Apr 30, 2015

Cody nurse contests sexual assault allegations, but case moves forward

An attorney for a Cody man accused of sexually assaulting a female patient during a January surgical procedure attacked the case against him at a court hearing last week.

“A large portion of the case is based on speculation on the part of the state,” argued William Struemke, a Cody attorney who’s defending registered nurse Robert W. Guty.

The Park County Circuit Courtroom in Cody
Struemke questioned the motives of the fellow nurse who reported catching Guty with his fingers inside a sedated patient’s genitals. As for other nurses’ statements that they’d suspected Guty of inappropriate touches for some time, “we’re not here for those rumors,” he said.

Struemke made the remarks during a preliminary hearing held Friday in Park County Circuit Court in Cody, where he asked that the case be dismissed. However, Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters found there was enough evidence for Guty’s first-degree sexual assault charge to proceed to District Court — though he wondered if all the allegations contained in charging documents would be admissible at a trial.

Guty is currently free on a $60,000 cash bond. He has relinquished his ability to work as a nurse as part of an administrative proceeding before the Wyoming Board of Nursing, Struemke said. The board’s website lists Guty as being currently licensed with no record of any discipline.

“Money’s a big motivator, you would agree? ... If somebody felt they were losing money due to somebody else, that could be a motivator to seek revenge, could it not?” Struemke asked.

The procedure in question took place at the Northern Wyoming Surgical Center, where Guty had been working. He denied the allegations when confronted by the surgical center’s administrator, but was fired after an internal investigation, charging documents say.

In the incident in question, a female patient was sedated and undergoing a procedure on her foot when a nurse reportedly saw Guty’s put his hand under the patient’s blanket, near her hip, Cody Police Detective Jason Stafford wrote in a charging affidavit.

Having held suspicions about Guty’s handling of women for some time, the nurse said she pulled back the blanket and saw Guty quickly remove his hand from the woman’s genitals, Stafford wrote.

Besides Guty and the nurse who reported seeing the alleged sexual assault, there were three other medical providers in the room. Stafford recounted Friday that none of the others reported seeing anything unusual and that the patient has no memory of the procedure.

“Only one person allegedly saw something, correct?” Struemke asked the detective during cross-examination, adding later, “Does that strike you as odd?”

Stafford said it did not.

“People were in different positions in the room. Some said they had their back to them (the patient), others said they were paying attention to their vitals,” the detective said.

Only one of the four other medical providers in the room reported seeing Guty inappropriately touch the patient; the other said they had been focused on other tasks and saw nothing, Stafford recounted.

The nurse who reported the allegations told Stafford she had a good working relationship with Guty, but Struemke argued that Guty had to repeatedly remind her to punch out of work, “thereby costing her money.”

“Money’s a big motivator, you would agree? ... If somebody felt they were losing money due to somebody else, that could be a motivator to seek revenge, could it not?” Struemke asked Stafford.

Three other nurses at the surgical center told Stafford that, based on their observations, they’d also come to believe Guty was inappropriately touching female patients; one nurse was concerned enough that she wore extra layers of clothing when she had a procedure at the surgical center, Stafford recounted.

Struemke noted that Guty hasn’t been charged with any crimes in connection with the other nurses’ allegations. He asked why Stafford would care about about the “rumors.”

“I care about them because I was looking at the totality of the circumstances, and then you have this act that occurs,” Stafford said, though he added that the other nurses’ suspicions and observations were not the basis for the felony charge.

Struemke said there were a lot of unanswered questions and some holes in the case.

For example, he suggested it was physically impossible for the witnessing nurse to have lifted up the blanket, given she was holding the patient’s leg.

Judge Waters, however, said the state met the relatively low legal burden of probable cause and bound Guty’s case over to District Court.

“If you look through the affidavit of probable cause, it is filled, certainly, with allegations of prior inappropriate conduct by this defendant. That is very concerning to the state,” said prosecutor Bryan Skoric.

As per Wyoming law, Guty’s name was kept confidential by court officials until it advanced to District Court, but Cody News Company independently learned his identity after the charge was filed.

Struemke made an unsuccessful request on Friday to have Guty’s bond lowered to $20,000 cash. It had been lowered from $75,000 to $60,000 at an earlier hearing, an amount Guty posted six days after his initial March 3 arrest.

Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric objected to a further reduction in bond.

“If you look through the affidavit of probable cause, it is filled, certainly, with allegations of prior inappropriate conduct by this defendant. That is very concerning to the state,” Skoric said.

“In no way, shape, or form should these other random things placed in the affidavit ... hinder my client,” countered Struemke.

Judge Waters said the District Court will need to decide whether the statements in the affidavit are admissible or relevant for a trial, but that aside, he believed bond was appropriate at $60,000.

Guty will next enter a plea in District Court. The date was no immediately set.

Confirmed: Chemical used to poison animals near Meeteetse

A reward for information is offered as federal, state and local agencies continue to investigate the fatal poisoning of animals in the Timber Creek area west of Meeteetse.

The Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory confirmed the chemical used to poison wild and domestic animals was aldicarb, an insecticide known to be highly toxic to mammals, according to a news release from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The poisonings, which took place during the week of March 29 to April 4, are being investigated by the BLM, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Park County Sheriff's Office.

Julie Thomas’ dog, Wiley, was among the victims of April's poisonings in the Timber Creek area west of Meeteetse. Courtesy photo
The BLM is offering a reward of up to $2,000, and local pet owners impacted by the poisoning upped the ante to a total of $6,000 for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person or people involved in poisoning the animals, said Powell resident Julie Thomas.

“We are just trying to get people to help us solve this crime,” said Thomas, who lost her dog Wiley to the poison.

Three locally owned dogs, a coyote, a skunk, a raccoon and possibly several other animals died due to what appears to be an act of intentional poisoning, the release said. Aldicarb is sold under the trade name Temik. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified aldicarb in the highest toxicity category and has defined strict controls for its delivery and use.

