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Wyoming’s Infamous Icy Interstate Inspires Book, Innovation and Preparation

in News
2428

By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

The Lincoln Monument towers over Interstate 80 at the summit rest area just outside of Laramie. It’s the highest point along the 4,666-mile interstate at 8,640 feet. 

From the summit, winter driving conditions go downhill either way you you travel in the state. To the west, the stretch wreaks so much havoc it has gained national notoriety since the road opened. To the east, the summit rises and twists to Vedauwoo and beyond. Those traveling near the monument know to tread the area carefully. 

West of the summit, the Laramie to Walcott Junction interstate stretch opened in 1967. The selected 120-mile route went against the better judgement of area residents to appease the federal engineers who wanted to shave 19 miles off of the trip, according to historian John Waggener. 

Winter weather conditions closed the road only four days after opening, earning the highway the nickname Waggener adopted for his book on Interstate 80 — the “Snow Chi Minh Trail.” The book documents the history of the interstate, along with its reputation for dangerous winter travel.

Waggener knew the infamous interstate’s reputation and wanted to know the deeper story beneath the asphalt. Through his research he learned that Wyoming locals wanted the interstate to follow existing U.S. Highway 30, but that didn’t align with national interests. 

“In 1959, there was a debate on the Senate floor in Washington,” Waggener said. “The I-80 routing debate got so heated, it called for a special hearing.” 

Locals fought to have the interstate placed near Highway 30. They knew the notorious weather of the region would be problematic. The wind that blows across the present highway between Laramie and Walcott Junction is compressed and strong. It collects snow and gains speed as it funnels through the mountains. 

“The air moves from West to East — the path of least resistance,” Waggener said. “It moves fast. The winds clock over 100 mph. Eighty to 100 mph is not uncommon in that area.”  

That wind and snow create the perfect recipe for disaster. 

Wyoming Department of Transportation figures show 876 crashes caused by winter weather conditions occurred on the interstate in 2013 and 881 occurred in 2014. This year’s count is set at is at 667, but the year isn’t done yet.

On the east side of the pass, the weather also creates drama.

Barbara Sandick is an adjunct instructor at the University of Wyoming. She moved to region after living in the San Francisco Bay area. Commutes were, and still are, a way of life for her. Back in California, she would spend hours in gridlock. Now she can spend up to several hours just getting to Laramie on the winter weather susceptible interstate.

As a student and an instructor, she has commuted from Cheyenne to Laramie for about six years. During that time, she has seen the weather go from bad to unbearable on several occasions.

As dynamic as the stretch of road can be, she can sum it up pretty quickly.

“It’s treacherous,” she said.

Although the years have left her with countless incidents of white-knuckle driving conditions, she said the roads appear safer than when she first started commuting.

“The (Wyoming) Highway Patrol has gotten a lot better at closing the highway,” she said.

Patrol Lt. Kyle McKay has patrolled between Cheyenne and Laramie for about 15 years. Over the years, he has seen winter-related crash numbers decline.

When the roads are deemed impassable, the closures begin. Frequently, these highway condition reports come from patrol cars patrolling the interstates. 

McKay said any combination of conditions, including road surface temperatures, high winds, low visibility and the types of snow, play into the decision-making process. McKay said it isn’t a decision that is made lightly.

“We understand the impact of commercial business and the economic impact of road closures,” he said. 

He added that even though the public needs to travel from point A to point B, the patrol must ultimately consider the safety of the travelers first and foremost.

McKay said many drivers arriving at a closed interstate gate can be confused how the road would be closed when sometimes the weather appears nice at their location. He said there could be a couple of factors at play.

“A person is at exit 357 with a calm sunny day, but 30 miles down the road, the conditions can be bad,” he said.  

Often, the person may not realize the severity of the situation. In some instances, crashes may block the entire road. This can create safety issues for the officials responding to the crash and motorists. The conditions may not be apparent to those stuck on the other side of the gates.

One of the most dangerous areas to drive along I-80 is on bridges.

“Early winter, the mixture of mist and fog creates black ice,” McKay said. “We get a lot of bridge deck crashes.”

McKay said bridges don’t have the earth directly beneath them, which allows them to cool faster than normal roadways. The Wyoming Transportation Department tries to monitor those conditions with gauges that can register the surface temperature of the interstate.

