Feb 5, 2015

Cody bomb squad handles grenade found in Powell home

When a grenade was first brought out of the basement of a Powell home on Tuesday evening, it didn’t cause a big to-do.

Wes Vining said he and his family were cleaning out a friend's property on South Ferris Street when his daughter, Cheryl Wilkins, simply brought the box with the device upstairs and calmly asked, "You think this could be real?"

"She may be a little excited now," Vining said with a laugh Wednesday morning, shortly after the Cody Police Department's bomb squad left the home with the definitely real grenade in its custody.

The Cody Police Bomb Squad and Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt (left) responded to a South Ferris Street home Wednesday morning after a grenade was a basement. The grenade had a live fuse, but had been emptied of explosives. Photo by Toby Bonner
The squad determined that, although the explosive material had been removed, the fuse was still live, said Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt.

"It still was a safety hazard," Eckerdt said, as the device possibly could have fragmented from the pressure still inside.

Vining had been nearly positive that the grenade was real upon seeing it Tuesday night (in part because it had been painted with both green and yellow paint), but neither he nor his family members who were helping with the clean-up panicked.

"In fact, I wasn't going to do anything, and then I got to thinking, you know, I have grandkids and stuff helping me, my wife," Vining said. "Just rather be safe than sorry, is just the issue."

A photo of the grenade, taken by Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt
He contacted Eckerdt Wednesday morning, who, after also concluding it appeared to be a real grenade, summoned Cody's bomb squad to the home. The squad safely disposed of the item.

Vining said the grenade apparently had been a war souvenir collected by the homeowner's late husband, who was a veteran.

Eckerdt said Powell police deal with grenades from time to time, particularly as World War II, Korea and Vietnam war veterans start to pass on and leave behind war relics that their family members may not know about.

Grenade components, including their safety functions, can erode over time, Eckerdt said. He recommends that, if you find a grenade and believe it may be live, err on the side of caution and "don't pick it up. Don't take it anywhere." Eckerdt also suggests that people who keep inert grenades make it obvious that they're inert, "because someday, somebody else is going to have to deal with that."

Vining said when he told the homeowner about discovering the grenade in the basement," she said, 'I didn't know there was anything in the house; I thought there might be something in the garage.'

"So we'll be watching carefully," he said with a laugh.

Congressional rider delays decision on possible sage grouse listing

A rider tacked on to the Appropriations Act of 2015 will delay the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in deciding whether to place greater sage grouse on the Endangered Species List for one year.

The service had planned to determine whether to list the Western bird later this year.

“To stop actions by the Fish and Wildlife Service that would have severe economic consequences on Western states and the nation’s efforts to become energy independent, the bill prohibits funding for the Service to issue further rules to place sage-grouse on the Endangered Species List,” says a description of the rider written by the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee. “The bill also includes $15 million within the BLM to conserve sage-grouse habitat to continue efforts to protect the species and its natural environment for the future.”

Sage grouse photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Wyoming has nearly 40 percent of the West’s greater sage grouse population, according to Tom Christensen, sage grouse coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Christensen said not listing the bird is good for industry and others because, thus far, considerable conservation efforts have been made in this state on behalf of sage grouse.

Listing is counter-productive, he said. It puts at risk efforts made by industry that aid conservation in order to develop natural resources near sage grouse habitat, as well as those by others who do it simply for the sake of sage grouse. Many will pull their support if sage grouse are listed, Christensen predicted. Some might find it a hard pill to swallow if sage grouse were listed because it would result in more federal regulations, he said.

An example of industry support is ConocoPhillips Co. providing $1 million to support habitat conservation in the West through 2019. If the bird is listed, that money could disappear, Christensen said.

If listed, Bruce Hinchey suspects a lot more public land would become off limits to grazing and oil and gas development. Hinchey is president of Petroleum Association of Wyoming, which is based in Casper, and said listing also would mean a ban on hunting the grouse.