“We are just trying to get people to help us solve this crime,” said Thomas, who lost a dog to the poison.

Those recreating in the Timber Creek area should use caution and keep pets under close control. If animal carcasses are located, do not touch them. Report their location immediately to the sheriff’s office or call the STOP POACHING hotline. The substance used may be transferred by touch and is extremely harmful, the release said.

Anyone with information about this crime is urged to call the STOP POACHING hotline at 1-877-WGFD-TIP (1-877-943-3847) or BLM Ranger Ian Canaan at 899-6561.

“If anyone knows anything, people call the hotline because this was a horrible thing, and they need to be caught,” said veterinary assistant Shawna Hicks of Meeteetse.

Pet owners should keep their pets inside their vehicles while saddling their horses or preparing for a hike until they are ready to keep a close watch and make sure nothing questionable is eaten, said Gould Veterinary Clinic’s veterinary assistant Shawna Hicks in Meeteetse.

“I don’t think a human would have seen these little chunks of meat; it is very lethal, and these little chunks could be no bigger than a sausage patty,” Hicks said. “It won’t be visible to a human.”

But a dog’s nose will easily detect the meat, and the dog will do what comes naturally: Eat it before it can be taken away. If a dog is suspected to have ingested Temik, Hicks urges pet owners to make the dog throw up immediately. She said one of her clients was able to do this with soda since the foaming action will induce vomiting.

She also cautioned pet owners to wash their hands immediately since Temik can be harmful to humans, even with just skin contact. The vomit needs to be bagged for examination too.

If a dog appears to have been poisoned, bring it to a veterinary clinic as soon as possible.

“I’m hoping we saw the end of it, since we haven’t had any more incidents of it — but people should be cautious until the person is caught,” Hicks said. “If anyone knows anything, people call the hotline because this was a horrible thing, and they need to be caught.”

~By Matt Naber

New fair board looks to future

“It’s going to be a lot of work here, but we’re ready.”

Those were the words of Steve Martin, who was elected the new president of the Park County Fair Board at a special Tuesday night meeting.

New fair board president Steve Martin discusses some livestock pens during Tuesday's meeting while (from left) fair board member Teecee Barrett, county events coordinator Echo Renner and board member Sara Skalsky look on.
The meeting laid out a new path for the fair — one intended to include better communication. Going forward, the board plans to have quarterly meetings with commissioners and to have a representative from the county’s buildings and grounds department — which maintains the fairgrounds — at every board meeting.

Conflict between commissioners and the board, and between fair board-directed staff and buildings and grounds staffers, culminated this year with commissioners replacing the fair director, who answered to the board, with a county events coordinator, who answers to the commission. That, in turn, led to three fair board members resigning in frustration earlier this month. They also let go of Fair Director Jennifer Lohrenz, who commissioners had hoped would help with the transition through June.

Tuesday was the first meeting for the three replacement board members picked by commissioners last week: Troy Wiant of Cody (who declined a nomination for president and was named vice president), Sara Skalsky of Powell (who became treasurer) and Teecee Barrett of Powell. Powell resident Kim Barhaug remains the board’s secretary.

President Martin, also of Powell, called for everyone to work as a team.

“My goal is that, everybody in here, we’re all working together. We’re all in this together. We’re going to make this thing work,” he said.

Commissioner Tim French told the board that commissioners want regular meetings so everyone is on the same page and that a line of communication is kept open. French asked the board to contact the commission “if there’s something bugging you or (there’s) something the commissioners are doing, or vice versa.”

“My goal is that, everybody in here, we’re all working together. We’re all in this together,” new president Martin said.

Park County Events Coordinator Echo Renner pledged to do anything she can to help the board.

“Even though things have changed a little bit and there’s not a fair manager anymore ... and I’m not employed by the fair board — of all the events I do, the fair obviously is the biggest one,” Renner said. “I’m at your disposal.”

Similarly, Park County Buildings and Grounds Superintendent Mike Garza said there's a consensus among his crew that they’ll do what they can to help create a successful fair season.

“I know you guys are in a tough spot right now — especially being a stone’s throw away from the fair,” Garza told the board.

Steve Martin and Park County Commissioner Tim French walk past the new multi-use facility that's now under construction.
The board members said they hope to be kept in the loop about projects undertaken on the grounds (with Wiant serving as a liaison) and they want to compile a fairgrounds “wish list.”

In one change, Renner said her expanded position of handling events around the county won’t give her time to do the fair’s bookkeeping like the fair director had done. Rather than hire an accountant, the board opted to have office manager PJ Chouinard take over the work.

“I just want to thank all you guys for stepping up. It’s appreciatedm” commissioner French later told those at the meeting.

Part of the special meeting consisted of business that couldn’t be handled at the regular April 14 meeting, when former board members Mike Demoney, Linda Nielsen and Robby Newkirk walked out and left the body without a quorum.

The new board supported Powell High School student Tyson Wages’ idea to build a couple dozen benches for the fair as an Eagle Scout project. They also unanimously declined a request from Big Horn County to borrow up to 175 livestock pens for their fair.

“I’d love to help them out, but it’s going to cost us a lot of money, and the (swine) barn would never be the same again,” Martin said.

The most pressing need for this year’s Park County Fair in July is to find around 15 more superintendents to oversee events ranging from visual arts to culinary arts to youth horse shows. Superintendents are volunteers who help organize, schedule and run each department.

“If they don't help with it, you don’t have a fair,” Martin said of their importance. “It’s just that simple.”

Anyone interested in serving as a superintendent should contact Chouinard at 754-5421.

Fair board members were presented with some gifts from Renner (a cloth cooler and a picnic blanket) at the start of the meeting as a token of appreciation.