In addition to taking steps such as closing highways and using tools such as road temperatures gauges, there is another device that can help reduce crashes, McKay said —variable speed limit signs.

“I’ve seen a huge reduction in crashes because of the variable speed limit signs,” McKay said.

He cites the simplicity of physics for the effectiveness.

“The slower you are going, the less of an impact there will be,” he said.

Variable speeds limit signs, traffic alert signs stretching over the highway and a special kind of snow fences called “Wyoming Snow Fences,” were all created in the state to improve safety on Interstate 80, said Waggener.

“They were all developed on this stretch of road,” Waggener said.

These innovations were developed in part to remind people to slow down in bad weather. Experienced drivers recommend paying attention. 

“I know, from witnessing so many accidents, you have to drive slow and be situationally aware,” Sandick said.

During the winter, she has seen vehicles involved in accidents line the edge of the snow-packed interstate. Some days, the number seems to just keep growing.

“I would say I’ve seen probably over 20 (in one drive),” she said. 

And that is why she makes sure she drives prepared.

Sandick has learned to pack her pickup with all the essentials. Tow ropes, first aid kits, snowshoes, gloves, shovels, sleeping bags etc. If it can make a difference between life and death, she has it packed and ready to go.

Lt. McKay recommends the essentials: food, water, fuel and proper clothing. He said travelers need to stay in their vehicles and keep warm if they find themselves stranded on the highway. Use the fuel sparingly, and keep the car ventilated. 

Despite all his preparation, McKay also said he has learned to expect the unexpected. He recommends other motorists do the same. 

Jackson faces unique challenges with homeless

in News
2417

By Nicole Blanchard, Cowboy State Daily

The town of Jackson is nestled in Western Wyoming amid the peaks of the Teton Mountains and at the doorway to two of the country’s most beloved national parks.

It’s this isolated, rugged beauty that makes the Jackson Hole region a draw for tourists, outdoor recreationists and ski enthusiasts who flock to the mountain resort of the same name. But those same qualities have made Jackson a uniquely difficult place to address the homeless population, which has become more and more visible in recent years as income inequality in the area grows.

According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 639 people in Wyoming were homeless in 2018. Though it’s a sharp decrease from 2012, when estimates hit a high of 1,813 homeless statewide, the difference is likely because HUD revised its definition of homelessness that same year. The revision meant individuals had to be without permanent housing for 14 days in order to be considered homeless — previously, the requirement was seven days.

Teton County officials estimate there are between 30 and 50 homeless individuals in the county.

There are limitations on the HUD numbers — aside from the agency’s broadened definition of homelessness, its numbers come from an annual “point-in-time” count of homelessness that takes place at the end of January. In Wyoming, that’s when homeless numbers are at their lowest because of the state’s harsh winter weather.

“Our homeless population is very much driven by our weather here,” said Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith. “As spring comes, we will have this small migration of people living that similar (homeless) lifestyle elsewhere.”

In October, when the fall chill settles in, some of the area’s homeless head elsewhere, Smith said.

Karla McClaren, program director for the Wyoming Homeless Collaborative, said the January timing for the count does have its advantages.

“The weather brings more people (into shelters) because they’re more likely to ask for services when it’s cold out,” she said.

Still, it’s clear that Jackson and other Wyoming cities experience what homelessness researcher Robert Marbut called the “summer surge.” Earlier this year, the Wyoming Department of FamilyServices’ Homelessness Program hired Marbut as a consultant to analyze the state’s most pressing issues with homelessness and recommend solutions. 

Jackson was among the 10 cities Marbut visited.

According to Marbut’s report, homeless populations grow by 15 percent to 30 percent during summers in Wyoming. In Jackson, that’s largely driven by tourism and seasonal workers, many of whom sleep in vehicles or “couch surf,” according to police Chief Smith.

“The housing insecure … that number is quite high,” Smith said. “In the summer it could be a couple hundred people or more, but it’s kind of hard to tell sometimes. Someone could do the simple math and say there are more people here than homes to put them in.”

Smith puts the number of “traditional homeless” between 50 and 100 people. That’s the individuals using homeless shelters or camping on public land, sometimes called the chronically homeless population. Smith said many of Jackson’s chronically homeless struggle with mental illness, substance abuse or some combination of the two. 

As competition for Jackson’s scarce housing resources grows, those chronically homeless have become more visible, Smith said. This summer, the number of homeless people camping in Karns Meadow, a nature preserve southwest of the city’s center, dramatically increased, causing concern.

