Moms and babies navigate risks in Wyoming maternity care desert

Moms and babies navigate risks in Wyoming maternity care desert

Wyoming women have quietly shouldered a health care dilemma for years: A growing scarcity of obstetric resources has made pregnancy, labor and childbirth increasingly tricky in widening swaths of the state.

Gwenith Wachter experienced the erosion first-hand through 23 years and five pregnancies. She gave birth to her first three children in her hometown of Riverton, back when the local hospital was a bustling place staffed with veteran nurses and doctors who worked well together, she said.

By the time her fourth came along in 2016, however, “none of those same nurses were still there anymore,” she said. “And that experience wasn’t super great. And then they quit delivering babies shortly after, like literal weeks after.”

With the Riverton hospital’s labor and delivery unit shuttered, Wachter had to drive 26 miles to Lander to deliver her fifth child in 2021. The doctor and nurses there were professional and capable, she said, (they may have saved her life following a dangerous hemorrhage) but traveling nurses were essentially strangers to her.

Having watched the decline of Fremont County’s resources — from two hospitals and several obstetricians to one labor and delivery facility and a single OB — Wachter believes the current situation is unacceptable.

“We absolutely have to have OB services over here [in Riverton],” she said. “I just think it’s insane. It puts women at risk.”

Wachter’s fears bear out in the numbers. More than 15% of Wyoming women had no birthing hospital within 30 minutes of home in 2022, compared to 9.7% of women nationally, a report by the March of Dimes shows. Such distance from care comes with real risks. Women who live farther from delivery hospitals are more likely to experience adverse medical outcomes. Babies are more likely to require a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit.

West central Wyoming is not unique, but with one obstetric practice, one midwife and one birthing hospital serving the general population of Fremont County — a New Hampshire-sized area that’s home to nearly 40,000 people — the situation here offers a window into the challenges, and consequences, of limited maternal health services.

(Patients on the Wind River Indian Reservation have arguably better access via doctors who contract with tribal health services to deliver babies, which will be examined later in this series.)

To be clear, a woman laboring in Fremont County can deliver 24/7 in SageWest Hospital in Lander, but she would likely do so with a traveling doctor she’s never met. That possibility, along with the hospital’s poor reputation among locals, is prompting many Fremont County women to go elsewhere — Thermopolis and Jackson, Billings, Salt Lake and Denver.

Traveling, of course, requires money, childcare, work flexibility and other resources that not everyone has. And then there’s the issue of winter travel in Wyoming, where icy storms regularly close roads and ground air ambulances.

“Who wants to travel to a different state at the end of their pregnancy?” Wachter asked. “To give birth, especially in the wintertime? So yeah, that I think is ridiculous, and puts you at way greater risk for complications.”

The OB shortage is not isolated to Fremont County. Hospitals in Rawlins and Kemmerer stopped offering delivery services in recent years. Other counties like Sublette and Weston don’t have birthing facilities at all.

“Pretty much everyone that I've talked to, it's like, there's this excitement: ‘I'm pregnant. This is great!’” But that soon gives way to, “‘Oh, shit. Now what?’”

Expecting mother Annalee Neary

“It’s a huge problem,” Jen Davis, Gov. Mark Gordon’s senior policy advisor on health and human services, said of the dearth of maternal health care.

And it’s one with dire circumstances, according to University of Wyoming Professor and midwife Esther Gilman-Kehrer, who delivered babies in Laramie for many years.

“I think the fears are that women are going to die,” Gilman-Kehrer said. “I would envision that at some point, we'll see deaths related to you know, we didn't have enough people. We didn't have enough people to look after this person.”

The challenge also raises existential questions for precarious communities. How, after all, can a community survive, much less thrive, without being able to reliably protect mothers or bring babies into the world?

In the coming weeks, WyoFile will examine the facets of this complicated problem — the economics of rural OB-GYN practice, the hurdles to attracting and retaining providers, the roles of powerful institutions — and explore potential solutions.

For all its players and complexity, at heart, the challenge is borne by women undergoing the most simple and fundamental of human experiences.