“I just want to thank all you guys for stepping up,” French later said to the board members, Renner, Garza and Chouinard, adding, “It’s appreciated.”

The board will have its next regular meeting on May 12 at 7 p.m.

~By CJ Baker

New University of Wyoming sculpture was locally crafted

Sculptor Mike Thomas just calls her Darlin’.

Artist D. Michael Thomas (left) and bronze chaser Clay Ward put finishing touches on the sculpture titled ‘Breaking Through’ at Ward's shop near Frannie. Photo by Ilene Olson
She has a smile on her face because she’s enjoying a hard ride on a good horse — and he’s a horse her brother couldn’t ride, Thomas said.

Darlin’ is no lightweight. She and her feisty horse comprise a larger-than-life bronze sculpture standing nearly 16 feet tall. Just her hat weighs 200 pounds.

Thomas, of Buffalo, has been a sculptor for 30 years. He sculpted the horse and rider in clay, Caleco Foundry of Cody turned the clay into dozens of pieces of bronze and Clay Ward, of Frannie, welded them together.

From concept to finish, the sculpture, “Breaking Through,” has taken two-and-a-half years to complete, Thomas said. Both he and Ward were putting finishing touches on the sculpture Wednesday in preparation for horse and rider’s long ride from Frannie to Laramie, where Thomas will install the sculpture in front of the University of Wyoming’s new Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center.

Thomas said the sculpture of the cowgirl and her horse will appear to be breaking through a block wall, with blocks from the wall scattered around them. In the process, her hat falls off onto the side of the wall.

The sandstone wall will be more than 20 feet tall and 17 feet wide. The sculpture will be located on the north side of the building in War Memorial Plaza.

“Part of the story that Michael Thomas’ piece is representing is the important role women have played in our state,” Ben Blalock, president of the UW Foundation, said last year in a UW news release. “It represents how Wyoming has been defined through the years though women who have broken through and who have made an important diff
erence in our society, and certainly continue to play a key role in the advancement of the University of Wyoming.”

Thomas’ sculpture is the second to be installed at the new center. Originally, only one was planned.

Thomas and artist Chris Navarro both came up with concepts for a sculpture of an aggressive horse and rider. They came up with remarkably different works of art, knowing that only one would be chosen. But the UW Foundation board members found them both so exciting and dynamic that they decided both should be part of the facility.

“Breaking Through” was supported by a donation of $500,000 from Marian H. Rochelle and her daughter, April Brimmer Kunz.

Apr 28, 2015

After local foundation objects, WWII Japanese internment camp art pulled from auction

A collection of handmade artifacts from camps, including Heart Mountain, where Japanese-Americans were detained during World World II, was pulled from the auction block April 17 after the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation threatened to take legal action.

The Foundation had a moral obligation to stop the auction of 450 items from the Allen H. Eaton collection, now owned by Thomas Ryan, because it would open old, but deep, wounds of Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II, said Brian Liesinger, Foundation executive director.

Estelle Ishigo drew this sketch at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1942 to the depict a real blizzard that caught the Japanese incarcerates completely off guard. It's among items in a collection of artifacts that had been up for sale in an auction. This sketch is from Ishigo's 1972 book, "Lone Heart Mountain."

In late March, the foundation initially asked for the donation of the artifacts. Then it requested the private sale of the items to appropriate nonprofit organizations, and finally, for a postponement of the auction, to no avail. So the foundation and its supporters raised money to purchase the art, Liesinger said.

Rago Arts and Auction Center valued the artifacts at around $27,600. The Foundation offered Rago $50,000, but the consignor wasn't interested.

“We were absolutely flabbergasted that this generous offer was rejected,” Liesinger said, adding, “The consignor (Ryan) declined, maintaining that they did not feel qualified to determine where the collection would be most appropriately held and that a public auction, in his view, was a more appropriate course of action.”

The Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation was "absolutely flabbergasted" when their $50,000 offer for the artifacts was rejected, Liesinger said.

But Liesinger said the foundation made its offer with a pledge: If it acquired the collection, the foundation would bring a consortium of Japanese-American-related organizations together “to determine the appropriate, careful treatment and disbursement of the collection.”

Brian Liesinger, Heart Mountain Foundation executive director, examines a display about Estelle Ishigo at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. Photo by Gib Mathers
Threatening a lawsuit was a last resort, said Shirley Ann Higuchi, chairwoman of the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation.

Liesinger said the foundation’s legal team contacted Rago through the Arts and Auction Center, Lambertville, N.J., to notify the center of an order to show cause.

“Rago then withdrew the pieces,” Liesinger said. “With the items no longer at threat of going to auction, there was no action to file the injunction against.”

Ryan pledged to work with Rago to create a purchase proposal. Liesinger said he hopes Ryan will keep the best interests of the collection in mind, along with due respect for the artists who created the artifacts and the people formerly incarcerated in the camps.

“The issue is still in play, but the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation is hoping and praying for the best,” Higuchi said.

Eaton accumulated the collection around the end of World War II from Japanese-American confinement camps with the help of incarcerates. In 1952, he published the book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire,” which featured many of the items planned for the public auction. The items had been passed down to Eaton’s heirs and then to Ryan, a family friend, who decided to sell them, according to a April 15 Foundation news release.

Higuchi said she is not sure what the future holds for the art, but she wants Japanese-Americans to have the option to decide the artifacts’ home.

“The issue is still in play, but the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation is hoping and praying for the best,” she said.

Fair board gets three new members

A trio of new volunteers have joined the Park County Fair Board.

At a special Friday meeting, Park County commissioners appointed Troy Wiant of Cody and Sara Skalsky and Teecee Barrett of Powell to the board. They replace three members who abruptly resigned their posts in the middle of the fair board’s April 14 meeting.

