Jan 15, 2016

Clean-up of Wind River Canyon crash creating hour-long delays

If you're traveling through Wind River Canyon today or Saturday, you may run into delays of up to an hour, as crews work to remove debris from a Thursday night crash involving a semi-truck.

"The crash happened around 11 p.m. last night in an area called 'Big Windy' inside Wind River Canyon," said Russ Dowdy, Wyoming Department of Transportation maintenance foreman in Thermopolis, in a Friday news release. "It's my understanding the driver of the truck is OK."

The semi-truck, carrying bulk sugar, crashed around 11 p.m. Thursday. Photo courtesy WyDOT
The truck was hauling bulk sugar, Dowdy said.

While most of the semi-truck didn't crash into the Wind River, it is overturned on the steep embankment above the river about 10 miles south of Thermopolis at milepost 121.8 on U.S. Highway 20/Wyo. Highway 789.

"There was no damage to the roadway, but 400-500 feet of guardrail has been destroyed," Dowdy said. "Currently, we've got one-ton pickup trucks with digital message boards located at each (end) of Wind River Canyon, warning motorists of one-hour stop delays while the truck is being towed from the river."

WyDOT said it was possible the delays could continue in Saturday.

Until the guardrail repairs are completed, temporary reduced speed limits of 45 mph and 30 mph will be in effect, according to WyDOT Traffic Engineer Randy Merritt of Basin.

"Once repairs are complete, the speed limit will return to 65 mph," Merritt said.

The Wyoming Highway Patrol is on the scene, but no details of the investigation have been released.

Hundreds of feet of guardrail were destroyed in the crash. Photo courtesy WyDOT
It was snowing Thursday night inside Wind River Canyon and the road was slick. At the time of the crash, WyDOT had one plow truck working inside the canyon. WyDOT was notified of the crash at 11:22 p.m.

A company under contract with WyDOT to repair guardrail has been notified, Dowdy said, and repairs may begin as early as Sunday, depending on the truck towing operation.

"Please slow down through the area, and please drive for the winter conditions inside the canyon," Merritt said. "Please be patient as the truck is being towed from the river bank, and also while repairs are under way. Safety is WyDOT's No. 1 priority. Please slow down."

Jan 14, 2016

Buffalo Bill Center artifacts make Wyoming’s list of top artifacts

Two items housed at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West have been named as being among the state's top artifacts.

A painting from the center’s Whitney Western Art Museum and ration tickets from the Plains Indian Museum each cracked a compilation of Wyoming’s Most Significant Artifacts.

“We are always proud when our collections are revered,” said Bruce Eldredge, the center’s executive director and CEO. “To have them identified as important to Wyoming is yet another great honor.”

Coming in fourth on the most significant list was “Last of the Buffalo,” an 1889 piece by Albert Bierstadt. It underscores the closing frontier, the perceived demise of Plains Indian culture and extinction of the buffalo, the center says.

"Last of the Buffalo," by Albert Bierstadt, has been picked as one of Wyoming's most significant artifacts.

“The scene is set either in the Sweetwater River valley or more likely in Yellowstone National Park,” said Karen McWhorter, Whitney Western Art Museum Curator. “Bierstadt traveled Wyoming in the 1850s and 1860s, chronicling the sights of the area, Indian culture and the plight of the buffalo, among other topics.”

A second version of the painting graces the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, a collection of 1905 ration tickets from the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming came in at No. 8 on the artifacts list.

The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone residents (traditional enemies living on the reservation) presented the tickets to officials in exchange for food and supplies.

Ration tickets from 1905. Photo courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West
“The ration tickets remind residents of this region, state and nation that there is an Indian presence here, despite historical events that forced cultural change,” said Rebecca West, Plains Indian Museum curator.

The Wyoming State Historical Society, in partnership with the University of Wyoming Libraries, launched the artifacts project to help celebrate 125 years of Wyoming statehood.

Both organizations wanted to recognize the cultural institutions throughout Wyoming that preserve and provide access to collections that “enhance our enjoyment and understanding of Wyoming’s heritage and provide ongoing learning and research opportunities.”