Listing sage grouse does breed more uncertainty in the oil and gas industry as to what sort of regulations would result, said Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. At this juncture, the Natural Resources Defense Council would neither support or oppose listing the bird. The organization trusts Fish and Wildlife’s review process to make the right listing decision, McEnaney said.

Mark Salvo, federal lands conservation director for Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C., said he is not so concerned about listing as he is about a federal draft conservation plan. The rider does not impact the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service’s draft National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy, Salvo said.

“The Obama administration is still moving full steam ahead, and will continue to work with urgency alongside our federal, state and local partners to put conservation measures in place to protect important sagebrush habitat and avert the need to list the greater sage-grouse,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The final Environmental Impact Statement is due out this summer.

“We’re hoping the plans will be sufficient to preserve the species,” Salvo said.

“A new poll conducted by Tulchin Research for Defenders of Wildlife found that the majority of voters in western states want to see sage-grouse protected, even if that means listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act,” Courtney Sexton, Defenders of Wildlife communications associate, wrote in a November blog.

“Add to that one New Jerseyan,” Sexton wrote. “I didn’t know what a sage grouse was before I began working for Defenders of Wildlife. Now I consider myself, like the majority of Westerners, an advocate for their protection.”

Apparently the president’s conservation efforts won’t be derailed.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell
“The Obama administration is still moving full steam ahead, and will continue to work with urgency alongside our federal, state and local partners to put conservation measures in place to protect important sagebrush habitat and avert the need to list the greater sage-grouse,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a December statement.

“The rider has no effect on our efforts to develop and implement state and federal plans and to build partnerships to incentivize conservation,” Jewell said.

Warranted or not, a sage grouse sub-species listing is also on hold. The rider prevents Fish and Wildlife listing of the Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado, Christensen said. But, he noted, the Gunnison sage grouse is not a bellwether of the greater sage grouse’s future.

“They’re a different species,” Christensen said.

Approximately 5,000 breeding Gunnison sage grouse live in seven populations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah, according to Fish and Wildlife. In November, the service announced it has determined the Gunnison sage grouse require Endangered Species Act protection.

Some may believe Fish and Wildlife is caving to the will of Congress, but, “I truly believe the service has every intention of making a decision based on the biology of the bird,” Christensen said.

Christensen who says he's “not an Endangered Species basher” said some species do merit protection under the act, but he does not believe greater sage grouse do.

“I truly believe the service has every intention of making a decision based on the biology of the bird,” said Tom Christensen of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Whether Fish and Wildlife lists the bird, Hinchey said he is sure either environmental groups or states will file lawsuits.

The rider gives short shrift to the efforts thus far to achieve a conservation consensus, McEnaney said.

“I think, from a political perspective, it’s unfortunate,” he said.

Said Jewell, “It’s disappointing that some members of Congress are more interested in political posturing than finding solutions to conserve the sagebrush landscape and the Western way of life.”

County nets $127,000 from late Cody area billionaire’s estate

Park County wasn’t named in the will of the late billionaire R.E. “Earl” Holding, but it still ended up as an indirect beneficiary of his sizable estate.

Holding — the former owner of Sinclair Oil, the Little America chain of hotels, the Sunlight Ranch, ski resorts and other enterprises — was a Park County resident at the time of his April 2013 death. As a result, portions of his estate were settled through a probate case in the county’s district court.

The fees for processing the estate and passing roughly $254.8 million of Holding’s Wyoming assets to his wife cost the estate — and netted the county — roughly $127,500, court records say. The money can be spent however the county government wishes.

The late billionaire R.E. 'Earl' Holding owned Sinclair Oil and the Little America hotels, pictured here in Cheyenne last month. Photo by CJ Baker
The fees are set by Wyoming law; the law directs district courts to charge a $5 fee per $10,000 of value in the estate. It is, in effect, a .05 percent tax on the assets being transferred.

As an illustration of how extraordinarily large the case was, the single payment from the Holding estate was equal to all the probate fees collected by the district court over the past 14 years, county budget records show. Put another way, the value of Holding’s estate was about equal to the roughly 1,500 other estates that have been processed since the middle of 2000.