Commissioners chose the replacements among eight applicants — a pool that included Sheriff Scott Steward.

Troy Wiant
• Wiant, the agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Cody High School, will finish out the term vacated by Linda Nielsen of Powell. It runs through Jan. 1, 2018.

“I just felt this was a good time to help out the fair,” Wiant said of applying. “One of my goals is to maybe make the fair experience a little more user-friendly.”

Having been involved with the fair some 20 years, including serving as a superintendent, he feels the fair lost sight of its mission in recent years.

“I didn’t feel like the management was as easy to deal with as it has been in the past or whatever,” Wiant said.

He hopes to help find people to fill some vacant superintendent positions and to ensure the fair is the “funnest time of the year.”

Sara Skalsky
• Skalsky also brings a lot of past experience to the board.

“I have a lot to learn with vendors, concerts, rides,” etc., Skalsky said, but she’s been involved in the animal side of the fair for a long time. That includes serving as the meat goat superintendent.

As a board member, she hopes to help make the fair successful.

“We need it here in the community,” she said, calling it one of the area’s highlights.

A bookkeeper at Stine Buss Wolff Wilson and Associates in Powell, Skalsky will fill out the term vacated by Mike Demoney of Powell, a term that ends on Jan. 1, 2017.

• Barrett is no stranger to the fair and the county, either. She works in the county clerk’s office as the elections deputy/grants coordinator and also serves as the primary minute-taker for commission meetings.

Teecee Barrett
She’ll fill the position vacated by Robby Newkirk of Meeteetse, which runs through the end of the year.

Barrett felt a vested interest in the fair after writing state grants for the new multi-use facility being built at the fairgrounds — plus she said she’s been participating in it since childhood “and have watched it gone downhill.”

“With a new building and a new events coordinator, I thought it was a good time to get on board,” Barrett said.

(Commissioners recently replaced the fair director, who had answered to the board, with an events coordinator who will work with the board but ultimately answers to the commission.)

Barrett wants to drive up participation in fair exhibits, such as in culinary arts, sewing and agronomy.

She also expects there will be a need to raise money to help the fairgrounds function.

“I’m excited about it,” she said of joining the board. “I think it’s going to take some definite time commitment, just because of the short time schedule that we have before the fair and with so many new people on board.”

The board is having a special 7 p.m. Tuesday meeting where Wiant, Skalsky and Barrett will join existing fair board members Steve Martin and Kim Barhaug of Powell.

“We had some marvelous candidates,” Commission Chairman Joe Tilden said of the eight applicants, adding, “It was a very difficult decision for us to make.”

“But pleasantly difficult,” clarified Commissioner Bucky Hall. “We had good candidates. Leaving one or two off (the board) was kind of a drag.”

Sheriff Steward had no hard feelings from being passed over.

“I just thought maybe I could lend a hand with kind of helping reorganize,” Steward said, adding later, “It’s something I would have definitely put my full heart into and gave it 100 percent, but I’m sure they picked the people for the right reasons.”

Commission starts choosing new board members in private

Park County commissioners are choosing to be less transparent in the way they pick members for the county’s public boards.

Starting with Friday’s selection of three new members for the Park County Fair Board, commissioners are now conducting their interviews with candidates — and their deliberations on who to choose — behind closed doors.

Expect to see more executive sessions.
The interview process had been public for many years, though it was generally rare for members of the public or media representatives to actually attend.

“From my way of thinking, it makes [things] difficult interacting with an applicant, especially when we have people — no offense — from the press there,” Commission Chairman Joe Tilden said in an interview. “I have had applicants in the past, when outside people have been there, [that] have been a little nervous and basically watch what they say.”

He made the decision after conferring with Deputy Park County Attorney Jim Davis and County Attorney Bryan Skoric, who said commissioners could chose to hold the interviews in executive session. State law says a governing body can exclude the public and meet in executive session “to consider the appointment ... of a public officer.”

Tilden said during Friday’s commission meeting that he’s received comments from past applicants that “they can’t be candid ... in the public eye.”

When asked if that’s a concern, considering the candidates are applying to public boards, Tilden said he thinks “it’s a different deal once you’ve been appointed to a board: you accept that responsibility that you’re going to have to do your job in front of the public. ... But when you’re interviewing, and trying to basically influence the board, I really think to you need to have an open, honest, candid conversation.”

“Especially if the position you’re interviewing for has been controversial in the past,” added Commissioner Lee Livingston. “That’s where they might not feel that they can be as candid in a public setting.”

The fair board positions qualify as having been controversial, as all three appointments were to replace board members who quit over differences with the commission.

“Especially if the position you’re interviewing for has been controversial in the past — that’s where they might not feel that they can be as candid in a public setting,” Livingston said of applicants.

Commissioner Tim French said making the process private also ensures a candidate can’t sit in on another applicant’s interview and learn the questions they’ll be asked in advance.

The commissioners’ long-time executive assistant, Peggy Ruble, said that during her 30-plus years on the job, board interviews have generally been conducted in public. However, Ruble said there have been periods where commissioners held them in executive session.

Tilden plans to stick with closed-door interviews.

“From now on, that’s going to be my policy,” he said. “For us to be in a position to make the best choice possible, we need to have a candid conversation with our applicants.”

Commissioners appoint people to a dozen different boards, whose duties range from steering the county’s libraries, to making planning and zoning recommendations, to overseeing the Yellowstone Regional Airport.

Apr 23, 2015

Local homes keep growing in value

Park County homes continued to gain value in 2014 — which will likely mean somewhat higher property tax bills this year.

Park County Assessor Pat Meyer says residential properties in Powell and Cody generally rose in value by 3 to 5 percent between 2013 and 2014.
File photo courtesy woodleywonderworks under CC BY

“That’s pretty much due just to the way the market’s going,” Meyer said Tuesday. “We’re doing a little better, but no major increases.”

