May 5, 2016

Study: Visitors spent $890 million around Wyoming's national parks in 2015

Tourists contributed millions of dollars to local economies while exploring Wyoming’s national parks last year, the National Park Service says.

In 2015, park visitors spent an estimated $890.2 million in gateway communities while visiting Wyoming’s national parks. According to last week’s report from the U.S. Geological Survey and Park Service, that supported a total of 12,800 jobs.

The largest chunk of that economic impact came from Yellowstone National Park, the most popular destination.

In 2015, visitors to Yellowstone spent an estimated $493.6 million in communities, up from $421 million the year before. The report says visitors' spending supported 7,737 jobs in 2015.

These visitors to Yellowstone National Park's Fishing Bridge were among the millions who spent an estimated $493 million in communities around the park last year.

In 2015, there were more than 4 million visits to Yellowstone, according to Park Service statistics.

The Park Service counts vehicles that enter the park, so if a family is staying in West Yellowstone or Gardiner, Montana, they would be counted each time they enter the park, said Amy Bartlett, Yellowstone Public Affairs.

For example, a family of four taking a week-long vacation to Yellowstone National Park and staying at a lodge outside of the park would be counted as 28 visits (four individuals who enter the park on seven different days), the report explains.

Officials calculate the number of daily visitors by taking the number of vehicles and multiplying that by the average number of people per vehicle (it's typically somewhere around 2.5 people per vehicle).

“National park tourism is a significant driver in our national and local economy, returning over $10 for every $1 invested in the National Park Service,” said Teton Superintendent David Vela. “While we are primarily responsible for the preservation and visitor enjoyment of park resources, we also value the health and sustainability of our local economy and our partnerships with the communities that help serve travelers from across the country and around the world.”

More visitors to Yellowstone destinations like Fishing Bridge means more dollars for local economies, the Park Service says.

In 2015, Grand Teton National Park visitors spent an estimated $560.4 million in local communities, up from $532 million. The report says the 2015 spending supported 8,900 jobs -- a result of Grand Teton logging nearly 3.2 million visits.

“We are proud to share the story of this place with those visitors and introduce them to this part of the country,” Vela said.

In 2015, an estimated 245,173 visitors to Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area spent an estimated $10.4 million in local communities. That was up from $9.3 million of estimated spending the previous year. The Park Service says visitors' spending in 2015 supported 162 jobs.

Bighorn Canyon definitely brings revenue to local communities like Lovell, said Bighorn Canyon Ranger Ben Goodlad. A lot of the canyon’s traffic are area residents, and a majority engage in boating-related recreation. But, folks shouldn’t overlook other activities such as the hiking and wild horse viewing.

According to the 2015 report, national park visitors' spending broke down like this:

• More than 31 percent for lodging
• More than 20 percent for food and beverages
• Nearly 12 percent for gas and oil
• More than 10 percent for admissions and fees
• Nearly 10 percent for souvenirs and other expenses

The full report is available at

May 4, 2016

Man's role in Walmart shoplifting spree nets year in jail

After looking over the Lovell man’s criminal record and his repeated convictions for driving with a suspended license, District Court Judge Steven Cranfill had a question.

“Why,” Cranfill asked, “did you just keep doing it time after time after time?”

Although apologetic, Brian Rodriguez was unable to give an explanation.

The judge ultimately agreed with prosecutors and sentenced Rodriguez to 360 days in jail for the more recent offenses that brought him before the court last week: misdemeanor counts of shoplifting and of disposing of stolen property.

Rodriguez’s charges stemmed from walking out of the Cody Walmart with two TVs and a vacuum cleaner last summer.

The 32-year-old and his girlfriend — who allegedly helped steal a third TV — were confronted by Walmart staff as they tried taking a fourth TV and other items, Cody police say. The couple later resold some of the items, according to police.
This Walmart surveillance camera footage reportedly shows Brian Rodriguez stealing two TVs and a vacuum.

