot be used as a reason to prevent Wyoming vendors from submitting bids.

Hoff also confirmed some staffers were currently working in the Capitol on temporary furniture, and while no agencies were still renting space outside state-owned buildings, some had yet to move into the Capitol.

Wyoming Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht said his staff moved into the building earlier this summer.

“We’re working on folding tables and have been since June,” Obrecht said.

Bebout said he wasn’t fond of the situation, but he didn’t place the blame at anyone’s feet. 

“I thought we would probably have it done before the budget session, but there’s really nobody to blame,” he said. “If we don’t get (new furniture) by the time the budget session starts, then we’ll use the old furniture and make it work.”

March, rally recognize 150 years of suffrage in Wyoming

in News
2516

By Robert Geha, Cowboy State Daily

Several of the participants in a march Tuesday to commemorate the anniversary of women’s suffrage in Wyoming said the event helped draw attention to instances of inequality that still need to be addressed.

On Dec. 10, 1869, territorial Gov. John Campbell signed the legislation giving Wyoming women the right to vote and hold elected office. Suffrage in Wyoming came 50 years before Congress approved legislation giving women across the country the right to vote.

“And unfortunately, Washington doesn’t know that,” said Gov. Mark Gordon, who participated in the march to the Capitol. “So we need to make sure they understand. We were the first.”

Despite Wyoming leading the nation in the area of suffrage, the state still needs to address areas of inequality, said Britney Wallesch, executive director of Black Dog Animal Rescue and a participant in the march.

“The wage gap is certainly a problem, as we know, in this state,” she said. “Lack of female representation in our elected offices is still a problem. But I think that this march and this day and this year of celebration is a bit of encouragement that things will begin to change.”

Former state Sen. E. Jayne Mockler agreed more work needs to be done.

“We do have a long way to go,” she said. “We have a lot of inequality in a lot of areas in this country and that’s what this is about, is recognizing that it’s important to get out there and finish the work.”

The secret to resolving some of the issues still facing society is to get more women elected to office, said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.

State Auditor Kristi Racines said the state could benefit by having more women in elected office.

“The more points of view we have, the better decisions we make, the better debate we have,” she said. “So I think that’s really important that we continue working toward that.”

Wyoming principal recognized as top educator in the nation

in Education/News
2510

By Robert Geha, Cowboy State Daily

The principal of a Cheyenne junior high school on Monday was recognized as one of the top educators in the nation with a Milken Educator Award.

Brian Cox, principal of Johnson Junior High School, is Wyoming’s only teacher to win one of the Milken awards and is one of only 40 teachers nationally to win the prize and accompanying $25,000 cash payment.

Cox, who oversees a staff of about 100 at Johnson, was recognized for his commitment to putting students first, urging them to focus on leadership skills in addition to academics. He is known for challenging his students to realize that their goals for the future often depend on academic success.

Cox was given the award during an assembly at Johnson on Monday. Although he was told what the assembly about, he was not informed he was to be the recipient of the prize until it was given to him.

State and Cheyenne educators joined legislators and representatives of Wyoming’s congressional delegation as the presentation was made by Greg Gallagher, a senior program director for the Milken Educator Award, and Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.

“A savvy and committed principal like Brian Cox can have a profound effect on so many lives,” Gallagher said. “Through personal commitment to individual students, dedicated community outreach and staff development initiatives, Principal Cox is creating a better future for all.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to visit Johnson Junior High and watch Brian interact with teachers and students in such an engaging and positive manner,” Balow said. “Brian’s enthusiasm is infectious, and he’s a champion for students. 

UW standout Fennis Dembo’s number retired

in News
2501

The jersey of Wyoming basketball star Fennis Dembo was retired this weekend by the University of Wyoming.

Dembo, who played for the Cowboys from 1984 through 1988, attended ceremonies in Laramie on Saturday when the university retired the jersey bearing Dembo’s college number — 34 — during the Cowboys’ game against New Mexico.

During his four years as a Cowboy, Dembo scored 2,311 points and led Wyoming to appearances in the NIT Finals and the “Sweet 16” of the NCAA Tournament.

