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Construction crews race the clock to fix canal

in Agriculture/Community/Economic development/News

Farmers and ranchers in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska are facing nature’s deadline as construction crews work to repair an irrigation breach that left 800 irrigators without water.

Construction crews are working full-time to repair the breach in the Fort Laramie-Gering irrigation canal that provides water for 100,000 acres of land on both sides of the Wyoming-Nebraska border.

Water to the canal has been turned off since the collapse occurred on July 17 and the late summer heat makes it crucial for water to be delivered to fields served the 130-mile canal as quickly as possible to avoid crop losses.

Rob Posten, district manager of the Goshen Irrigation District, said the district hopes to have the canal repaired by late August.

If the repairs take much longer, farmers and ranchers could be looking at significant crop losses, which Shawn Madden of Torrington Livestock said would affect the economy throughout the area.

“It’s not just if you’re farming south of Torrington or down by Gering, Nebraska,” he said. “Those people are all customers on Main Street in Scottsbluff (Nebraska), Torrington. I mean, these people are in financial peril.”

Cactus Covello of Points West Bank said most agricultural operations run on a slim profit margin to begin with.

“There’s not much profit in the corn, there’s not a lot of profit in cattle,” he said. “Most of that goes back to pay for their input costs, to make land payments, to put a little food on the table and hopefully have some to put in savings for a rainy day. The agricultural life is a lifestyle you’ve got to love, because it’s not ultra-profitable.”

Questions remain over whether the crop losses will be covered by insurance. If the tunnel failure was the result of natural causes such as rain, officials believe the losses will be covered. If the collapse was the result of structural failure, the coverage will not apply. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working to determine what caused the collapse of the 102-year-old tunnel.

Covello said he expects members of the community to work together to overcome the problems.

“These banks around here, we serve the agricultural community,” he said. “We will change and do things that we need to do so we can all survive together.”

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Lull in fire season doesn’t mean Wyoming is out of woods yet

in Agriculture/News

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

After a spate of wildfires dominating Wyoming headlines in recent years, 2019 has been a quiet fire season for wildland firefighters so far. A wet spring and dry summer, however, have fire experts on high alert, one of the state’s lead disaster educators said.

“When we have increased forage growth without the chance to thin it down, we’re going to have an enhanced fire risk,” said Scott Cotton, a University of Wyoming Area Extension educator. “If we keep getting these dry lighting storms, our fire risk could go all the way into November.”

U.S Forest Service spokesperson Aaron Voos said the Forest Service is also keeping a weather eye on the horizon.

“There is always the possibility that we end up with accumulated fuels,” Voos explained. “This year has been pretty wet so far, but that doesn’t mean those fuels couldn’t dry out and cause us to see some fires late summer and early fall.”

Wyoming experienced several active fire seasons recently, with the human-started Badger Creek and Ryan fires consuming more than 20,000 acres each in Southeastern Wyoming last year. Near Wheatland, the Britania Mountain Fire scorched more than 30,000 acres in 2018.

As of Thursday, only one wildfire was known to be burning in Wyoming — the 4-acre Lick Creek Fire in the Bighorn National Forest. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries while fighting the flames, but were treated and released from an area hospital.U.S. Forest Service officials were also surveying the area Thursday to see if any new fires had been ignited near Story by lightning strikes Wednesday.

Not all fire activity is bad, Voos stressed. “A certain amount of wildfire is acceptable, but it’s hard to draw that line,” Voos said. “If we could pick and choose where we wanted these fires to happen, there would be a lot more good fires.”

Prevention

As “flash fuels” such as cheat grass dry out, Cotton said fire prevention falls to everyone.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot more plains fires than we do timber fires,” he said. “We try to encourage ranchers to increase their grazing to reduce fuels and graze strips intermittently to create fire breaks.”

One rancher described searching for potential fire hazards as “looking for purple,” Cotton said.