Rodriguez’s court-appointed defense attorney, Scott Kath of Powell, argued for a sentence of supervised probation, though he acknowledged his client had “a long criminal history.” Prosecutors said Rodriguez had 24 prior misdemeanor convictions.

“What’s going to stop that continued type of criminal behavior?” Kath asked his client.

Rodriguez noted many of the past convictions involved his suspended driver’s license and said he’s working to get it reinstated.

“This isn’t a recurring thing anymore; I haven’t had any trouble for a couple years, I do believe now, and I hope to keep it that way,” Rodriguez said.

“With the exception of these charges, right?” clarified Kath.

“Yes,” said Rodriguez.

However, Deputy Park County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Blatt noted that, after stealing the items from Walmart last August, Rodriguez committed another theft in Minnesota in October.

The prosecutor cited Rodriguez’s record in arguing for jail time.

“He’s been placed on probation or fined 24 times and it hasn’t made a difference,” Blatt said.

He also noted Rodriguez was in the middle of taking a third shopping cart out of the Cody Walmart when he was confronted by staff.

“We don’t know how much stuff might have been planned to have been taken from Walmart,” Blatt said.

Brian Rodriguez
Kath argued that Rodriguez’s past offenses were generally “really minor” and noted that the Wyoming Department of Probation and Parole recommended putting him on probation. Kath also noted Rodriguez has a job and helps care for his elderly father.

“Pulling all that from under him at this point of time and (from) his family, given the recommendations of probation and parole, would not be appropriate,” Kath said.

Rodriguez asked for probation so he could still be a productive member of society, pay his court fees and help his father.

“I know I messed up and I’m here accepting responsibility for what I’ve done,” he said.

Cranfill said it was obvious that Rodriguez’s father, who was in the courtroom, needs assistance.

“I’m sorry for that — and I think you need to apologize to your father as well for what’s happened here,” the judge told Rodriguez.

In imposing jail time, Cranfill cited Rodriguez’s “extraordinary amount” of misdemeanor convictions and noted he’d failed to complete a substance abuse assessment before sentencing.

“I just don’t understand that,” Cranfill said.

Rodriguez and his girlfriend, 27-year-old Shanna Rae Jolley, were identified as suspects in the Aug. 4 thefts from Walmart through surveillance camera images that Cody police posted to Facebook.

In Aug. 17 interviews with Cody Police Detective Jason Stafford, Jolley and Rodriguez allegedly admitted to taking the more than $1,600 worth of items. The couple reportedly told Stafford they needed money.

They allegedly sold one of the stolen TVs to Lovell’s mayor, who contacted police after learning of the thefts on Facebook.

“I know I messed up and I’m here accepting responsibility for what I’ve done,” Rodriguez said at his recent court appearance.

Rodriguez pleaded guilty as part of a deal that involved the Park County Attorney’s Office reducing the shoplifting charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. Cranfill called that “a great gift.”

As part of his sentence, Rodriguez must also pay $340 in routine court fees and $456 in restitution to Walmart for the stolen merchandise that couldn’t be restocked.

Jolley, meanwhile, has pleaded not guilty to a felony count of shoplifting and a misdemeanor count of disposing of stolen property. A trial is tentatively set for August.

Court records indicate Jolley is currently receiving substance abuse treatment at a facility in Sheridan.

~By CJ Baker

Game and Fish tagging and studying unwanted local walleye

Only a light breeze ruffles the surface of the water, but falling snow accentuates a soggy night for the two boat crews doing very wet work.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department employees are catching, tagging and returning hundreds of walleye in Buffalo Bill Reservoir to help determine if suppressing the unwanted fish is feasible.

On a recent Wednesday night, the employees were working west of Buffalo Bill Dam.

Jacob Scoville (at left) and Riley Gallagher, Wyoming Game and Fish Department fisheries technicians, net some squirming walleye. Cody News Co. photos by Gib Mathers

A portable generator provides electricity for the electrical arrays on booms they lower into the shallow water where the walleye spawn. The arrays send a jolt of electricity to stun the fish, the men net the dazed walleye near the surface and deposit them in a live well.