Probate isn’t always necessary, as there are other ways to pass along assets upon your death.

“In this day and age of trusts, a lot of these estates don’t go to probate,” Park County Clerk of District Court Patra Lindenthal said recently.

Setting up a living trust or co-ownership of an asset through joint tenancy are two ways in which property can be automatically transferred to a designated person without having to involve a court.

The value of Holding’s estate was roughly equal to the 1,500 other estates that have been processed in Park County's District Court since the middle of 2000.

By all appearances, the $254.8 million estate represented only a fraction of Holding’s assets, with the vast majority not subject to Wyoming’s probate process. Forbes Magazine — which described Holding as “one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs” — estimated his wealth at roughly $3.2 billion at the time of his death; Forbes believed he was the 139th richest person in the country.

Holding was also figured to own more land than perhaps anyone else in America, having around 400,000 acres in the west.

“He amassed his fortune in the same way pioneers built vast ranches — through hard work and patience, one piece at a time,” the Salt Lake Tribune wrote in 2000.

It started in the middle-of-nowhere, Wyoming, running the Little America motel and cafe between Evanston and Green River. He and his wife, Carol, turned the then 12-room motel into a much larger complex that was once the country’s largest-volume service station. He later built a second Little America in Cheyenne. Other hotels followed, as did acquisitions of properties ranging from refineries to ski resorts to ranch lands.

Holding may be best known locally as the owner of the sprawling Sunlight Ranch in Montana and in Wyoming north of Clark. The ranch, an affiliate of The Sinclair Companies, operated a feedlot just west of Powell for decades before shutting it down in 2008.

Holding died in Salt Lake City, but was buried in Wyoming, calling his property in Sunlight Basin in the Shoshone National Forest as home. He claimed Wyoming as his residence in a rare 2000 interview with SKI Magazine, saying, “It’s still where we have most of our things.

“I have two refineries in Wyoming, a lot of our pipelines are in Wyoming and a lot of ranch land, some production of gas and oil, two Little Americas,” Holding told SKI, adding with tongue-in-cheek and a laugh that, “It's the biggest part of our empire.”

Holding died in Salt Lake City, but was buried in Wyoming, calling his property in Sunlight Basin in the Shoshone National Forest as home.

Despite his prominence, Holding had a reputation for being an extremely private person. Holding’s wife, Carol Holding, and the attorney for his estate, Scott W. Meier of the firm Hathaway and Kunz in Cheyenne, convinced District Court Judge Steven Cranfill of the need to make many of the documents in the probate case confidential.

“The court concludes that the deceased’s family has a compelling privacy interest as well as a business reason in keeping the probable character and value of the estate’s assets confidential,” Cranfill agreed in one order, saying that in contrast, the public had “little or no interest” in the information.

However, documents filed publicly in the case later on revealed the overall value of the estate, primarily made up of shares of The Sinclair Corporation and a bank account.

The $127,480 payment from Holding’s estate to cover the district court fees was deposited into Park County’s general fund in October.

Judge Cranfill officially closed out the probate case on Jan. 13.

Mysterious bundle turns out to be soap, not dope

A suspected package of drugs recently found southeast of Powell turned out to be filled with stuff more likely to get you clean than high.

This was not a bag of drugs, but of soap. Photo courtesy Park County Sheriff's Office
A Wyoming Department of Transportation survey crew came upon the suspicious baggie on the morning of Jan. 21, located in a ditch along Lane 14 near the Willwood Dam.

Initially, the responding Park County Sheriff's deputy thought the baggie held either methamphetamine or cocaine, said Lance Mathess, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office. But after bringing the bag to the Park County Annex for testing, the deputy noticed the contents didn’t look quite like drugs — instead appearing moist and flaky — and it smelled like hand soap.

“All field tests on the substance were negative, leading the deputy to conclude that it was, indeed, ordinary hand soap,” Mathess said.

Park County Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Patterson said it’s not uncommon for people to sell “bunk” — or fake drugs — to unwitting customers, and he figures that’s what happened here.