“Most of our cheat grass species … have a tendency for their tops to turn purple when they dry out,” he explained. 

Once dried out, cheat grass becomes a flash fuel, short grasses and light brush up to two feet tall that burn rapidly. Cotton said flash fuels are especially dangerous during the dry lightning storms common in late summer.

“There’s a number of ways they can reduce the fuels — mostly mechanical and animal (grazing),” he added. “But we also have a program with the weed and pest districts across the state that if (land owners) identify invasive flash fuels, the district can spray them to reduce the danger for the following year.”

On public lands, Voos said visitors can be the first line of defense against wildfires. 

“Campfires are, by far, the leading cause to wildfires (in the national forest),” he said. “The big fires we’ve had are not typical of this area, and that has a lot to do with human-caused fires.”

Voos provided a list of preventive measures to reduce the risk of fires on public lands:

  • Scrape back dead grass and forest materials from your campfire site;
  • Keep your campfire small and under control;
  • Keep a shovel and a water container nearby to douse escaped embers;
  • Do not park vehicles in tall dry grass as hot tailpipes can cause flash fuels to catch on fire;
  • Remember that any ignition – cigarettes, campfires, gunfire, vehicles – could be the cause of a wildland fire;
  • Grass and other vegetation can dry quickly and is extremely flammable; and
  • Always follow current fire restrictions.

Downtime?

Despite the lack of large wildfires currently blazing across Wyoming, Voos said Forest Service personnel are still out there fighting the good fight.

“One thing we’ve been able to do this year is some additional prescribed burning,” he explained. “We put some good fire on the ground on purpose and kept it contained.”

Prescribed burning can reduce accumulated fuels in problematic areas and create natural fire breaks as well as encourage biodiversity.

Additionally, fire crews can be allocated to other areas of the country where the fire season is in full swing.

“They still fight fires, but not on this unit,” Voos said. “They go out of area to assist other people that are in need of firefighters. When we have wildfires, we pull crews from around the country to help out, and turnabout is fair play.”

Cotton said farmers and ranchers should use the lull to survey their land.

“Early recognition and early use is one of the best methods of fire management,” he explained. “If you can identify where the fuel is, then, at the very least, you can talk to your volunteer firefighters, so they know where to keep an eye out.”

Parched: 102-year-old irrigation canal collapse threatens livelihood of 800 farm and ranch families

in Agriculture/News/weather

Over 100,000 acres of farm and ranch land in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska have been without irrigation water for more than two weeks after an 102-year-old irrigation canal collapsed.

For the roughly 800 farm and ranch families whose operations straddle the Wyoming-Nebraska state line, the situation is dire and the clock is ticking.

“It was the worst timing in the world,” Goshen County Irrigation District manager Rob Posten said. “17th of July when it’s 90 degrees everyday and not much rain. Couldn’t have been any worse timing.”

“It’s my worst nightmare,” Posten added.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts have both signed emergency declarations allowing the use of state resources to get the old canal repaired and running water.

“I have been in crop insurance for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this.”

CSD: Crop insurance might not cover irrigation canal collapse losses (July 29, 2019)

The massive canal, constructed during World War I, runs 85 miles through Wyoming and another 45 miles in Nebraska.

“If there was a hundred year warranty it ran out last year,” said Shawn Madden with Torrington Livestock Auction.

There is hope to salvage at least part of the year’s crop yield as Wyoming meteorologist Don Day predicts some rain may be on the way for eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. The bad news, Day warns, is that late August in Wyoming tends to be bone dry.

For the livelihood of 800 families, the window to get the canal operational is small and getting smaller.

However, Cactus Covello of Points West Bank said the farming families of the region will find a way through the crisis.

“Agricultural people in Nebraska and Wyoming, they’re the most resilient you’re going to come by,” he said. “They’re tough. They’ll find a way. We may lose some, but you won’t lose many. They’ll find a way to survive.”

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.)