Fans who attended the event Saturday remembered watching Dembo while he played for the Cowboys.

“We loved Fennis Dembo,” said Jim Wangberg of Laramie. “He brought so much joy to the court, it would spread. It was contagious.”

“His charisma,” said Cathy Milczewski of Cheyenne. “Man, everybody loved him. When he was on the floor, all eyes were on Fennis.”

Sean Dent, a teammate of Dembo’s at Wyoming, also shared some memories.

“I believe we were playing BYU and he was 0-10,” he said. “He banked one in at the top of the key and said ‘I’m hot.’ He ended up with 30. So he was hot and he was fun to play with.”

Dembo recalled Wyoming as being his home.

“I started off here as an 18-year-old kid and people still remember this 30-some years later,” he said. “This is great, this is home. This is where it all started.”

The key to success for a team like Wyoming’s is the ability to recognize the moments that can change a season, Dembo said.

“It’s moments that occur during the season that you have to grasp,” he said. “To finally say ‘This, as a team, can define us.’”

After graduating from Wyoming, Dembo was drafted by the Detroit Pistons, where he played for one season. During that season, the Pistons won an NBA championship and Dembo on Saturday donated the ring he won for playing on that championship team to the University of Wyoming.

Chronic Wolf Depredation

in Agriculture/Column/News/Range Writing
wolf
Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit
2498

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.

Casper photographer named PRCA Photographer of the Year

in Agriculture/arts and culture/News
2488

By Mike McCrimmon

A Casper photographer has been named the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association photographer of the year for a third time.

Dan Hubbell, owner of Hubbell Rodeo Photos, was named the winner of the award during ceremonies at the PRCA Awards Banquet in Las Vegas on Dec. 4.

Hubbell first won the award in 2000, its inaugural year, and again in 2018.

Hubbell’s rodeo photos today are known throughout the world, but he admitted that in his early days, he had a lot to learn.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “A guy (would be) riding a bucking horse and I’d just pull the trigger. I didn’t have any idea about timing or anything.”

Other rodeo photos provided the inspiration that led him to sharpen his skills, he said.

“Going into it after looking at images that you thought had impressed you, you kind of had an idea of what they liked,” he said. “For instance, of the calf roper roping a calf and then he’s stepping off, hanging in that stirrup and that horse is in the ground. You knew a bronc had to be stretched out. It was easier said than done sometimes.”

Helping Hubbell figure out what photos cowboys might like to see is Hubbell’s wife Linda, who runs the photography business.

“I enjoy meeting the contestants, talking to contestants, seeing what they like,” Linda said. “They tell me what kind of pictures they like, what they don’t like and I pass it on to him.”

The Hubbells are now taking pictures of rodeo cowboys whose parents were photographed competing in rodeos in past years, Linda said.

“You see the guys who he took pictures of and you start to see the kids come along,” she said. “And they think that’s pretty neat. They’re like ‘My dad had Hubbell photos on the wall and now I finally get a Hubbell photo.”

Hubbell’s photos are also popular with rodeo competitors who like to see shots of their past performances, she added.

“You have world champions who never bought a picture, they went to the (National Finals Rodeo” five or six times and never bought a picture,” she said. “Now all of a sudden, they’re at the end of their career and those pictures mean something.”

“You’ll have a buckle or a trophy here and there and a saddle, but the images, you can say ‘That’s the way I rode right there,’” Dan said.

Hubbell believes his interest in photography might have stemmed from his mother.

“Mom took pictures, a lot of them,” he said. “So that might be where it really started.”

Wyoming native Wallace has hand in national tree lighting

in Community/News
2492

By Jimmy Orr

Things were busy for Wyoming native Rob Wallace on Dec. 5 as he took part in hist first lighting of the National Christmas Tree as an assistant secretary for the Department of Interior.

Wallace, confirmed as assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife in July, joined three other speakers — including President Donald Trump — in the annual 90-minute lighting.

Wallace joined Trump, Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, and National Park Service Director David Vela in making comments during the ceremony.

“On a scale of one to ten, behind the president, the secretary of Interior and the director of the Park Service, my speech will be in a solid fourth place,” Wallace said.