“There have been people camping there since I started policing here nearly 30 years ago,” Smith said. 

This year, Smith said, more chronically homeless people set up campsites at Karns Meadow after being driven from another site north of town that has since been developed as an apartment complex.

“Places where someone could live undetected, those are going away,” he said. “In essence, they’re being displaced.”

Because Teton County is home to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, much of the county’s land — 97 percent — is owned by the federal government. 

“That 3 percent (of private land) is highly coveted,” Smith said. “So it’s more likely to become condos or mountain mansions than affordable housing.”

There is a push for affordable housing in the area, but those efforts don’t address the chronically homeless. Instead, they focus on housing for lower- and middle-class families unable to find homes in Jackson due to the income disparity in the area, which the Economic Policy Institute said is the worst in the country.

The entities in Jackson that do serve the traditional homeless population are few and far between. The city has a single homeless shelter, the Good Samaritan Mission, which has limited resources.

It houses only single men and women over the age of 18. There are 26 beds for men and five for women, as well as a few overflow beds. This year, said the mission’s executive director Chuck Fidroeff, the shelter has seen an unusual mix of people seeking shelter.

“We never turned a woman away from this place, and then in June we had to say no to 10 women,” he said. “But we didn’t have to say no to any men.”

In addition, the mission has stringent requirements for guests.

“It’s a working mission,” Fidroeff said. “If you stay here longer than two days, you need to have a job. We’re not here to be a flophouse.”

Both Smith and Fidroeff said jobs, particularly those in the service industry, are easy to come by in Jackson. Even entry-level jobs pay about $15 an hour, according to Fidroeff.

“If you can’t get a job in two days, you’re basically unemployable,” he said.

Guests pay $12 per night to stay at the mission — about $375 to stay for an entire month. Showers cost $1. Guests must also be sober, and Fidroeff, himself a recovering alcoholic, offers an alcohol counseling program. Anyone going through counseling is able to waive the job requirement for 30 days.

Smith said some of the area’s chronically homeless aren’t willing to follow those rules.

“There is a belief that if there is an open bed (at the mission), a homeless person will choose to use it,” Smith said. “That isn’t always the case.”

Instead, those people will find their own shelter, sometimes creating campsites like the ones in Karns Meadows. Many cities in the west have found themselves in limbo on how to address such camps. 

In April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of several homeless people who sued the city of Boise, Idaho, in a case known as Martin v. Boise. The homeless argued that being ticketed for camping in public when they have nowhere else to go is cruel and unusual punishment. City officials asked the Supreme Court of the United States to hear the case, and the SCOTUS is set to decide whether to do so on Dec. 6.

Smith said it makes sense to leave the campsites alone as the case continues.

“I kind of take the stance of … why move these folks along when this could become the law of the land?” he said. 

No matter how Jackson moves ahead, it won’t be easy. Marbut, the homelessness consultant, offered a series of recommendations to the state to combat its housing issues, and said Jackson in particular should focus on new housing opportunities, such as traditional housing. While the city wrestles with those options, it will no doubt continue to be a hotbed for the summertime housing insecure and chronically homeless alike.

“People choose to stay here because it’s beautiful,” Smith said. “If you had to wake up here or wake up somewhere with a bleak view, of course you’d choose this place.”

Board of Education votes to move forward with computer science standards

in News/Education
2415



By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily 

After five months of anxiously waiting, the State Board of Education finally got the answer its members were looking for, clearing the way for adoption of statewide computer standards. 

Well, an answer, at least.

Back in June, the board asked Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill to give her opinion regarding the constitutionality of the proposed computer science standards that have been in limbo for nearly two years.

On Friday, the board released the attorney general’s opinion to the public, which consisted of 20 pages addressing questions, concerns and advice on how to move forward with the standards, which the board ultimately voted to do. 

It was a long proceeding on Friday, with the board members meeting in an executive session for nearly three hours to discuss the AG’s opinion before reconvening to take public testimony and vote on the standards. 

Once they came back from the executive session, board member Sue Belish told the audience to “not panic.” 

“The public should be aware that we have a lot of discussion and work to do in relation to this opinion,” she said. Hill’s opinion addressed five questions from board Chairman Walt Wilcox, ranging from what determines which content and performance standards were mandatory for all students in grades K-12, whether labeling the curriculum in a certain way would infringe upon student uniformity and the effectiveness of implementation and aligning with the existing standards in schools across the state. 