Brokaw praises patriotism, grit of Heart Mountain internees

in arts and culture/Community/News

The more than 14,000 people held at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp near Cody showed an amazing ability to support their country despite the fact it imprisoned them, newscaster Tom Brokaw said at the camp last weekend.

Brokaw, the featured guest at the annual Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, praised those incarcerated for their patriotism while held at the camp.

“You were abused and went on with your lives and make continuing contributions to this country,” he said. “You’re here because you know you’re Americans and we all learn from you. And so I say God bless.”

The Heart Mountain camp was one of 10 established across the country to house Americans of Japanese descent during World War II because of concerns they might hold allegiance to their original homeland and pose a threat to the United States.

While in operation from June 1942 to November of 1945, the camp was the third largest city in the state. During the camp’s operation, many friendships were formed, including one between former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson and Norm Mineta, former secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation.Appearing with Simpson during the pilgrimage, Mineta recalled the sadness he felt when his government imprisoned an entire race of people.

“These placards went up,” he said. “Instructions to all those of Japanese ancestry. Aliens and non-aliens. And I was a 10-yar-old kid and I saw that placard. And I said to my brother who was nine years older, I said ‘Al, what’s a non-alien?’ He said ‘That’s you.’ And I said ‘I’m not a non-alien, I’m a citizen!”

For the past eight years, the Heart Mountain Foundation has organized the pilgrimage to the camp as a commemoration to those held there.

Shirley Ann Higuchi, the foundation’s chair, said Wyoming communities have been very supportive of the foundation’s efforts to preserve the memory of the injustice done to the families held at the camp.

“They have come around to really support us and really make us the best that we can be,” she said. “So it’s just an overwhelmingly emotional, touching, in many ways a heartbreaking experience when we try to think back historically on how many people had actually suffered here.”

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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.

Crop insurance might not cover irrigation canal collapse losses

in Agriculture/News
Wyoming irrigation canal collapse

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

An irrigation canal collapse in Goshen County could devastate more than 100,000 acres of crops and producers may be left without compensation for the loss, a Farm Service Agency (FSA) spokesperson said.

“The cause of loss being failure of irrigation system is a covered cost,” FSA Insurance Officer Vanessa Reishus said. “But, the cause of failure has to have an underlying cause that was a natural occurrence.”

The canal tunnel is located about 1 mile south of Fort Laramie and facilitates the irrigation of about 52,000 acres of farmland in Wyoming and another 52,000 acres in Nebraska. Its collapse last week halted the delivery of water to the land and both states have declared the situation an emergency.

Reishus said the area did receive above-average precipitation this year and excess water load on the tunnel is being reviewed as a possible cause of the collapse.

However, the tunnel was built in 1917 and if engineers determine the structure failed as a result of age, FSA insurance would not compensate producers for their lost crops.

“Crop insurance is a government program, and they subsidize it,” Reishus explained. “But, the farmers pay pretty high premiums to have access to it.”

The cause of the collapse will be determined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she said. Because two states are involved, offices in both Billings, Montana, and Topeka, Kansas, will submit paperwork on the collapse. If the two offices disagree about the cause, the paperwork could be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a final determination, Reishus said.

“What the (Corps of Engineers) will do is gather the information from the Bureau of Reclamation and review the engineers’ information about what happened and why it happened,” she added.

Brian Lee, a University of Wyoming Extension agriculture economist, said some producers could be hit harder than others.

“The majority of the affected crops are dry bean, alfalfa and corn, but there is some sugar beets and other small crops in there, too,” Lee said. “Most farmers have livestock in this area, and you produce your corn and your alfalfa to feed it to your livestock.”

Without feed for livestock, producers may need to purchase feed elsewhere.

Additionally, Reishus said alfalfa is not generally insured, so those growers would not receive compensation either way.

“I have been in crop insurance for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this,” she said. “Most of the crop loss causes are a lot more simple than something like this. In our area, (insurance) is used a lot for hail and freezes.”