“I suspect when the client discovered the scam, he or she simply discarded the baggie by tossing it out the window of their vehicle,” Patterson said.

Feb 3, 2015

Commissioners reconsider whether to buy you medical flight insurance

Park County commissioners are reconsidering whether they should buy everyone in the county a form of medical flight insurance. At least one commissioner is dead set against the idea.

EagleMed LLC — a private air ambulance service — is again asking commissioners to purchase a plan that would give county residents either free or discounted service if they become seriously injured or ill in Park County and are flown to a hospital by EagleMed.

EagleMed made the same pitch to commissioners in October 2013 and was turned down. The big difference now is that the price has dropped significantly: from $155,000 for a year’s worth of coverage down to $91,000.

EagleMed’s membership sales manager, Gary Robson, said the drop in price was a result of his company — which was just starting up its Cody base in 2013 — getting a better idea of its actual costs.

EagleMed's official logo.
Robson’s main argument to commissioners on Jan. 20 focused on Park County residents who end up having to get an emergency flight and face huge financial losses. He said there might be an average of 10 flights a month in Park County, each bringing a $25,000 to $35,000 bill. Robson said it varies as to whether insurance companies cover the flights, and when a resident is not covered, the impact is felt in the entire area.

“That is real economic loss to the county, to the members of the community, that that money just left the county (to go to medical bills),” Robson said. “That’s people not buying houses; they’re not buying cars. Inevitably, they wind up filing bankruptcy. That hurts the community when people have to file bankruptcy.”

“Is it government’s job to provide health care? No,” Robson said later. “But it is (government’s job) to try to preserve assets for the community and to try to help the community where they can.”

Commissioners said they wanted hard numbers about how many county residents have used EagleMed’s service, how much they’d had to pay out of pocket and how many people have had to file bankruptcy before.

“I can’t believe we’d even consider it,” said Commissioner Tim French.

Multiple counties across the country have bought similar “Municipal Site Plans” from EagleMed and the broader AirMedCare Network, its parent group. Washakie County joined last year. Robson said Washakie County commissioners didn’t receive any complaints after their $41,845 purchase of the coverage. He also said after Washakie County signed up, he received 200 to 250 phone calls asking him to re-approach Park County commissioners.

“Once people understand it, they’re all for it,” Robson said.

“If we’re paying for it, I’m sure they are,” responded Commissioner Lee Livingston.

As he did in 2013, Commissioner Tim French objected. He railed against the proposal as “just so wrong” and “socialism,” and said, “I can’t believe we’d even consider it.”

“It’s Obamacare Lite, or Park County’s version of Obamacare,” French said. “I don’t think it’s our place. How far does a county run with something like this? Do we buy dental insurance for everyone in the county?”

Citizens can buy an AirMedCare Network membership on their own for $65 per year per household. (Around 1,000 locals are members, Robson said.) If Park County paid $91,000 to cover the county’s roughly 11,800 households, it would break out to less than $8 per household — although the coverage isn’t as robust as the $65 plan. (The county’s “site plan” would only cover emergencies that occur in Park County; residents would need to pay a $35 upgrade fee to get the multi-county and multi-state AirMedCare Network coverage that comes with the $65 plan.)

“It’s a hell of a bargain insuring everyone in Park County versus everyone insuring themselves,” Commissioner Bucky Hall said, but he wanted to “put this out to my inner circle of close friends and acquaintances” before deciding whether he’d support spending taxpayers’ money on it.

Commissioners said they’d have EagleMed representatives back at a later date.

Historic Grand Teton Park cabin vandalized

Spray-painted graffiti that marred an important cultural site in Grand Teton National Park last summer was recently removed through an extensive cleanup effort.

Sometime in September of 2014, an unknown person or group of people defaced the Luther Taylor homestead cabin, located along the Gros Ventre Road between Kelly Warm Springs and the eastern boundary of the park.

Historic preservationists from both Grand Teton and the Western Center for Historic Preservation painstakingly removed the graffiti in mid-December, though evidence of the damage remains.