In her opinion, Hill told Wilcox that the terminology in the standards was confusing and certain words weren’t used consistently.

“There are three types of state standards: content, performance and graduation,” she wrote. “The proposed computer science standards use three different labels (priority, supporting and enhanced). The word ‘benchmarks’ can refer to either the discrete items of knowledge that compose the standards or the grade-level or grade-band targets where those items must be taught.” 

Hill told the board that it should designate certain benchmarks from among the content and performance standards that are required for high school graduation, as well as set benchmarks for elementary and junior high students. She suggested removing the words “priority” and “supporting” from the benchmark description.

 In a memo to the board from Kari Eakins, chief policy officer for the Department of Education, she described the three labels as: 

  • Priority: All students are expected to be instructed on and demonstrate the mastery of the content and performance expectations included in these benchmarks.
  • Supporting: All students are expected to be instructed in these standards, taught within the context of the priority standards. 
  • Enhanced: Students have an opportunity for enrichment above what all students are expected to know and do as required by the priority benchmarks. 

In her conclusion, Hill noted that just because these standards will be mandatory for all schools, this doesn’t mean all students will have to learn all of them. She reiterated that the board should determine graduation requirements to include the computer science standards component and content benchmarks that should be mastered in lower grade levels and only create performance standards for those benchmarks. 

For the standards to be considered effective by the 2022-2023 school year, which is when the board plans to have them implemented, all districts should have aligned their instructional materials and assessments standards by that time. 

Laurie Hernandez, the Department of Education’s standards and assessment director, told the board most of the public comments the department received over the summer on the standards had to do with their implementation rather than their content.

Belish said she heard a number of elementary school teachers expressing concern about how daunting and difficult the standards seemed to be. 

“I think it’s more about the language of understanding with these new standards,” Hernandez responded. “This was the same thing with the 2012 math standards. Once I explained the language to those teachers, a lot of them told (me) they were already teaching those things. So that’s why we verified the comments as a concern over implementation.” 

Public comments on the standards came from educators and students from across the state, including a senior from Laramie High School, Laramie County School District No. 1 Superintendent Boyd Brown and Fremont County School District No. 6 Superintendent Diana Clapp. 

“After I took biology my freshman year, I decided that I wanted to go into genetics,” said Catherine Ballard, the Laramie High School student. “When I was looking at classes I would need to take in high school to prepare me for college, computer science was one of them, which piqued my interest. Computer science is applicable in so many ways and while I know some teachers are hesitant to dive into computer science since they haven’t been trained in it, I urge the board to pass rigorous standards for the workforce these students will one day enter.”

Clapp and Brown, while saying they knew these standards were important, felt they needed time to digest the attorney general’s opinion. Brown stated that LCSD1 has embraced moving forward with the standards, but also admitted that there might be hurdles to overcome, since they are so new. In the end, the board unanimously passed the standards with a couple of amendments to the language. First, the board clarified that “enhanced” benchmarks would be available to all students, but they wouldn’t be mandatory for all. 

The second amendment was to remove the performance level descriptors (PLD) from the standards for kindergarten through fifth grade, but still making the PLDs available to educators in a guidance document. 

Wyoming rodeo stock company named PRCA’s top stock contractor

in Community/Agriculture/arts and culture
2378

A rodeo stock company based near Riverton has been recognized by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association for providing consistently high quality bucking stock.

Powder River Rodeo recently won the PRCA’s Polaris Ranger Remuda Awards.

“It’s our ninth time for being nominated for stock contractor of the year,” said Lori Franzen, who founded the business with her husband Hank 35 years ago. “Which to me is one of the nicest honors you can get because you’re going against about 90 other contractors across the nation and to have the people vote you as one of the top five contractors is a huge honor.”

Powder River Rodeo has grown into a family operation from a two-person company.

“It was just us working from the beginning,” Franzen said. “We’d go out and round up pastures and haul in the cattle and the horses and the livestock to the rodeo (with) me timing and helping secretary and Hank running all ends of it. It’s just come to a culmination of now it is a huge family operation. We’re very proud of the fact that after 35 years, we have what we have.”

Powder River Rodeo is taking nine bucking horses and five bulls to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December.