If they haven’t been tagged before, each fish receives two tags that resemble short, wire antennas jutting from their sides. Five hundred of the tags will offer either a $10 or $100 reward if they're brought back to Game and Fish.

“Here’s one of the bigger females,” said Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist Jason Burckhardt, showing off a walleye that would tickle any angler. It weighed 2.58 pounds.

Next, Burckhardt notes a tagged male of smaller proportions, but worth its weight in gold with a tag that's worth $100.

Sean Cooley, fisheries technician for the department, determines each walleye’s sex and size and then inserts the tags before returning them to the lake.

“Looks like seven recaps,” Cooley said.

“Recaps,” or recaptures, are walleye previously caught and tagged.

The higher the recapture rate, the less variance in the abundance estimate, said Daniel Kaus, a Montana State University-Bozeman graduate student. Kaus is working on the project so he can build a walleye population model.

The guys on the boat wear protective gear to avoid being shocked. They tag at night because the walleye are easier to catch where they are spawning, Burckhardt said. The crew launches at dark, sometimes remaining on the lake until 3 a.m.

Jason Burckhardt, Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist, examines a previously captured and tagged walleye female while Riley Gallagher (at left) mans the net.

Game and Fish workers have caught females drained of eggs, so they know the fish are spawning.

As of April 26, the department had tagged about 350 walleye. The plan is to keep going until 700 of the fish are tagged or the spawn or the spawn ends.

The potential $10 or $100 walleye bounty on the tags is meant to encourage fishermen to report the tagged walleye they catch. The more anglers reporting their marked walleye, the more accurate the department's mortality estimate will be, Burckhardt said. The study is aimed at measuring both angler-caused mortality and Game and Fish-caused mortality.

The estimating technique works like this: a portion of the population is captured, marked and released. Later, crews go back out, capture more fish and count the number of tagged walleye.

The number of marked walleye within that later sample should be proportional to the number of marked walleye in the whole population, so you can come up with an estimate of the total population by dividing the number of marked walleye by the proportion of marked walleye in the second sample.

For example, if Game and Fish tag and release 100 walleye and 50 tagged fish are caught by anglers, they can assume that is half the population and further deduct that the population totals 200 walleye, Burckhardt said.

Sean Cooley, Game and Fish fisheries technician, measures a captive walleye.

Walleye were illegally introduced into the reservoir, likely occurred from 2002 through 2004.

They prey on the trout that inhabit the wild, unstocked fishery in Buffalo Bill. Previous studies have shown walleye eat a lot of juvenile trout, Burckhardt said. Game and Fish wants to maintain the wild fishery in Buffalo Bill to in turn support trout on the North Fork of the Shoshone River.

A walleye female bears 20,000 to 200,000 eggs, Kaus said. Although the walleye hatchling survival rate is relatively low, the sheer number of offspring one female can produce makes a big difference.

If Kraus can obtain the vital rates (survival and death), then he can run a simulation model to determine population growth each year. From there, he can calculate the rate of mortality needed to suppress the walleye population, he said.

If enough effort is exerted, walleye can be suppressed in Buffalo Bill, but the question remains: How much would that effort cost? Game and Fish wants to know the degree of suppression needed and the price tag, Kaus said.

If tagged walleyes are caught, anglers are asked to call the Cody Game and Fish office at 307-527-7125 or the phone number provided on the tag.

May 3, 2016

Cody man charged with illegal outfitting in 2013

A Cody man stands accused of illegally guiding hunters while working for a Meeteetse area ranch in the fall of 2013.

Jim Pehringer, 47, pleaded not guilty to eight misdemeanor charges of outfitting without a license during an arraignment in Park County’s Circuit Court last week. He was released on his own recognizance pending a trial.

The charges filed by the Park County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office allege that Pehringer served as a guide for eight different hunters on the Antlers Ranch between early September and late October of 2013.