Other objects on the list are the Wyoming state flag, South Pass City mill, mammoth skeleton, 1863 map, sheepherder wagon, Apatosaurus specimen, Clovis points and stereoviews (antique photographs) of Oregon Trail emigrant wagons in 1859.

Participating archives, historical societies, libraries and museums across Wyoming each nominated one item from their collection that has significance to Wyoming’s history. An independent panel of judges culled the list to the top 25 artifacts, and then allowed the public to vote for their favorites.

Jan 13, 2016

Long-time Cody area deputy retires from sheriff's office

After 37 years in law enforcement, Park County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Pennell has retired.

Pennell, who patrolled the Cody area, called it a career on Tuesday. He'd spent the last 17 years with the Sheriff's Office.

Retiring Park County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Pennell poses with a plaque of appreciation alongside Sheriff Scott Steward. Photo courtesy Park County Sheriff's Office
The Park County Sheriff’s Office thanked Pennell for his service and wished him the best in his retirement in a Wednesday post to the department's Facebook page. A number of well-wishes poured in from fellow officers and community members.

"You will be missed. It has always been such a comfort to see you show up when I needed help," wrote one Cody resident. "Thank you for your service to this community. Cody has been a safer place because of 'your watch'."

This is actually Pennell's second retirement from a law enforcement job: he previously retired
from the Hillsbourough County, Florida, Sheriff's Office after serving that county for 20 years. However, after moving to Wyoming in 1999, he took a position with the Greybull Police Department and soon moved over to Park County.

Pennell is also a veteran; he served three years in the U.S. Army before starting his career in law enforcement.

Pennell now plans to move back to Florida to be near his son, who's a deputy with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office

Wyoming's sage grouse producing more chicks, Game and Fish says

It’s great news for greater sage grouse.

There were more greater sage grouse chicks born in 2014 and 2015 in Wyoming than in previous years, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

The number of sage grouse chicks (like the one pictured above) has risen in the past two years. File photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
There were 1.7 chicks per hen in 2015, the same count as 2014. That ratio is the highest the department has documented since 2005, and more than double the recent low of 0.8 chicks per hen noted in 2012.

The 10-year average, from 2005-14, was 1.3 chicks per hen. Grouse numbers declined in most of those years, according to Game and Fish.

The new data on the Wyoming sage grouse population — based on an analysis of greater sage grouse wings provided by hunters — indicate that bird numbers should continue to grow in the coming year, the department says.

The Game and Fish says hunters contribute to sage grouse management by voluntarily dropping wings from the birds they harvest into barrels scattered across central and southwest Wyoming.

“Wings tell us chick production,” explained Tom Christiansen, Game and Fish sage grouse program coordinator.

Wings can indicate if the hen produced broods based on the progression of molting — the shedding of old feathers to grow new ones.

Hens that molt slowly have had chicks while faster molting indicates hens did not brood, Christiansen said.

The amount of old feathers that a sage grouse hen has shed from her wings indicates whether she produced a brood that year.

“We don’t collect wings in the Big Horn Basin,” Christiansen said.

There are only about 200 sage grouse killed across the entire Basin in an average season, so it would be too time consuming to distribute barrels over the wide area for the limited amount of information it would provide, Christiansen said.

Generally favorable moisture patterns this past spring and summer provided better than average conditions for chick survival. During their first month of life, newly hatched sage grouse chicks rely on a high protein diet provided by insects. Spring and summer rain lead to increased grass and wildflower production, which in turn leads to more insects available for young birds.

It’s a delicate balance of precipitation and temperature that impact chick survival.

Too much cold and wet, or snow, and chicks will die of exposure. But, if it is too dry, insects and forbs will be scarce in the critical time when chicks need nutrition to survive. The right balance of spring and summer precipitation ensures chicks will have plenty of insects, Christiansen said.