Some retailers look for options to seasonal help

in News
Extra workers
2400

By Mary Angell, Cowboy State Daily

As holidays draw near, employers at retail stores, restaurants and hotels in Wyoming may find the state’s current unemployment rate of 3.8 percent makes it very difficult for them to hire extra workers for the holiday season. 

That’s why some simply don’t.

“We try to be prepared without having to hire seasonal help,” said Louis Taubert, co-owner of Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters in Casper. “It used to be more (common), but now we look for fewer and better employees so I don’t have to deal with seasonal help.”

 Having enough employees for the holiday season doesn’t concern Taubert, because according to him, the 55,000 square-foot western store is busiest in June, during the College National Finals Rodeo.  

He added that he has a good staff, and if he needs more help over the holidays, he calls on several people who have previously worked at the store.  Some are retired, while others have full-time jobs elsewhere but are willing to work for Taubert on the weekends.

“These people already have training, and they work into the system pretty well,” he said. “That’s probably really good, considering the market now. It’s really tough to get the right candidates for a full- or part-time position.” 

The Bomgarrs store in Gillette also gets through the holidays with its regular staff.  

“The way our budget works, we kind of maneuver around (hiring seasonal help),” said general manager Steve Stalcup. 

“There’s very little range between seasons,” he added.  “We just shift our focus on what we’re doing in the store. The first part of November, we’re focused 90 percent on getting stuff done. From the day after Thanksgiving, the focus is on selling.  It’s a different paradigm as far as how you manage a season. There are hiccups, but generally it works out really well.”

Hiring seasonal workers used to be the practice, said Stalcup, who has 20 years’ experience as a store manager.  

But he occasionally found himself in the unfortunate predicament of hiring a very capable seasonal worker who the company couldn’t afford to keep at the end of the season.  Now he just makes sure his employees are cross-trained and know how to handle the extra work presented by the holiday season.

“It makes sense to keep the staff flexible,” he said.  “When you don’t hire seasonal help, you have to think more strategically, help your staff be flexible.”   

Similarly, although the Little America Hotel of Cheyenne has several staff vacancies — part-time and full-time — it is not going to hire any seasonal help, according to Shane Bustillo, human resources manager. 

The UPS Store in Cheyenne always hires extra staff members for the holiday season, but only one or two. And sometimes getting more people to help out means just calling former employees. 

“We always have backup people who have helped us for the last couple of years,” said A.K. Shrestha, area manager for UPS.

Wyoming’s low unemployment rate is not a concern for Shrestha, who recently hired a new manager, assistant manager and a couple of workers for the store. 

“It’s not hard to find people,” he said.  “We even have walk-ins who need a job.   We just changed our group, rebuilt our team in two days.”

Competitive pay, flexibility keys to hiring seasonal workers, say officials

in Economic development/News
2399

By Mary Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s unemployment rate is a good indicator of a healthy economy: people  are working and therefore able to buy homes, cars  — and Christmas and Hanukkah gifts. 

But according to state officials, the current unemployment rate of 3.8 percent means that employers looking to hire extra help during the holiday season may have a tough time of it. The low unemployment rate is a curse to employers, Denise Rodriguez, business representative in the Department of Workforce Services, told Cowboy State Daily.

“It’s a job-seeker’s market instead of an employer’s market right now,” she said,“(It) makes hiring overall very difficult for employers to find individuals seeking employment.”

According to Chris Brown, the executive director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association and the Wyoming Retail Association, finding seasonal help is incredibly difficult for businesses. 

“If you were to go round on the horn and ask (members of the WLRA and WRA) what the biggest challenge is for them, nine out of ten — without a doubt — would say finding an adequate work force,” he said. 

And it’s not just a seasonal problem, he said. 

“The problem is that in Wyoming there are not enough employees available,” he said.  “It’s the least populated state in the country, so it has the least populated workforce in the country.”

Brown and DWS representatives have some advice for employers hoping to score some good workers to help with the holiday rush.

Offer competitive pay

“The more competitive pay the better,” suggested Jeff Schulz, a manager for the DWS Workforce Service Centers. “If a company is paying $12 an hour, for example, if you can pay $13 an hour, you can get them (to leave their current employer).”

According to Rodriguez, employers regularly resort to poaching staff from other employers.

“I had a 21-year-old tell me yesterday, ‘I’m thinking about looking for another job that pays more,’” Rodriguez said. “I said, ‘Don’t you think about burning bridges?’  He said, ‘I think I’ll look at getting more money.’