Among county homes with 10 acres of property or less, the median sales price last year was $215,000 — up about $2,000 from the year before, Meyer said. (The average sales price, which is more heavily influenced by exceptionally expensive properties, jumped up to $242,889 from 2013’s figure of $228,286.)

The number of sales also rose.

A total of 345 residential properties changed hands in 2014, Meyer said. That’s about two dozen more verified sales than were reported in 2013.

The data from the assessor's office also suggests Cody remains a generally more expensive place to buy a house than Powell: the median single family home sold for $212,000 in Cody last year, compared to $173,000 over in Powell.

“You’re going to pay more for a house in Cody if it was the exact same one as you would (have) in Powell,” Meyer said.

Townhouses and condominiums didn’t have as strong of a year. Thirty-five of the residences sold in the county last year — about a dozen fewer than 2013 — and while the median sales price rose slightly, to $139,500, the average townhouse sold for about $5,000 less than the year before, a total of $152,169.

The assessor’s office recently mailed notices to property owners across Park County, giving them updated figures on the estimated “fair market value” of their property.

“You’re going to pay more for a house in Cody if it was the exact same one as you would (have) in Powell,” Assessor Pat Meyer said.

The market value is based in part on what comparable properties have fetched and is intended to reflect the price that a well-informed buyer and seller would reach if the property was on the market for a reasonable amount of time and neither party’s acting under pressure.

Residential and commercial properties are subject to taxes on 9.5 percent of the fair market value. The actual property tax rates are determined by a variety of local governmental entities ranging from school boards to cemetery districts in a process referred to as setting the mill levy.

In contrast with residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial lands, subject to taxes on only a small fraction of their value, minerals like oil and natural gas are taxed on 100 percent of their value. That means changes in oil and gas production bring much bigger swings in tax revenue than shifts in the value of homes and other properties.

In fact, thanks to the recent downturn in the mineral industry — which compromised more than half of the county’s overall value last year — Meyer figures the county’s overall valuation and property tax base will sink by 3 or 4 percent this year.

“I don’t think it’s going to be as bad this year as once anticipated,” he said. “And I have no idea about next year yet, but that would be the bad one.”

He noted that oil and gas operators already had around six good months this past year before things really started dropping.

Thanks to the recent downturn in the mineral industry, Meyer figures the county’s overall valuation and property tax base will sink by 3 or 4 percent this year.

Park County’s schools, county government, cities, towns, fire districts, college, hospitals, weed and pest district, cemeteries and other taxing entities collected a total of $61.86 million in property taxes last year. A 3 to 4 percent drop in value could mean a couple million dollars less.

Apr 21, 2015

Yellowstone’s East Gate sees snowmobile revival

Relaxed rules for winter visits to Yellowstone National Park Proved something of a boon for the park’s eastern gate.

A total of 269 snowmobilers ventured through the park’s East Entrance between Dec. 22 and March 1. That’s up by more than 100 people from the previous winter and represents the highest number of snowmobile visits through the gate since 2006.

“It’s very encouraging for us, because we’ve been just been holding on by the skin of our teeth, waiting for things to change to make our business a little more viable in there,” said Dede Fales.

Snowmobilers are pictured along the Firehole River in Midway Geyser Basin during a guided snowmobile tour in January. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
Fales co-owns Gary Fales Outfitting of Wapiti with her husband, and they’ve long been the only outfit providing guided snowmobile trips through Yellowstone’s East Entrance. But Fales said the difference-maker this season was that the National Park Service also allowed some visitors to head into Yellowstone without a paid guide.

That change actually boosted the Fales' business, as it brought in a different group of customers who didn't want to hire a guide, but did need to rent the Fales' specialized machines. (Snowmobiles in the park have to generally be cleaner-burning and quieter than everyday sleds, and they can only be used for six years.)

“It felt like the guided trips basically stayed about the same, but we had all the additional business with people that went in without a guide — which was great,” Fales said, adding later that, “I think we’ve reached a good (level). We’re able to take care of the people that want to go in.”

No one can confuse the past season’s uptick with the East Entrance’s long-gone heyday: back during the winter of 2001-2002, for example, more than 4,000 snowmobilers ventured into the park.

“It’s very encouraging for us, because we’ve been just been holding on by the skin of our teeth, waiting for things to change to make our business a little more viable in there,” Fales said.

Since then, the Park Service implemented limits on the number of snow machines that can enter the park to answer concerns about pollution and impacts to wildlife. Under the current rules, which took effect in December, no more than 25 snowmobiles (20 led by a commercial guide and five not) can pass through the East Entrance on a given day.

“You can’t really build up a very big rental business because you can never rent more than five sleds (to a non-commercial group) a day,” Fales said. “It’s tough, and maybe a lot of days you’re going to have only one or two (rentals). But still, to have it in addition to our guided business, it’s better. Definitely better.”

In addition to the 269 snowmobilers, 273 skiers ventured through the East Entrance this winter, making for a total of 542 local winter visitors. There were 437 total visitors last year.

No snowcoach services are offered through the east gate.

With 269 snowmobilers visiting Yellowstone through the east entrance this winter, it was the local gate's best season for snowmobiling in nearly a decade.

Across all of Yellowstone’s entrances, a total of 45,024 people visited Yellowstone by snowmobile, snowcoach or ski this winter. That was a roughly 4 percent decline from the year before. The dip appears to have been largely due to some poor snow conditions, said Yellowstone park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett.

Warmer temperatures and a lack of snow made some portions of the groomed road between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful get all the way down to pavement in February — and that forced park managers to temporarily prohibit snowmobiles and snowcoaches with skis from traveling the popular route.

Bartlett said the visitation numbers indicate the restrictions are what drove overall snowmobile trips down by about 22 percent from the season before.

“It wasn’t a reflection of the winter use policy or anything like that,” she said.