Jim Pehringer faces eight misdemeanor counts of outfitting without a license.
Affidavits by a criminal investigator for Wyoming State Board of Outfitter and Guides say Pehringer collected thousands of dollars from the eight hunters in exchange for his assistance. The investigator, Dan Hodge, wrote that Pehringer had been put in charge of managing the hunting on the ranch and all the arrangements went through him.

At that time, Pehringer was also working as the local supervisor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services — a program that manages conflicts between wildlife and people. Pehringer resigned from his Wildlife Services post in late February 2015, said a staffer at the program’s main office in Casper.

The state of Wyoming generally requires people to get an outfitting license if they’re being compensated for helping big or trophy game hunters.

Ranch owners and other landowners are allowed to guide hunters on their own property without a license. However, a 2005 opinion from the Wyoming Attorney General clarified that landowners’ employees still need a license before doing any guiding.

When Hodge explained the ruling to Pehringer in an April 2014 interview, Pehringer said he hadn’t known that and “guessed he’d been in violation of this for the past 19 years,” Hodge recounted in a later application for a search warrant. (The opinion does not appear on the Attorney General's website.)

However, Hodge also said that — about six months earlier — he’d told Pehringer that Antlers Ranch employees could not legally provide hunters with “any outfitting or guiding services including animal recovery services.”

Within days of that initial conversation, in late September 2013, Pehringer allegedly accompanied four hunters from Texas and Louisiana while they harvested four antelope on the Antlers Ranch; he also helped two of the men haul their animals back to where they were staying on the ranch, Hodge wrote in the affidavit accompanying the charges.

The four men each paid Pehringer $1,400, and bank records show Pehringer put the $5,600 into his account, Hodge wrote.

In 2013, the Antlers Ranch’s website listed Pehringer as its “head guide” and said he had “guided hunters for trophy elk, deer, antelope, bear, mountain lion, deer and big horn sheep for over 20 years.”

A couple days later, on Oct. 1, 2013, two hunters bagged bull elk on the Antlers Ranch and Pehringer helped bring the meat back to their cabin; one of the hunters paid Pehringer $2,000, Hodge wrote.

Pehringer is also alleged to have accompanied two other men on deer hunts on the ranch sometime that fall.

The Antlers Ranch’s website listed Pehringer as its “head guide” at the time, saying he had “guided hunters for trophy elk, deer, antelope, bear, mountain lion, deer and big horn sheep for over 20 years,” Hodge wrote in the search warrant affidavit.

Records from the Wyoming State Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides say Pehringer did not have an outfitting license in 2013 or the years leading up to it. He applied for a license in 2014, but “the process was not completed and he was not issued a license,” said Amanda McKee, the board’s administrator.

Outfitters must pay a $1,600 application fee, pay $600 annually and meet various other state requirements to get and keep a license.

The Park County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed its criminal charges on April 8, with Pehringer arraigned on April 26.

Each of the eight counts of outfitting without a license carries a possible fine of up to $5,000 and the potential loss of hunting, fishing, trapping or outfitting privileges for up to five years.

A bench trial has tentatively been scheduled for July 28 in Cody.

While the case is pending, Pehringer is prohibited from hunting and from accompanying anyone who is hunting.

May 2, 2016

Funds sought for new robot to explore Yellowstone Lake

Life-saving discoveries can trace their roots back to Yellowstone’s underwater thermal activity and a team of researchers are hoping to make discoveries with the help of a new robot. All the team needs is a kick start.

The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration — led by a part-time Montana resident who’s probed the lake’s depths for decades — is trying to raise $100,000 for the new robot on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration founder and president Dave Lovalvo says the new machine would be a “second-to-none” resource for documenting Yellowstone Lake. Lovalvo said it can also help people understand the importance of the lake’s unique ecosystem.

“It is our obligation to understand it,” Lovalvo says of Yellowstone, in a video accompanying the Kickstarter campaign. “Because the only way to protect it is to understand it.”

Artist Michelle Anderst created this visualization of the new robot sampling a thermal feature in Yellowstone Lake.