Lee, who works at the UW Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Lingle, said the uncertainty of the insurance payment is the worst part for many people. 

“I think this is more detrimental than a hail event, because when hail comes through, you immediately have an answer — it’s a covered loss,” he explained. “Right now, we are all waiting to find out if the canal can get fixed, and if so, how soon.”

Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said Thursday professionals were called in from St. Louis to repair the canal. He did not immediately return a request for comment on the status of repairs Friday.

Lee said cool temperatures and heavier spring rainfall this year prevented producers from planting as early as they would have liked.

“We were late putting the crops in, and that could prove detrimental without water during a heat wave,” he explained. “It’s a really sandy soil, so it’s more imperative to have water on a crop. It will definitely affect yield on the back end if they go a good amount of time without irrigation.”

Because the insurance payout is based on each producer’s premium, Reishus said she did not have an estimated total the insurance might pay if the cause was determined to be natural.

“It could easily be $1000 an acre on sugar beets and $500 $600 an acre on corn and beans,” she said. “With 100,000 acres, the cost of payout could be very high.”

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.

Blackjewel closures bad, but not the worst, officials say

in Energy/News
Gillette Wyoming coal

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

GILLETTE – It’s been nearly a month since Blackjewel LLC abruptly shuttered its coal production operations, locking some 600 Gillette-area miners out of the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines. And as Blackjewel continues to hammer out its fate in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Gillette searches for silver linings to this latest economic cumulonimbus.

For as threatening as the Blackjewel storm cloud may be, the city has seen worse; and not all that long ago, either. Mayor Louise Carter-King said that during the Peabody Energy and Arch Coal bankruptcy proceedings in 2016, oil and natural gas prices were also bottoming out, leaving displaced energy sector workers with few places to turn locally for employment.

“Three years ago oil was down, natural gas was down, coal was down. It was like a perfect storm and it hit us very hard,” Carter-King said. “This time it was more due to (Blackjewel’s) mismanagement rather than the underlying economy, because both of these mines were profitable.”

While she expects the mine layoffs to have a ripple effect on the city’s sales tax revenues, it will be some time before that impact is seen because state remittance of sales taxes are backdated by two months. But Carter-King said she doesn’t expect any impact to be especially long-lived this time around, thanks to a stronger job market that’s provided fall-back opportunities for those who can’t afford to wait for the mines to reopen.

“I know some employees are holding out for that, but those who can get jobs that are equal or better are jumping ship,” she said. “The good news is, a lot of people have been able to find jobs.”

Rick Mansheim with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services said the DWS Employment and Training office in Gillette took immediate steps to get information out about resources available to the displaced miners, as well as to address some of their most urgent economic questions. In addition, DWS called upon its community and statewide partners to swiftly assemble a job fair that brought in employers from across Wyoming and the Mountain West.

“Five days after the (mine) closings, we had a big job fair at Gillette College where we had 40 employers, not just local, but from Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Montana,” Mansheim said. “They saw over 450 people in one day; and I know a good percentage of people were actually offered jobs that day. So if there’s a bright side at all to this layoff or whatever you want to term it, it’s the fact there were jobs available and a lot of these people were able to find employment relatively quickly.”

For the rest, Mansheim said DWS has been helping walk people through applying for unemployment benefits and ensuring they know how to maintain their health insurance coverage.

“A lot of these people have never gone through something like this, so we’re helping them understand the unemployment process – because it is a process, it’s not something where you just come in, type in your name and that’s it,” Mansheim said. “We’ll probably do another job fair if we hear something about whether the mines are going to be bringing people back or not, and we keep in contact with the city and the county to make sure we’re on the same page.”

City Communications Manager Geno Palazzari said Gillette has also been working with nonprofits and social service agencies to marshal assistance in the aftermath of the mine closures. One of the first calls, he said, was to the Food Bank of the Rockies to enlist the aid of that group’s mobile food pantry, which will set up at Family Life Church, 480 S. Highway 50, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. July 29 and Aug. 19.