Wallace was asked to give closing remarks at the ceremony — which has often occurred during less than ideal weather conditions.

This past Thursday, the weather gods smiled upon event-goers as temperatures were in the mid-40s with no wind. And the thousands of people who showed up cheered loudly when the president and First Lady Melania Trump pushed a button which lighted the 30-foot live Colorado Spruce from Palmyra, Pennsylvania.

Yes, the tree is alive. For now. Wallace explained that a fairly new practice is to transplant a tree instead of cutting it down.

“It happened between 10 to12 years ago,” he said. “The Park Service passed an initiative to make the tree permanent. Sometimes there are transplant issues and the tree doesn’t make it. We hope this new tree from Pennsylvania will be here for a long time.”

The State of Wyoming has supplied the National Christmas Tree just once. That was back in 1972. It was a 75-foot Engelmann spruce from Medicine Bow National Forest.

That doesn’t mean Wyoming doesn’t participate, however. Years ago, smaller trees representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories were planted on the Ellipse where the ceremony is held.

These identical trees stand about 5 feet tall now and are decorated by school kids from their respective states.

For Wyoming’s tree, the honor this year went to the Wyoming Indian School, where middle school students created transparent globe-like ornaments with a bucking bronco inside each one.

“It’s indescribable to be part of this tradition,” Wallace said. “It’s an important symbol of the start of a very festive holiday observed throughout the world. It celebrates the best of America.”

A replay of the ceremony will be broadcast on Ovation TV Monday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m. Mountain Time.

As feds move to drop Wyoming bear baiting lawsuit, environmental groups say they’ll continue to pursue it

in News/wildlife
2489

By Nicole Blanchard, Cowboy State Daily

Sy Gilliland isn’t even entertaining the idea of how his business would be affected if a lawsuit that aims to end bear baiting in Wyoming is successful.

“The state of Wyoming is going to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the outfitting industry,” said Gilliland, president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and owner of SNS Outfitter & Guides. “(The lawsuit) is frivolous. It’s not based upon sound science.”

The lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June by environmental groups Wilderness Watch, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians. The groups claim that using food to bait black bears for hunting poses a threat to grizzly bears in Wyoming and Idaho, where grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act

Last month, federal officials filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, citing previous agreements allowing the states to regulate bear baiting through their own wildlife management agencies, even if the practice occurs on national forest land. The plaintiffs say that’s not a solid argument.

“The states get to regulate hunting; however, if you want to create a food dump on federal land, you need a permit,” Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said Monday. “It’s not really a matter of legal debate.”

By early December, the lawsuit remained in U.S. District Court in Idaho.

At the crux of the lawsuit are questions over whether grizzly bears in Wyoming and Idaho still need to be protected. The bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were deemed “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975, and federal agencies have been in and out of court over the last decade as grizzlies have been repeatedly removed and relisted as a threatened species. Most recently, protections were removed in 2017 and reinstated in 2018.

In the lawsuit, the conservation groups claim legal baiting of black bears also entices grizzlies into hunt areas. The groups cite eight instances in the last 24 years where black bear hunters have mistakenly killed grizzlies at bait sites.Rebekah Fitzgerald, communications director for Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the agency works hard to educate hunters on distinguishing the two species.

Additionally, Fitzgerald said, there are existing regulations in Wyoming regarding where bait can be used. Approved sites are outside of known grizzly bear range.

“If a grizzly is seen at a (bait) site, it will be closed for the season,” Fitzgerald said. “We continue to use black bear baiting because we believe it’s a tool to harvest black bears and do it selectively.”

Fitzgerald declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.

According to Game and Fish Department research, the grizzly bear population continues to expand outside of the recovery zone in northwest Wyoming that was designated in a species recovery plan in 1993. 

In the lawsuit, baiting opponents claimed the Forest Service may not be able to accurately judge potential threats to grizzlies because it has not conducted a comprehensive environmental assessment of the species since the mid-1990s. The Forest Service maintains nothing has occurred to trigger the National Environmental Policy Act which would require an updated assessment.