This was the first time since 2003 that snowmobilers were allowed to enter the park without a paid guide. Bartlett said a group will review the season to see if any changes to the non-commercially guided program are needed.

In addition to having to use machines that meet the park’s “Best Available Technology” requirements, all drivers (including one designated as the non-commercial guide) had to take an online certification course.

Even with the improved numbers, the winter season is barely a blip on the radar compared to the visitors seen during the summer season.

While local officials fought hard to preserve winter access to Yellowstone through the East Entrance and its avalanche-prone Sylvan Pass, even the improved numbers for the winter season are a blip compared to the summer season. Last summer, the East Gate welcomed 465,151 visitors — meaning that more people passed through the gate during a couple busy hours in July than did this whole winter.

Park-wide, snowcoach riders, snowmobilers and skiers represent just more than 1 percent of annual visits to Yellowstone.

Apr 16, 2015

Northrup to lead House Education Committee

Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, officially became the head of the Wyoming Legislature’s House Education Committee on Tuesday.

“I’m looking forward to going to work,” said Northrup, who represents the eastern part of Cody. “We’re going to have a lot of education work.”

Rep. David Northrup
Northrup had been the acting chairman of the committee since mid-February, when Rep. John Patton was hospitalized with a heart attack. The Sheridan Republican, who had just become the chair of the House Education Committee, died earlier this month at the age of 84.

Northrup has served on the education committee since taking office in 2013.

He called education one of his main priorities as a legislator.

“Of course, I have a kindred spirit to ag, so I look at ag issues also, but education is definitely on top of the list,” he said.

Northrup complimented the work of education administrators in Park and Big Horn counties.

“We have good resources and good people to ask questions to,” he said.

Northrup served on the Powell school board for 12 years, including six as the board’s chairman.
Leading up to the Legislature’s 2016 budget session, Northrup said he’ll be working on refinancing education funding, accountability issues and school facilities.

Northrup also becomes chairman of the Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability and joins the Wyoming Education Planning and Coordination Council with the promotion.

The House District 50 representative continues to serve on the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration (which will meet next month), the House Revenue Committee and the Select Water Committee.

Three fair board members resign; director let go

The Park County Fair recently got a new leader and now, it’s getting a mostly brand-new board, too.

Feeling unwanted by the county commissioners who’d appointed them, three of the fair board’s five members — Chairman Mike Demoney of Powell, Vice Chairman Linda Nielsen of Powell and Treasurer Robby Newkirk of Meeteetse — abruptly resigned at Tuesday night's regular meeting.

“Due to the reorganization of the Park County Fair by the Park County commissioners, we felt that our opinions were not wanted or appreciated,” Demoney said in a statement on behalf of the three. “We are proud that we were able to serve the Park County community and the fair.”

Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston visits with remaining fair board members Kim Barhaug and Steve Martin Tuesday night. “We’ve got these two and we'll get them some reinforcements,” Livingston said.
The resignations follow the Park County Commission’s February decision to eliminate the position of Fair Director Jennifer Lohrenz (who had reported to the fair board) and replace her with a Park County Events Coordinator who answers to the commission. Commissioners said they believed it was the best way to resolve long-running conflict over management of the grounds and that a new, bigger position — recently filled by Echo Renner — was needed to handle county events beyond the fair.

Commissioners have insisted that the board’s fundamental role will remain the same, but fair board members have had many questions about how the new set up will work with all staff ultimately answering to the commission.

Lohrenz’s position had been funded through the end of June, and commissioners had hoped she would work with Renner on a transition.

However, in the board’s last act, fair board members unanimously voted to let Lohrenz go Tuesday evening.

After the vote, Demoney, Nielsen and Newkirk resigned and walked out of the building, leaving the board without enough members to hold an official meeting or make any decisions.

“Due to the reorganization of the Park County Fair by the Park County commissioners, we felt that our opinions were not wanted or appreciated,” Demoney said of the resignations. 

Several members of the Powell High School Alumni Association were left in the lurch, as they’d hoped to speak to the board about plans for their upcoming 100th all-class reunion weekend. Much of the June 26-27 festivities are scheduled to be held at the fairgrounds.

“I don’t know what you guys are going to do,” said Pat Graham, a leader of the alumni group. “I don’t know what the county commissioners are going to do. (I think) they all ought to be fired, myself.”

He wondered if the PHS graduates would have to find another venue.

Acting Commission Chairman Lee Livingston, Commissioner Tim French and the two remaining fair board members, Steve Martin and Kim Barhaug of Powell, assured Graham the event could proceed as planned. They encouraged the PHS group to work with Renner, who started last week.

“It’s going to be business as usual as far as the fair and the fairgrounds,” Livingston said.

He said the commission will look to refill the fair board as soon as it legally can and said he knows of people with a standing interest in joining the volunteer board.

The commission scheduled a special meeting for this (Thursday) afternoon to discuss how they’ll go about advertising for and filling the open positions.

“It’s going to be business as usual as far as the fair and the fairgrounds,” Livingston said.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Martin said he had no worries about the 2015 fair, set for July 21-25.

“There’s enough people around that have been involved that some of them will come forward,” he predicted.

Martin also said there’s plenty of time — the fair’s a little over three months away — to get things together.

In 2011, then-Fair Manager Steve Scott resigned about six weeks before that year’s fair, citing disagreement with the board. Lohrenz and others helped step up to fill the gap then.

In a Tuesday letter to Lohrenz signed by all five board members, the board cited the commissioners’ “operational reorganization” and the pending elimination of her job as reasons for immediately letting her go.

The board suggested Lohrenz should be free of any responsibility for how the 2015 fair plays out.

“Any issues that should arise, past or present, are not a result of you or any action taken by you,” they wrote to Lohrenz. “You are free from any blame or tarnishing that may be waged against you due to any lack of knowledge or understanding on any part of the new operation.”