“They’re already mobilizing to get trucks up here,” Palazzari said. “We’ve also reached out to some of the social service agencies in the community we fund … to make sure they didn’t need an advance on the funding we provide them to make sure they can make it through these times.”

While Blackjewel has been an important contributor to the city’s tax revenue base, Palazzari and Carter-King said they don’t expect these latest closures to impact city services. That’s mainly because the city has been extremely conservative with its spending since the 2016 downturn, when it had to cut nearly four dozen positions and $60 million out of its budget.

“Those were tough days. We had to lay off people and we looked at everything with a microscope,” Carter-King said. “Three years ago woke us up and taught us that we’ve got to be prepared for things like this.”

Prior to 2016, the city had enough cash in reserve to keep things running for 90 days without any new revenues. In 2016, the city council voted to increase that to 120 days, and then to 150 days in September 2018.

“There’s approximately $14 million (of operating reserves) budgeted for Fiscal Year 2020,” Carter-King said. “Now, if not another dime came into this city, we could make it 150 days.”

Irrigation tunnel collapse could cost Wyoming’s ag millions, repairs underway

in Agriculture/News
Tunnel collapse Torrington

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

More than 100,000 acres of agricultural land are without irrigation after a canal tunnel collapsed July 17 in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska.

“The tunnel collapse shut the water off in one of our canals,” Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said. “Right now, about 400 landowners are affected just in Goshen County.”

Approximately 52,000 acres of the affected area are in Goshen County and the rest is across the state line in Nebraska, Posten said.

John Ellis, a Goshen County commissioner, said if unchecked, the collapse could have a disastrous impact on the entire county.

“I’ve never seen a disaster close to this scale,” Ellis said. “Agriculture is Goshen County. There’s very little other businesses, and they all rely on agriculture.”

On Monday, Gov. Mark Gordon signed an emergency declaration to allow the use of state resources to help fix the collapse.

“This is a serious emergency, and we recognize addressing an issue of this magnitude will take coordination, especially because it affects so many Wyoming and Nebraska farmers,” Gordon said in a news release. “We are working with an understanding of the urgency of the situation, along with a need to proceed carefully. Wyoming is united in its effort to find the right way to help the Goshen Irrigation District get up and running.”

Created in 1926, the irrigation district was formed to contract with the federal government for water from the North Platte River. The district pays the U.S. a proportionate share of the estimated cost to operate and maintain the facilities that store the water for use, including the Pathfinder Dam and Reservoir and Guernsey Dam and Reservoir, according to the district’s website.

“We supply water to the farmers,” Posten said. “We only have two canal tunnels, and they’ve both been there 100 years. The one that collapsed was built in 1917.”

He said the collapse was not maintenance related.

The district has not yet received state resources to repair the collapse and Posten said it’s still too early to speculate what those resources might be.The repairs, however, are already underway.

“We have people that know how to fix this working on it as we speak — professionals from St. Louis, Missouri,” he said. “I don’t know the full scope of the work needed, but they will likely pump grout in around the tunnel, fill in the voids and install steel ribs to shore it up, and then try to run water through it.”

If the water is not turned back on soon, Ellis said the cost could be through the roof. Although he was not aware of an official estimate of potential damages, Ellis said he’s heard guesses between $90 million and $250 million.

From a policy making standpoint, he said the collapse would likely affect the county’s future, but determining how is a waiting game.

“We don’t know the total impact,” Ellis said. “Until we know the financial impact, it’s hard to tell what we may have to do.”

Whatever the case, Ellis said he’s proud of the way the irrigation district is handling the situation.

“The Goshen Irrigation District have done such an excellent job,” Ellis said. “They’ve left no stone unturned. They’ve done everything possible to get this thing working again.”

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