GROUSE FACTS

If hens lose their chicks to weather or a predator, they won't hatch another brood that season. However, if they lose their young while they're still eggs, a hen will revisit a lek (sage grouse breeding ground) to reproduce with a male again, Christiansen said.

That’s why the breeding season runs from March to late May. In April, there will be two to three times as many females as males, so females have the opportunity to breed with males. By mid-April to May only two or three hens will visit leks, Christiansen said.

Grouse grow fairly quickly: by September, a male chick will be larger than his mother, he said.

Unlike many species of wildlife, sage grouse put on weight over the winter by eating sagebrush leaves, as long as the shrub is not covered in snow. Beefing up in the colder months helps put males are at their peak when the spring strut starts, Christiansen said.

“Sage grouse like winter,” he said.

The population rises and falls based on a seven- to 10-year population cycle. So Game and Fish has to look at long-term trends to see how the population is faring, Christiansen said.

Still, having a good chick year is encouraging.

“Certainly we needed the increase now, and it’s welcome news,” Christiansen said, adding, “It is good to see that sage grouse numbers are still climbing. We know populations are cyclical, and we are in a wet period that benefits sage grouse and their habitat.”

He said the department appreciates the sage grouse hunters who opt to donate their birds' wings, saying their participation and the data from the wings helps with the grouse's management.

Melting alpine snow revealing ancient history in Shoshone National Forest

Ancient patches of snow are melting in the wilds of the Shoshone National Forest and “exposing things that haven’t been exposed for hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of years,” said archaeologist Larry Todd.

Todd and other volunteers have been working to document artifacts in the high alpine terrain of the Washakie Wilderness over the past two summers. The Meeteetse researcher — who’s a professor emeritus at Colorado State University and the chair of the Park County Historic Preservation Commission — recently secured funding to help him and six others return to the remote area next summer.

University of Wyoming professor Robert Kelly (foreground), Colorado State University professor emeritus Larry Todd (at left) and Cambridge University student Rachel Reckin (center) document materials at a melting ice patch high in the Shoshone National Forest in the summer of 2015. Photo courtesy John Laughlin, Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office
“The primary goal is to provide a fuller archaeological context for the rare and endangered materials being exposed by the melting ice,” Todd wrote in a grant proposal.

He explained last month that the shrinking patches of snow are “sort of like opening the door on the refrigerator, and stuff’s falling out on the ground.”

“As they melt, tremendous amounts of information are being lost,” said researcher Larry Todd.

Snow patches appear to have been key to the ancient peoples who lived at high elevations, Todd said — maybe because animals congregated on the ice to escape heat and flies, maybe because the patches were a source of water or maybe because of “something else we don’t understand yet,” he said.

Whatever the reason, the patches have yielded a wealth of information to researchers.

“We were overwhelmed by the amount of the material we found — and the diversity of the material,” Todd said.

Among the many discoveries were a nearly complete fragment of a roughly 625-year-old wooden bow and a 660-year-old piece of a bison’s jaw.

This bison mandible is believed to be about 660 years old; researchers believe microsampling of the tooth enamel should provide insight into the animal’s diet. Photo courtesy John Laughlin

Funding for last summer’s work, done in collaboration with the Shoshone National Forest, came from the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office.

Those on the trip included John Laughlin (an archaeologist with the Historic Preservation Office), University of Wyoming Archaeology Professor Robert Kelly, students Rachel Reckin and Emily Brush (of Cambridge University and Iowa State University, respectively) and volunteers William Dooly of Buffalo and Larry Amundson of Lander.

Earlier this month, the State Historic Preservation Office gave the Park County Historic Preservation Commission another $10,000 of federal money to continue the survey work.

Melting ice patches high in the Shoshone National Forest are providing researchers with a lot of information about the past. Photo courtesy John Laughlin
In 2016, the plan is for a Todd-led team to spend 20 days cataloging the things they didn’t have time to record last summer. They hope to inventory objects across roughly 470 acres of alpine terrain, located at around 10,500 feet elevation.

“One of the key things about the ice patches is that the record they contain about past environmental conditions is as important, if not more so, than the archaeology they contain,” Todd added in an email. “And as they melt, tremendous amounts of information are being lost.”