“You are free from any blame or tarnishing that may be waged against you due to any lack of knowledge or understanding on any part of the new operation,” the board wrote in a letter to Lohrenz.

The board said it appreciated Lohrenz’s unwavering support of the fair and many uncompensated hours.

“You have performed your duties to our satisfaction and we applaud your determination to overcome obstacles and continuous adversities in order to do so,” the board wrote, wishing her the best.

After the board members said goodbye to Lohrenz and she exited the room, Demoney announced he, Nielsen and Newkirk wished to resign.

Asked about the overall situation with the fair after the meeting, Livingston said he believes things are generally “headed in a good direction.”

“Echo (Renner) is — in just the little bit of time we’ve had Echo on board — she's on the ball,” he said. “We were hoping, with this length of time, of being able to have Jen (Lohrenz) kind of help with the transition, but, you know, it wasn’t in our hands.”

Livingston added that the fair will go on.

“It’s a community thing, and we’ll get the community behind it,” he said.

If people have questions about the fair, they can contact the fair office at 754-5421. Renner said those with questions about events also may contact her directly at 307-899-1694.

Renner said existing contracts will be honored, and she’s willing to visit with anyone who has questions or concerns.

Apr 7, 2015

NWC graduation and persistence rates increasing

Persistence and graduation rates at Northwest College both increased significantly for the latest years on record, recent reports show.

Those are two of the measures that the Wyoming Community College Commission is tracking in an annual report, and they eventually will be factors in calculating funding for each community college district.

NWC institutional researcher Lisa Smith told the NWC Board of Trustees at its meeting last month that Northwest College’s 61 percent persistence rate for the 2013-14 school year was the best of all seven community college districts in Wyoming, according to a commission report.

The persistent rate measures the percentage of first-time, degree-seeking students who enrolled in Northwest College in the fall term and returned the following fall for at least one credit, she said.  The statewide average was 56.1 percent.

A year earlier, Northwest College’s persistence rate stood at 53.6 percent, and the statewide average was 55.2 percent.

In addition, Northwest’s graduation rate jumped by 11 percentage points. The graduation rate measures the percentage of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students who completed their degrees within three years from the time they started. For the 2010 cohort (students who started at Northwest in 2010 and completed by 2013), the graduation rate was 26 percent, or fifth out of the state’s seven college districts.

But for the 2011 cohort (students who started in 2011 and graduated in 2014) the graduation rate jumped to 37 percent.

However, Smith said the statewide comparison for the 2011 cohort won’t be available until February; the Community College Commission is using the 2010 cohort for comparison this year, placing NWC fifth and below the state average of 29.9 percent.

The good news here, Smith said, is that, for the previous four cohorts, from 2006-09, Northwest College’s graduation rate was above the state average.

During a discussion with Cody News Company last week, Smith said the low graduation rate for the 2010 cohort might have been affected by the improving local economy, which prompted some students to discontinue college to take employment offers, though there is no way to determine that for sure, s
he said.

Authorities investigate apparent animal poisonings

Several animals — including three dogs — have died, apparently after consuming poison near the Timber Creek Trailhead southwest of Meeteetse.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other law enforcement agencies are investigating the deaths, Cody Region Wildlife Supervisor Alan Osterland said Monday.

The suspicious deaths were reported to law enforcement in the latter part of last week, he said. Two of the dogs belonged to Powell families.

Other dead animals, including a raccoon, a skunk and a coyote, also were found in the area, the Game and Fish said in a news release.

“Anyone recreating in the Timber Creek area is urged to use caution and be aware of the potential risk for both humans and pets,” Scott Werbelow, game warden coordinator for the Cody Region, said in a statement. “If dead animals are detected, the public is advised to not handle the carcass and notify the Sheriff’s office or call the STOP POACHING hotline.”

The Bureau of Land Management announced Wednesday that it's offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person or people involved in the suspected poisonings.

The Game and Fish is encouraging anyone who may have information about the incident to call the STOP POACHING hotline at 1-877-WGFD-TIP (1-877-943-3847) or the Park County Sheriff’s office at 307-527-8700.

Authorities have not yet confirmed the cause of the animals’ deaths, but they appear to have been poisonings, Osterland said.

“It appears that something’s going on, so we’re just trying to put our finger on it right now,” Osterland said, adding that, “The investigation’s in the preliminary stages right now, and more information will follow.”

State and federal law generally prohibits poisoning animals, and Osterland said such reports are pretty rare.

“We don’t hear of this very often, thank goodness,” he said. “It (poisoning) is so non-discriminatory, obviously. I don’t know why — if it is poisoning-related — why anybody would do it, but it just kills everything.”

The BLM, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Game and Fish and the Park County Sheriff’s Office are investigating the incident, which appears to have occurred during the week of March 29 to April 4.

Apr 2, 2015

Study claims Roundup poses cancer risk; locals say it won't reduce use of herbicide

A new report published in a scientific journal claims Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world, may be linked to cancer.

However, local farmers and others involved in agriculture did not put much stock in the report and say it will not alter the use of Roundup in the Big Horn Basin.

Roundup is sold in numerous places in the Big Horn Basin, including the Big Horn Coop in Powell, as warehouse clerk Adam Kanode shows on Friday. Photo by Tom Lawrence
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a French-based agency of the World Health Organization, issued the report on March 20. It plans to release a longer version of the study later this year. The IARC claims that the insecticide malathion is also a probable human carcinogen.

The claims set off alarm bells and sparked angry responses from farmers and many in the agricultural industry. Roundup can be sprayed to eliminate weeds without harming Roundup Ready crops such as sugar beets, corn, soybeans and cotton, according to Monsanto, which invented and markets the chemical and the crop seeds.