Anyone with knowledge about this act of vandalism is encouraged to call the Teton Interagency Dispatch Center at 307-739-3301. Callers can remain anonymous.

This graffiti was discovered on the wall of the Luther Taylor homesteader cabin in September. Law enforcement officials don't know who did it or what the image means. Photo courtesy Grand Teton National Park
A black and blue spray-painted depiction of a devilish creature wearing a crown was discovered by a park visitor on the inside wall of the homestead cabin on Sept. 20 and reported to park law enforcement rangers. The subsequent investigation yielded no suspects and provided inconclusive answers as to the possible source or meaning of the graffiti. Though it is thought to be unrelated, a fencepost at the historic Bar BC Ranch was also vandalized with spray paint in October 2014.

Restoration efforts began when six historic preservationists from the park and Western Center for Historic Preservation — a National Park Service Intermountain Region program based at Grand Teton — spent considerable time cleaning the cabin wall. They repeatedly applied a mixture of eco-friendly products previously tested on wood, gently scrubbed the logs with brushes, and rinsed them with warm water to remove the paint.

Their efforts were largely successful at removing the graffiti, though some paint remained in the cracks and crevices of the wood. Unfortunately, the cleaning process also removed the 100-year-old gray patina from the logs.

To remedy this problem and return the cabin wall to its historic appearance, park cultural resource specialists plan to use a wood product that will help accelerate the aging process along with exposure to sunlight and moisture.

"While vandalism is always a crime, this graffiti attack on such a treasured historic cabin is especially troubling," said Grand Teton Superintendent David Vela.

The Luther Taylor historic site was originally homesteaded in 1916 by John Erwin and purchased by Luther Taylor in 1923, who built a cabin and outbuildings. The culturally significant site is now famous for its appearance in the 1953 western film Shane, starring Alan Ladd. In fact, the site is commonly recognized as the "Shane cabin."

Though currently in a state of decay, this site is eligible for—and soon to be listed on—the National Register of Historic Places.

"Cultural resources like the Luther Taylor cabin are part of the historic fabric of Grand Teton National Park. This cabin and other historic structures convey the stories of early settlers and provide evidence of their pioneer life in Jackson Hole, prompting visitors to learn about the past," said Superintendent David Vela in a news release. "While vandalism is always a crime, this graffiti attack on such a treasured historic cabin is especially troubling. We take vandalism of this sort very seriously, and appreciate those who keep watch over the park's special places and call whenever something is amiss."

Musicians sought for Powell orchestra

Big Horn Basin musicians are being invited to participate in an opportunity that’s rare for small town instrumentalists — playing in an orchestra.

The Northwest Civic Orchestra, directed by Marine Akin, is looking for musicians. Photo courtesy Northwest College
The Northwest Civic Orchestra is looking for violin, viola, cello and bass players as well as horn players and bassoonists.

“This is a community orchestra,” director Maurine Akin said. “Musicians don’t need to play at a professional level to join. Most importantly, we share a love of music and a desire to perform occasionally.”

The civic orchestra rehearses from 6:30 p.m. to  9 p.m. Thursday evenings at Northwest College in Powell. Three to four performances are scheduled each year from September to May. Musicians take the summers off.

There is no charge to participate, but college credit is available for those who are interested.

Musicians of all ages are invited to join with the director’s approval.

To learn more, contact Akin at 307-272-7904 or Maurine.Akin@nwc.edu.

Snowpack continues downward slide

Snow-water equivalent stations around the state continue to show snowpack decline, but there is some potential for moderate flooding this spring in Hot Springs County.

“We dropped from 97 percent to 94 percent of median over the past week,” said Lee Hackleman, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Casper. “Last year we were at 120 percent of median.”

Shoshone basin was at 109 percent of average snow-water equivalent (SWE) on Feb. 2, compared to 115 percent one week ago. Big Horn Basin SWE was 103 percent Feb. 2, down 2 percent from one week ago, according to a 30-year average from 1981 to 2010 calculated by the NRCS.

A year ago, Shoshone SWE was 118 percent and Big Horn Basin was 143 percent.