“Grizzly bear populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are tenuous at best,” Molvar, the Western Watersheds leader, told Cowboy State Daily. “Certainly a better understanding of grizzly bear ecology and human/grizzly interaction is beneficial to everyone.”

Outfitter Gilliland can agree on that — sort of. He believes the population could be double the estimated 600 or so bears in Wyoming, second only to Montana’s estimated 800 bears.

“I would really love to see the truth come out about grizzly numbers,” Gilliland said. “The available grizzly habitat in Wyoming is full to the point of overflowing. We’re doing these bears a huge disservice by not managing them.”

Managing grizzlies — and all other wildlife — falls to the states. If the lawsuit against the federal agencies is dismissed, Molvar said he doesn’t feel a similar lawsuit against Wyoming and Idaho’s state agencies would be effective.

“We don’t think the states have the same requirement to protect the wildlife that the feds do,” he said.

And while Gilliland said he believes the suit is a veiled attempt to end all bear hunting in Wyoming, Molvar said Western Watersheds “has no stance, pro or con, on hunting.”

But he said he does feel it would behoove hunters to discontinue baiting on their own.

“I think it’s to the hunting community’s advantage to get rid of practices like bear baiting that are objectionable to the general public,” Molvar said.

Gilliland doesn’t plan to do that anytime soon. He echoed Wyoming Game and Fish’s stance on baiting.

“There’s a misunderstanding that you drop a bucket of jelly donuts (in the woods) and the bears start running in and you pick ‘em off,” Gilliland said. “Black bears are stealthy, and it would be very difficult to manage them by any means other than baiting.”

Increased timber harvest could play role in diversified approach to wildfire prevention

in News
wildfires
2485

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As catastrophic wildfires become more frequent across the West, people are looking for a single culprit, but it’s not that simple, Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said.

“People like to blame Smokey the Bear — that we extinguished every fire for 100 years. People like to blame lack of management from the U.S. Forest Service, saying they let our forests get into an unhealthy state. People like to blame climate change and the list goes on,” Crapser said. “Like everything, the easiest thing is to blame a single villain, but the reality is it’s probably all of that.”

A series of wildland fires racing across California caught the nation’s attention in October. 

The New York Times reported the fire threatened 90,000 buildings. 

CNBC reported 10 of the Golden State’s worst fires occurred in the last decade. 

But it was a viral “Smithsonian” magazine article about goats that caught the eye of Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower.

“Goats — grazing goats — saved the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California,” Driskill said. “This whole country was sheep and goat country once, but nobody grazes anymore.” 

Additionally, he said reductions in timber removal allowed by federal agencies overseeing Wyoming’s public lands could put the state at risk of suffering California’s fate.

“There’s no doubt we’re in a dry cycle and fires are affected by climate change,” Driskill said. “But this was not an earth-shattering drought year in California. Our (U.S.) Forest Service logs less and less, and as they do, we’ll have larger and larger fires.”

State-owned lands

While no forest is fireproof, a healthy forest is less likely to suffer catastrophic fire damage, Crapser said.

Unlike the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Forest Service, Crapser’s Forestry Division is a state agency.

Counting seasonal firefighters, the division has about 50 employees to cover approximately 280,000 forested acres of state-owned lands. 

A significant portion of managing forest health is targeted timber harvests, which are usually handled by private contractors, Crapser said.

“We try to do a lot of thinning to reduce the basal area — the square foot of tree cover per acre,” he explained. “That promotes wood growth, helps grasses for grazing and makes the stands more fire resistant.” 

While the division promotes the use of grazing to manage fine fuels when consulting with private land owners, cities and counties, Crapser said it does not oversee grazing on state lands.

Yellowstone

Grazing isn’t a part of the Yellowstone National Park fire management plan, but the park is warming up to the idea of using private contractors for timber management, said John Cataldo, Yellowstone’s Fire and Aviation Management officer.

“This year, we started using a masticator — it’s got a drum head that basically mulches trees up to 6-8 inches in diameter,” Cataldo said. “We were able to treat about 60 acres around the government area in West Yellowstone (Montana). That’s going to buy us about 15 years of defensibility around that community.”