The recent grant will pay for renting four GPS receivers and antennas ($5,600), food for the crew ($2,100), transportation costs ($1,500) and radiocarbon dating ($800).

While the main point of the 2016 “Ice Patch Landscape Inventory” will be to document the disappearing ice, Todd also has a broader goal of expanding what we know about ancient life in remote, high elevation areas. He said relatively little research has been conducted on Wyoming’s alpine landscapes.

French to lead Park County Commission in 2016

Park County Commissioner Tim French has been chosen by his peers to serve as the commission's chairman in 2016.

French’s fellow commissioners formally elected him to the post in a vote last week.

Park County Commissioner Tim French
The chairman sets the board's agenda and serves as its figurehead and primary point of contact for the public and others. As a general rule, the chairman votes only when there's a tie between the other four commissioners.

Commissioner Lee Livingston — now entering his fourth year on the board — was offered the chairman’s job, but turned it down.

“I’ve got a super busy business year coming up and I just look at the extra work that the chairman takes on, so I chose to (decline),” Livingston explained. He'll serve as the commission's vice chairman for a second straight year.

French praised outgoing chairman Commissioner Joe Tilden for the “excellent job” he did in the position in 2015.

“We’ve enjoyed giving you a hard time from time-to-time,” French told him.

Tilden said it was fun and an "excellent experience.”

Jan 12, 2016

After apparently unprovoked attack on driver, police seek information

Cody police are looking for a man who reportedly pulled over and choked another driver on Sunday night.

The driver told police that around 10 p.m. Sunday, a man in a dark, lifted Ford truck with a large grill guard began following him on Sheridan Avenue. The man in the Ford then started flashing his lights, as if he wanted the driver to pull over, Cody police spokesman John Harris said of the driver’s account in a Tuesday news release.

The driver pulled over at a spot just east of 17th Street on Goodturn Drive and the man approached his car. Then, through his car’s open window, the driver said the man grabbed him by the throat and began choking him, asking, “What is your problem?”

The man — described as about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, 210 pounds and having a “burly beard” — then reportedly let go and drove away.

“The victim did not know who the suspect was or why he was attacked,” Harris said in Tuesday’s release. He asked anyone with information about the incident to contact Cody Police Officer Mark Martinez at 307-527-8700.

Fate of Cody-Denver service up in the air; Salt Lake flights to increase

The federal government will stop subsidizing flights between Cody and Denver starting March 1.
What that change will mean for passengers traveling through Yellowstone Regional Airport remains to be seen.

For the slower and potentially unprofitable months of October through May, the government has been paying United Airlines $763,317 a year to run daily flights between Cody and Denver International Airport.

Those dollars will stop flowing to United from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service (EAS) program at the end of February, the department recently decided; United could choose to continue the flights without government help or end the service.

“They could make that decision at any point or they could choose to stay in and serve the market,” said Yellowstone Regional Airport Manager Bob Hooper. In late December, Hooper said he had “no idea” what United will do.

Passenger deplane a June 2015 flight from Cody at Denver International Airport. Cody News Co. photo by CJ Baker

A United Airlines spokesman said shortly after the Department of Transportation's Dec. 22 decision that the airline had not decided whether it will continue winter flights to Cody when the federal subsidies end.

“No final decision has been made on the continuation of service after the expiration of the EAS contract,” spokesman Luke Punzenberger said in an interview.

Meanwhile, Cody area travelers can be assured of better service to Salt Lake City.

Starting March 1, SkyWest Airlines will begin offering two daily flights to Salt Lake — up from one. The airline has also promised more flights during the summer months: five a day on weekends and three on weekdays.

The changes stem from the new Essential Air Service contract, which was awarded to SkyWest on Dec. 22 and covers the next two years.

Over the past couple years, the EAS subsidies were shared between SkyWest and United; SkyWest guaranteed one flight to Salt Lake (for $617,462 a year) and United guaranteed one to Denver (for $763,317) between October and May.