“(Job-seekers) can go back and forth,” she continued. “If they leave an employer and things don’t work out at the other job, they can go back and they’ll take them back.  Chances are the position still needs to be filled.”

Provide flexible hours

A lot of people looking for seasonal work already have full-time jobs, and they’re looking for a job where they can work evenings and weekends, said Ty Stockton, DWS communications manager.

Others are students who want to make some extra money over the holidays, Brown said. 

“In both the retail and hospitality industries, flexible schedules, being able to work with students and their school schedules, give them part-time hours — employers tout those things to supplement their work force,” he said.  “They need to offer (applicants) a great place to work, have fun and make money.”

Be innovative 

DWS Business Representative Terri Wells suggested that in addition to competitive salaries and flexible hours, employers be creative in their approach to attracting workers. 

“Think outside of the box,” she said. “What can you offer as an add-on?” 

“A lot of companies offer retention bonuses, so if you stay six months or so they give you a bonus,” Shulz said. “There are a variety of ways you can approach it, but the key is to make the employee as happy as they can be.”

Try a “surgical approach”

Shulz likened participating in a job fair to select the right candidate for the job to conducting precise surgery. 

“We do a mini-job fair every month,” he said.

The DWS job fairs are geared specifically for particular industries.  Employers who take part have an opportunity to grab the job-seekers most attracted and best suited for that industry. 

Check out the DWS website 

Workforce Services’ website, wyomingatwork.com, is designed to help not only job-seekers, but employers as well. They can search the system for resumes that match the kind of applicant they’re looking for and send a message to the job seeker. 

Consult a local Workforce Services Center

Employers who need more help finding seasonal workers can call or visit their local DWS center.  There are 22 centers throughout the state.

“If any employers are having difficulty filling or retaining positions and are looking for ideas, they can contact one of the local DWS centers,” Rodriguez said. 

State, national park work to limit mountain goat population

in News/wildlife
Mountain goats
2405

By Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily

Doug McWhirter wants people to understand several things about Wyoming’s iconic mountain goat populations.

They’re cool. And they don’t belong everywhere.

“Mountain goats are fascinating, cool, and there are places we want to manage for thriving mountain goat populations,” said McWhirter, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife management coordinator in the Jackson region. “We want thriving mountain goat populations in the Snake River, Palisades and Beartooths areas.”

“We want to manage for hunting and viewing opportunities in these areas. In other places, we want to favor the core-native bighorn sheep herds in our management,” McWhirter continued. “Bottom line, we don’t hate mountain goats.”

Wyoming game managers share a concern with the National Park Service concerning a relatively new, expanding, non-native mountain goat population in Grand Teton National Park. 

The Teton Range is home to a small herd of native bighorn sheep, one of the smallest and most isolated populations in Wyoming.

The Teton Range bighorn sheep population is about 100 strong, while this new non-native mountain goat population has eclipsed 100 animals and is still growing.

The new mountain goat population is believed to have expanded from the Palisades area and into the Teton Range. The first documented reproduction of mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park was recorded in 2008. 

Now there are concerns that the mountain goat population threatens the native Teton Range bighorn sheep herd through increased risk of disease transmission, which the Palisades goats are documented to harbor, and the potential for competition for limited resources.

“The Teton Range herd of native bighorn sheep is of high conservation value to the park, adjacent land and wildlife managers, and visitors,” said Denise Germann, Grand Teton National Park public affairs officer. “Our intent is to remove the non-native population of mountain goats and to maintain and improve viability of the native Teton bighorn sheep herd.”

The Game and Fish Department, assisted by hunters, is doing its part to manage the park’s mountain goat population in 2019. Liberalized hunting seasons were implemented outside of the park, in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest’s Jedediah Smith Wilderness.

“We’re doing what we can to address the situation in goat hunt area 4,” McWhirter said.

In the hunt area, the once-in-a-lifetime draw for mountain goat licenses was set aside. Instead, to help manage the mountain goat population, the department set a quota of 48 licenses for the 2019 season.

McWhirter checked a harvested mountain goat last week from area 4, and it marked the 21st harvested goat of the season. 

“Without exception, the hunters I have encountered have been very supportive,” McWhirter said. “They have appreciated the opportunity  to harvest a mountain goat, and to try to conserve bighorn sheep populations in the Tetons.”