“This week promises a little snow, so maybe we can at least hold onto the 94 percent,” Hackleman said.

“There is a low-to-moderate potential for flooding associated with snowmelt (due to current snow depths) expected along portions of Hot Springs County,” a Jan. 26 release from Jim Fahey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist stated. “Low to moderate potential for flooding associated with snowmelt is expected across various headwater streams along eastern portions of the Big Horn Basin.”

Streams with the highest potential for flooding include Medicine Lodge Creek, Ten Sleep Creek and portions of the Nowood River, Fahey said. Potential spring flooding is low around Cody and Powell so far, according to a map Fahey provided.

Museum talk to focus on brothers' wildlife ethics

During careers spanning four decades, naturalists and brothers Olaus and Adolph Murie studied elk, coyotes, bears, wolves and other wildlife in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks as well as elsewhere in the American West.

At the next Draper Natural History Museum Lunchtime Expedition, Dr. John C. Rumm will talk about the work of the Muries, whose studies informed generations of wildlife biologists and resource managers, and are still significant today.

Olaus J. Murie (left) and Adolph Murie are shown atop Cathedral Mountain, McKinley National Park (now Denali National Park) in 1961. Photo courtesy National Park Service
Titled “A Reverence for Life: Olaus and Adolph Murie and the Development of an Ecologically-based Wildlife Ethic,” the free program takes place at 12:15 p.m. Thursday in the Coe Auditorium at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody.

Dr. John Rumm
Rumm is writing a biography of the Murie brothers, and in his talk he'll draw extensively on the research he's done for the book at more than a dozen institutions across the United States.

“The efforts of the Muries to develop and promote an ethical outlook toward wildlife were equally as important and influential as their scientific studies,” Rumm said. “It’s an outlook grounded in ecology, but informed by a sense of wonder and appreciation.”

His presentation explores how the work and legacies of the Muries helped shape the modern environmental movement.

Rumm is the director of the Curatorial Division and curator of public history at the Center of the West. He previously served as the curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum and editor-in-chief of the Papers of William F. Cody.

Feb 2, 2015

Injured ice climber says 'Thanks!' to local rescuers

A Washington state ice climber who was rescued by local emergency responders last month after an injury on the South Fork is passing along his thanks.

Eiji Sugi had to be evacuated after he was hit by a falling rock while climbing on an ice flow at the end of the South Fork. He's still recovering from his injuries, but he made sure to thank his "selfless" rescuers.

Here's Sugi's thank you note, which was posted on the Park County Sheriff's Facebook page:

Thank You County Rescue Personnel

Recently, I was the victim of an ice climbing accident on the “Mean Green” ice flow at the end of the South Fork Road, 40 miles southwest of Cody. We had finished the route and descended to the base by early afternoon. While we were packing up our gear for our hike back to our car, I was struck in the lower back by a large rock that had become dislodged and fallen 80-100 feet. The pain was such that I could not move and had difficulty breathing. I had to be evacuated by deputies from the Park County Sheriff’s Office as well as members of the Search and Rescue Unit and Wilderness Medical Team.

I don't know the names or the faces that assisted in coming to help me in my time of need. All I know is these selfless men and women jumped into action when my partner called in at about 3 p.m. on Jan. 25 requesting immediate help.

From the two officers who reached me first and gave up their jackets to keep me warm, to the numerous search and rescue folks that showed up with all the equipment, to the dispatchers that coordinated the rescue, and to all those involved in lowering me down the snow slopes....THANK YOU!!

I don't know the names of my rescuers....all I know is they had one goal in mind, which was to get me down safely. I am truly grateful for their efforts. Even more, I am grateful that none of them were injured trying to rescue me.

I wish I can thank each of them personally but I know that's impossible. So I hope that this "Thank You" reaches all those that were involved. I am back home with my family resting....can't quite say comfortably yet as I am still in pain from the six broken ribs. But with time, I will heal.

Again, thank you for all the help. I will never forget you.

Best Regards,
Eiji Sugi
Auburn, Wash.

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