However, when the contract came up for bidding this year, United didn’t offer to keep sharing the subsidy. That forced local airport officials to choose whether they’d rather have two flights per day to Denver or two flights per day to Salt Lake City.

Local officials ultimately picked Salt Lake, in large part because of better reliability at the Delta Air Lines hub.

The Department of Transportation agreed with local leaders’ recommendation, also noting that SkyWest’s request for a $938,050 annual subsidy was about $216,800 cheaper than United. On Dec. 22, the government awarded the new EAS contract to SkyWest for service to Salt Lake.

As for the future of air service between Denver and Cody, local airport leaders plan to meet with United brass in late January “to just see what options are available to us,” Hooper said.

He said United will have other factors to consider beyond the loss of the federal dollars.

“Their (passenger) loads are good here. They have a lot of loyalty in their frequent flyer program. So they’ll have to take all that into consideration,” Hooper said. “Plus, with the strength of our service here in the summertime, too, that will all be factored into any decision they would have to make.”

United flies into Cody at its own risk and without a subsidy between June and September, when traffic rises substantially. With a relatively small amount of state help, United started some direct flights from Chicago in the summer; there also have been preliminary discussions about possibly trying direct flights from San Francisco.

If United does alter its service to Cody, “any impacted customers will be re-accommodated according to our standard policies and procedures,” Punzenberger said.

~By CJ Baker

Cody police chief search down to five; meet and greet Thursday

The city of Cody has narrowed its search for a new police chief to five policemen from around the country.

The finalists include current Cody Police Sgt. Jon Beck, a police commander from Maplewood, Minnesota, another commander from Commerce City, Colorado, a lieutenant from Jefferson County, Colorado, and a deputy chief of police from Farmington, New Mexico.

The five officers were picked out of an initial pool of 77 applicants.

The City of Cody is looking for a replacement for former Cody Police Department Chief Perry Rockvam (center). Photo courtesy Cody police
The city will host a community reception with all five finalists on Thursday, from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Olive Glenn Country Club. The public is invited to attend and meet the candidates.

The finalists will then be formally interviewed by a panel of a half-dozen community members (including a representative from Cody City Council), a panel of city department heads and Cody City Administrator Barry Cook on Friday, Jan. 15.

Cook hopes to make a decision within a few days of the interviews.

“Ideally, we’d like to have the person start in April,” he said; Cook added that if Beck is chosen, it could be a quicker transition.

The successful candidate will replace former chief Perry Rockvam, who retired this fall after 33 years in law enforcement.

The finalists are:

• Commerce City, Colorado, Police Commander Chuck Baker has more than 36 years of police experience. That includes past stints as acting chief of the department and its roughly 88 officers and his current assignment as acting deputy chief. Baker has a bachelor’s degree in applied management and a master’s in public affairs.

Commerce City — a suburb of Denver — had an estimated population of 49,799 in 2013.

• Cody Police Sgt. Jonathan Beck has been a sergeant with the department for 14 years and spent two years as an Albany County Sheriff’s Deputy before that. Beck — who holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business — spent December as the department’s acting chief.

• Maplewood, Minnesota, Police Commander David Kvam has 26 years of police experience, including serving as an officer, investigator, sergeant, lieutenant and acting chief. He holds a master’s degree in police leadership.

Maplewood is a suburb of St. Paul and has 38,000 residents.

• Jefferson County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Lieutenant Ron Leonard has 28 years of law enforcement experience, including stints in investigations, detention, support services and patrol. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Jefferson County, with a population of more than 550,000, lies just west of the city of Denver, encompassing cities such as Lakewood, Golden and part of Littleton.

• Farmington, New Mexico, Deputy Chief Keith McPheeters has 24 years of police experience and worked as a crisis negotiator, detective, field training officer, grant coordinator, patrol sergeant and SWAT supervisor. The Rexburg, Idaho, native holds a bachelor’s in criminal justice.

Farmington has about 46,000 residents and 182 employees in its police department.

The full biographies released by the city can be read in the document embedded below.

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