“I do not think this report will reduce the use of Roundup in the Powell area at this time,” said Rory Karhu, a district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

He said 90 percent or more sugar beet and corn growers in the Big Horn Basin use Roundup Ready varieties. They apply it two to three times a season “at a high rate,” Karhu said.

The majority of alfalfa growers in the Big Horn Basin do not use the Roundup Ready variety because cutting the crop for hay two to three times per season provides acceptable weed control without the need for chemicals, he said.

Kent Wimmer, Western Sugar’s director of shareholder relations & governmental affairs, said he feels Roundup is “very, very safe” and will continue to be used by almost all beet growers in the region.

“Roundup has been around for 40 years, and it’s one of the safest products we have going,” he said, noting that it can be purchased in grocery stores.

Mike Moore, manager of the Wyoming Seed Certification Service, said he did not put a lot of credibility into the report, and felt it also made an unjustified attack on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also known as genetically modified crops.

“Notice the regular use of the term ‘could’ in reference to Roundup and Malathion causing cancer,” Moore said. “I could state the same about any chemical and, until proven otherwise, make that claim. They then tie that to the entire GMO technology, which is in no way limited to Roundup or connected

to malathion.
“I still see no credible science in this article, nor anything more than scare tactics,” he said. “Will it have an impact? That will depend on each person/consumer.”

“I still see no credible science in this article, nor anything more than scare tactics,” said Moore, manager of the Wyoming Seed Certification Service.

Fred Hopkin, who farms in the Penrose area, said he has heard similar claims about Roundup in the past.

“If you go on the Internet, there is information, accurate or not, that would suggest all kinds of scary things regarding Roundup,” Hopkin said.

He said he wants to hear a report from the USDA or the Food and Drug Administration before he puts much stock in such claims. He said some activists and attorneys form groups with prestigious-sounding names and issue reports that make wild assertions.

Locals doubt a new report that says Roundup may be linked to cancer will have much of an impact on local use of the herbicide. Photo by Ilene Olson
“Some of what’s out there is absolutely ridiculous,” Hopkin said. “I think most of what’s out there is skewed and used to promote a particular agenda.”

State Rep. David Northrup, who farms on the Willwood, said he was aware of possible negative impacts from the use of the chemical. His family used protective gear when handing it.

“We, the ag people, were originally told that Roundup was safe to use without much protective gear,” Northrup said. “My dad turned up allergic to it almost as soon as he started using it, so yes I have been more cautious  with it in my dealings. Makes you wonder when somebody turns up with an allergic reaction.

“The use of Roundup will continue but perhaps with more caution, at least until a newer chemical can take its place,” he said.

The National Association of Wheat Growers President Brett Blankenship, a wheat farmer from Washtucna, Wash., offered a comment on the study, which he termed “troubling” and not based on new science.

“I appreciate people being concerned about food safety and where their food comes from, but years of regulatory scrutiny and scientific review show the clear facts about the safety of glyphosate use in production agriculture,” Blankenship said.

“The use of glyphosate in wheat production is minimal, but not absent,” he said.

More than 25 years of analysis from global regulatory bodies and the international scientific community, assessing updated data and peer-reviewed literature, has consistently provided the same evidence: the toxicity levels of glyphosate are low and glyphosate is not carcinogenic, Blankenship said.

“The discrepancy between 25 years of scientific analysis and one report, which was based on a limited amount of data, cannot be ignored,” he said.

“The use of Roundup will continue but perhaps with more caution, at least until a newer chemical can take its place,” predicted Northrup, a state representative and Willwood farmer.

The IARC report said farm workers who are exposed to the chemical in large amounts are most at risk. “Glyphosate has been detected in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption,” the report stated.

However, it said those who use it in gardens and lawns are not as likely to develop illnesses.

Powell Parks Superintendent Dal Barton, who is also the city arborist, said he has kept an eye on reports on glyphosate. The city does not use any herbicide products with glyphosate in them, he said.

A 2013 report published in the scientific journal Entropy, said residues of glyphosate has been found in food and could be linked to Parkinson’s disease, infertility and other diseases and health problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency stated in a fact sheet that glyphosate could, in cases where a person was exposed to large amounts, cause congestion of the lungs and an increased breathing rate.

Glyphosate has the potential to cause kidney damage, reproductive effects from long-term exposures at levels above the maximum contaminant level, the fact sheet stated.

Roundup, first developed in 1970 and initially marketed under that name in 1973, is widely popular among farmers. Up to 185 million pounds of glyphosate was used by American farmers in 2007, according to the EPA.

Monsanto, which developed the herbicide as well as the Roundup Ready crops that are used with it, has denounced the study as “junk science.”

Monsanto’s chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, said the scientists were driven by an agenda and resorted to the “cherry-picking” of data to make their case.

“Roundup continues to be trusted by regulators in more than 160 countries around the world,” said a Monsanto official.

Doug Rushing, Monsanto’s director of industry affairs, urged people to look into the issue themselves and to share their information with others.

“Feel free to contact your business network, friends and family and let them know that IARC’s conclusion is not supported by the overwhelming scientific evidence, and therefore IARC’s classification of glyphosate contradicts the conclusions of regulatory and scientific agencies around the globe,” Rushing said in an email. “Roundup continues to be trusted by regulators in more than 160 countries around the world.”

However, consumer groups, plant scientists and environmentalists have been saying for years they had growing concerns about the heavy application of Roundup.

Such talk has been heard in recent years, as weeds that are resistant to glyphosate have appeared. Wimmer said the rise of Roundup-resistant weeds has given the ag community reason to look at new options.

“It is a concern we are working on,” he said.

The question is, will this report make that conversation louder?

The EPA reviewed glyphosate in 1993 and stated it was noncarcinogenic. It is now conducting a standard registration review of glyphosate and is scheduled to announced this year if its use should be reduced.

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