The Teton bighorn sheep herd, “during the times we’ve been monitoring numbers, has never been huge. There’s about 100 to 125 sheep there,” McWhirter said. “They don’t migrate. They live at high populations all year, and they are subject to harsh conditions. These new non-native mountain goats are bringing additional mouths to the landscape, and we believe this peer competition could adversely affect the sheep.

“The bighorn sheep are doing OK in the Tetons,” McWhirter continued. “They’ve always been living on the edge, and besides the non-native goats, there are issues, too, with expanding backcountry winter skiing. The pressures on those sheep are making it tougher for their survival.”

Details aren’t certain yet, but Grand Teton National Park is considering removing the non-native mountain goats from within its boundaries — specifically, between Cascade and Snowshoe canyons — by lethal and non-lethal methods this winter.

“Without swift and active management, the mountain goat population is expected to continue to grow and expand its distribution within the park,” Germann said. “The mountain goat population is at a size where complete removal is achievable in a short time, however, the growth rate of this population suggests that complete removal in the near future may become unattainable after a period of about three years.”

Mountain goat hunting inside the park itself, or what the National Park Service refers to as the “use of skilled volunteers,” is the newest idea for mountain goat removal in the Tetons. 

“Qualified volunteers is a tool that may be used, but we have not developed this program,” Germann said.

Where Grand Teton National Park currently authorizes hunting, park officials refer to the practice as a “reduction program.” 

Rules are generally more restrictive for hunters in Grand Teton National Park, but the hunting is done by hunters licensed by the state Game and Fish Department.

The concept of using “skilled volunteers,” or hunters, is new since the national park issued an environmental assessment on the issue last December. Plans then called for National Park Service staff or contractors to kill goats from the ground with rifles, and from helicopters with shotguns. These early plans called for leaving the carcasses where the animals fell.

In March, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act passed Congress. Part of the bill addressed wildlife management in national parks.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, stated, “if the (Interior) Secretary determines it is necessary to reduce the size of a wildlife population … the Secretary may use qualified volunteers to assist in carrying out wildlife management on [park] system land.”

Grand Teton National Park officials cited the Dingell act in their “finding of no significant impact” decision, which was signed by Acting Park Service Regional Director Palmer Jenkins in September.”

The desire is to quickly and efficiently remove non-native mountain goats from the park,” Germann said.

“Our big things, in our comments, are that we would like to see all efforts exhausted before ‘agency lethal removal’ is the answer,” McWhirter said. “We really appreciate the Park Service addressing our concerns, and allowing skilled volunteers to participate and help with the conservation of these goats. It’s all about trying to make a bad situation more tolerable.”

Story of ‘Rachel’s Challenge’ to be told at Cheyenne school on Thursday

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Rachel's Challenge Invite
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The story of a young woman whose acts of kindness provided the inspiration for a national anti-bullying campaign will be told in a public setting in Cheyenne on Thursday.

The story of Rachel Joy Scott, the inspiration for the nationwide “Rachel’s Challenge” movement, will be told from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday at Goins Elementary School.

Scott was the first student killed in the Columbine High School shootings of 1999. Students who shared their stories of Rachel with her parents painted a picture of a young woman whose acts of kindness had a profound effect on them.

The resulting “Rachel’s Challenge” program is designed to create a positive climate in public schools and reduce bullying.

The program is open to the public and refreshments will be served. People planning to attend are asked to RSVP to Goins Principal Amanda Hall at 771-2620 or by email at amanda.hall@laramie1.org.

Gordon releases tight budget for next biennium

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Gov. Mark Gordon’s release of his budget proposal for the 2021-22 biennium on Monday came with a recognition of the declining fortunes of Wyoming’s mineral sector.

Gordon said his budget proposal — his first as governor — kept spending low without cutting programs.

“The point to me has been to understand what those budget cuts will mean operationally across the whole of government,” he said during a news conference Monday. “I think that’s a process that takes more time. We haven’t identified any programmatic cuts at this point.”

Between spending requirements set by law or the Constitution and limits on revenues — estimated to total $2.26 billion during the next two years — Gordon said he is recommending a budget that he said will keep spending low and reduce capital construction.

The budget for the General Fund — the state’s main bank account — recommends providing public schools with $161 million from Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account on top of the $1.7 billion schools are to receive from the Schools Foundation Program. In addition, he recommended $105 million be given to local communities.