Lovalvo first set eyes on the park in 1985 and found many new thermal features below the lake’s surface.

“Knowing what we know about life in extreme environments, the microscopic organsims that thrive in temperatures that exceed body-temperature, it was a fascinating place to do research because you never know what you will find there,” Lovalvo said in an interview.

A robot was what first brought Lovalvo to the park, hired by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to deploy and pilot his machine in Yellowstone Lake. He fell in love with the lake right away. Even with the 1985 robot’s low-resolution cameras, “the images were just stunning,” Lovalvo says in the video.

He went on to spend some 28 years exploring, filming and mapping the lake and spends part of his time in southwestern Montana.

Lovalvo said he and his team have been limited on the amount of time they have on the lake each year since underwater studies began three decades ago.

“You can’t possibly see every place that you know there is probably interesting activity,” Lovalvo said.

The deeper spots of the lake were harder to reach because the crew was using an old Park Service boat and had to anchor off the bow and stern while looking for thermal features and sampling the hot water.

The new robot will capture much higher-definition images of the lake's bottom than the ones like this from the old machine. Courtesy photo
“If the wind came, it would drag you away,” Lovalvo said. “But this time we are building a new boat that will be brought into the lake in early June and that is specially designed to handle the robot.”

The new 40-foot boat has dynamic positioning, similar to what vessels use in very deep ocean exploration. The thruster system is tied to the boat’s GPS so all the crew will have to do is enter coordinates and the boat will remain in place.

“It is like autopilot on a plane,” Lovalvo said.

The as-of-yet-to-be constructed robot will also be far more advanced, with high definition recording equipment. The foundation is naming it “Yogi,” in honor of the famed cartoon bear from the fictional Jellystone National Park.

Public fundraising is only one part of the effort to make Yogi a reality. Yellowstone National Park, the Yellowstone Association and Montana State University are among the entities lending help. Other institutions have chipped in parts and schematics and all the dollars raised on Kickstarter will be matched by a private contributor.

As with all Kickstarter projects, donors can receive various rewards, depending on how much money they give. That ranges from getting a digital poster of the robot for $25 to joining the research team and robot on Yellowstone Lake for $10,000.

“We are just trying to offset some of the costs because this is extremely expensive,” Lovalvo said. “We want people to understand the value of what we do and help out if interested.”

The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration’s Kickstarter pitch suggests the microbial life at the bottom of the lake could hold information about the origin of life or new advancements in medicine or biology.

Bacteria credited with sparking the ability for mankind to map the entire human genome was discovered in Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park — bringing historically unprecedented discoveries about who we are as a species, and potentially curing diseases as well.
“Because it grew in a very hot environment, it allowed us to do things you normally couldn’t do,” Lovalvo said of Thermus aquaticus. The discoveries made thanks to this one Yellowstone microbe are currently used in hospitals around the world, he said.

“It is an exciting place and the lake bottom is fascinating — you never know what you will see and that is the beauty of it,” Lovalvo said.

The foundation's pitch says it's estimated “that less than 1 percent of Yellowstone’s microbes have been identified so far and it’s hard to predict what might be learned from those that have yet to be discovered.”

In addition to microscopic life, sponges and crustaceans also dwell in the depths of the lake.

“(T)he lake bottom is fascinating — you never know what you will see and that is the beauty of it,” Lovalvo said.

Although being just one of only a few projects to be featured on Kickstarter’s front page and weekly email, just a bit more 2/3rds of the $100,000 goal had been raised as of Monday.

This is the foundation’s first time using a crowd-funding source and Lovalvo said things weren’t looking good for the endeavor since with Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing for the fundraiser.

“They are well known for people selling things, but we went a completely different direction and based it on philanthropy — you have to want to help for a reason other than getting something in return,” Lovalvo said. “We have way too much in it and too many responsibilities to not be doing it, but Kickstarter would take some of the pain off.”

The foundation faces a self-imposed deadline of 10 p.m. on Wednesday, May 4.

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