By mulching smaller fuels, the masticator creates a fuel break, which could cause a crown fire in the tops of trees — widely considered the hardest fire behavior to control — to drop down to the ground where fire crews can battle the blaze.

For about $35,000 and a few months of work, the masticator completed a timber management project that could’ve taken park staff years to complete with a much higher price tag, Cataldo said. 

Masticators are in high demand throughout the National Park Service, but the agency only has one operator and a couple of machines in the region. So Yellowstone is looking to private industry for future mulching efforts.

“This year and future years as these mastication treatments expand, we’ll be going to contracts,” Cataldo said, explaining the park has not previously used private contractors for timber management outside of emergency response. “We’ve used private industry when a fire is bearing down on a community, but these are proactive, pre-planned projects.”

Private industry

In recent years, the Forest Service has ramped up timber harvest projects, but nowhere near to the levels seen prior to the 1990s, said Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Intermountain Forest Association. 

The association is a collective of private industry leaders advocating for forest management, in part, by way of timber harvests.

“During the ‘90s, we had an administration that wanted to reduce timber harvest, and it did,” Wudtke said. “The Forest Service used to harvest 12 billion board feet annually, and that dropped to 2 billion board feet.”

Under the current administration, he said the Forest Service is allowing the harvest of about 4 billion board feet a year, but 30 years later, the damage to the logging industry was done.

Driskill said, “Look around, we hardly have any sawmills around the state anymore.”

According to Crapser, about nine mid-sized sawmills operated in Wyoming prior to the harvest reduction. 

Now, there are three.    

Wudtke said the federal government’s increased interest in timber harvesting is largely due to public outcry.

“A lot of that is seeing first-hand what happens when we’re not out there working together with these agencies to take care of these lands,” he said. “We have things like catastrophic pine beetle epidemics. We have stand- and forest-replacing wildfires. We have houses and lives being lost.”

Forest management requires human intervention, Wudtke said. 

“If we don’t, mother nature will,” he added. “And we don’t always like how she goes about it.”

Mounds of data exist in support of forest management through timber harvest, Wudtke said, but preventing future catastrophic wildfires in Wyoming isn’t a one-step solution.

“I’m not sure I’d put my finger on one thing and say if they change this, it would fix things,” Wudtke said. “It’s going to take a lot of work in a lot of areas from both government agencies and the public.”

Medicine Bow

In Medicine Bow National Forest, the Forest Service uses both targeted grazing and timber management projects as preventive measures against wildfire, Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said.

“We just finished a vegetation project in the Lake Owen area, and we’re getting ready to start some work in the Rob Roy area as well as Fox Park,” Voos explained. “Some of it was timber sales, some was working with public utilities around water sheds to protect from impact of wildfire as well as opening access to recreation areas.”

Voos said he could only speak to Forest Service practices on the Medicine Bow National Forest, Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland. As to the federal agency’s historic timber management practices, Voos said he could only discuss what he personally observed during his time employed.

“What I’ve observed on the Medicine Bow and Routt is we are responding to changing forest conditions,” Voos said. “That hasn’t always been the case, largely because we’ve never seen a beetle infestation of this size before.”

The Forest Service is working on the Medicine Bow Landscape Vegetation Analysis project, dubbed LaVA, through the National Environmental Policy Act process. Over the next 10 to 15 years, the project is slated to treat up to 360,000 acres of beetle-kill affected areas in the national forest with a variety of methods, including private contractors.  

“Right now, we are very fortunate there is still a market for a certain amount of the beetle-killed timber that is still standing and still available,” Voos said. 

Medicine Bow also uses grazing allotments to manage fine fuels where fires can spread wide and fast. 

“There’s constant analyzing of those grazing allotments, and it is impacted by the potential for wildfire,” Voos said.

Even with numerous federal and state projects in play statewide, Crapser said Wyoming is on course to experience increasingly disastrous wildfire seasons.

“We’re probably going to see more fires in the future and rising costs of battling fires,” he said. “We’re also seeing a lot more people in the urban-wildland interface, and that creates a lot challenges for wildfire management.”

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