Gordon’s budget proposes spending $94.7 million on capital construction rather than the $150 million proposed to his office. He also recommended spending $238 million on school construction and $21 million for one-time bonuses for state government employees.

“My goal in this budget was to take care of people first because they are key to a productive government,” he said. “I have mentioned several times how incredibly hard working people in Wyoming government are. And I recognize that they have not had the recognition that they have really deserved over time.”

Gordon, in his comments during the news conference and in the letter to the Legislature accompanying his budget proposal, said his budget was prepared with an eye toward changing economic conditions.

“These changes, including declining coal production and low natural gas prices, will impact how we fund government services over the next years and probably on into the future,” he said.

The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee will begin its review of Gordon’s budget in a series of meetings to be held through December and January. The committee will forward its recommendation for a biennium budget to the full Legislature, which begins its 2020 budget session in February.

2021-22 BUDGET POINTS

  • Total proposed budget: $3.2 billion
  • Appropriation for capital construction: $94.7 million
  • Appropriation for local communities: $105 million
  • Appropriation for School Foundation: $1.75 billion
  • Appropriation for school construction: $238 million
  • Appropriation for Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund: $12 million
  • Appropriation for Energy Commercialization Program: $25 million
  • Appropriation for the University of Wyoming: $438 million
  • Number of new employees: 35

Website ranks 60 percent of Wyoming Republicans legislators as RINOs

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

An anonymous website created by an unknown organization has judged 60 percent of the Legislature’s Republicans to be “Republicans in Name Only.”

Using voting records on 10 bills from the 2019 Legislative Session, during which legislators reviewed hundreds of pieces of legislation, www.wyoRINO.com assigned percentages values to the votes cast by each Republican member of the Wyoming House and Senate. If a  legislator did not toe the party line on at least seven of the 10 bills, their names were highlighted in red to indicate RINO status. The website attributes its creation to Ride for the Brand, Wyoming, a political organization Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne said he didn’t know existed.

“This is nothing new, though,” Eathorne said. “We’ve seen other interest groups put out their opinions, ranking and analysis.”

The Wyoming Republican Party website on Nov. 11 published a clarification stating it has no affiliations with other individuals, organizations, groups or publications. 

“The party makes it positions known through its platform and planks adopted at its State Convention,” the website states. 

Nearly verbatim, the wyoRINO website also states its independence, following the declaration with a caveat specifying that  Ride for the Brand, Wyoming, reserves the right to revise its opinions and conclusions.

While Eathorne said wyoRINO was not a product of the party, he said there was no problem with the website claiming to represent party ideals. 

“It’s fine that they tie to the timeless principles of the Republican Party,” he explained. “But, we need to continue to clarify the WYGOP does not engage in that.”

Of the 77 listed Republicans, 46, about 60 percent, were labeled RINOs, while only 10 scored perfect rankings.

“They proved exactly the opposite of what they were hoping,” said Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette. “They proved there’s very few ‘true’ Republicans.”

The site rated Von Flatern at 30 percent.

“(Smear campaigns have) come up about three times for me — about every four years around election time,” he said. “The ultra-conservatives are behind this site. They’re not inclusive. If you are gay or a little different than their conservative, Bible-thumping group, you are less of a person. You are a threat to them.”

Von Flatern said though he had suspicions, he wasn’t sure who created the website. He added he’s never heard of Ride for the Brand.

Wyoming. Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, received a ranking of 100 percent and hosts a personal web page with several similarities to www.wyoRINO.com, but said he was not involved with the website.  

“I don’t rate other legislators, I just put out the spread sheets with the votes,” James said. “I think it’s good there’s outside people getting involved. I always feel that more data is better, but I think the website is a good start.”

Republicans may not see eye to eye on every topic, but he said if their voting record dips below 70 percent — the ratio of votes in line with published Republican values — they are lying about their affiliation.

“That speaks for the lack of integrity of the official,” James said. “If they are lying to the people — ‘I’m going to vote this way’ — then they don’t do it, that’s on the elected official.”

James said he was not familiar with Ride for the Brand, Wyoming.

While Gov. Mark Gordon was not available for comment, his office responded to an interview request via email. 

“The Governor doesn’t believe that an anonymous website with ‘rankings’ based on a small sampling of votes is an accurate way to characterize legislators’ beliefs,” wrote Michael Pearlman, Gordon’s communications director.

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