So that’s where we’ll begin, with the moms.

Trauma and fears 

When she became pregnant with her second child earlier this year, Lander farmer and attorney Bailey Brennan chose to seek maternal health care out of state.

The trauma of her first delivery largely drove her decision.

It was the spring of 2021, and more than a month before her due date, when Brennan awoke one morning to discover she was bleeding.

She had experienced complications before, including an earlier pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, and felt something was very wrong. She called her Jackson midwife, who instructed Brennan to get to the hospital in Lander — deeming it too dangerous to drive to Jackson, where Brennan had grown up and planned to deliver.

Brennan would learn later that two related complications had developed, putting both she and the fetus at serious risk.

Bailey Brennan, pregnant with her second child, is pictured in 2023 on the farm she operates. She delivered her baby in late October in Salt Lake City. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

But at the Lander hospital that day, after staff ran Brennan through tests and informed the obstetrician on call of the situation, he prescribed bed rest at home, she said. When the nurse told her she was being released, she grew furious. “I was like, ‘I need [the obstetrician] to come in, I need a second opinion and I need him to know I’m a lawyer.’”

She paused. “That’s the only time I’ve ever done that.”

The doctor arrived, she said, and discovered she was going into labor. A helicopter soon flew her to Salt Lake City. Days later, after doctors discovered the baby was in distress, her daughter was delivered via cesarean section. She was five weeks early.

The bleeding, the flight, the physical exhaustion of laboring, the shock of caring for a premature newborn — it shook Brennan. When she and her husband started thinking about having another baby, Brennan said, she knew her risk would be elevated. And when she started calling around in Fremont County, she found only two OB-GYNs were accepting patients.

She ultimately decided Salt Lake City was the best option despite it being nearly 300 miles and multiple mountain passes away. They found a maternal-fetal medicine doctor there and saw a provider in Thermopolis for prenatal care. In October, the family moved into an Airbnb in Salt Lake City to await her due date. On Oct. 27, Brennan had a successful vaginal birth after cesarean, delivering a daughter. Most Wyoming hospitals, including Lander’s, do not allow mothers to try for VBACs, as they are commonly known, due to risk of rupture. (That’s despite the positive health benefits of vaginal births).

Brennan wishes there were better options in Fremont County. “It didn't really occur to me when we decided to move to Lander that availability of medical services would be a question,” she said.

A luxury not all can afford

Brennan’s discovery of her scant options echoes many Fremont County families’ stories.

By the time Kristen Gunther started thinking about a second pregnancy, less than two years after the birth of her son, she found that none of the four providers previously available through her clinic were still delivering. “So now it's like ‘oh, now we kind of start from scratch,’” the Lander resident said.

Gunther’s first pregnancy went smoothly until she hit 39 weeks. That’s when her blood pressure spiked, and doctors diagnosed her with preeclampsia, a leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide.

In the flurry that followed, doctors induced Gunther’s labor, gave her magnesium to prevent preeclampsia-related seizures and administered an epidural. After several hours of labor, she delivered her son.

The high-risk designation that comes with her age and medical history has had a strong influence on her family’s decision making about her second pregnancy.

Gunther is due in March. After much consideration, she and her husband are now planning to fly to Maryland to stay with her parents for the birth and postpartum period.

She would love to have the baby in Wyoming, she said, but has to weigh the medical risks along with the logistics of travel and childcare for her toddler son. She considers herself fortunate to have enough work flexibility to make Maryland an option. “It’s going to be a huge challenge and it’s an insane privilege that we can even consider it,” she said in a text.

Stress of travel

Gordon’s health policy director Davis has heard many stories like Gunther’s. “But that's not an option for everybody,” she said.

Traveling is suboptimal for reasons beyond time and cost. The farther a woman travels for maternity care, the greater the risk of maternal morbidity and adverse infant outcomes.

In rural areas of Wyoming, 22.4% of women live over 30 minutes from a birthing hospital compared to 5.2% of women living in urban areas, according to the March of Dimes.

And yes, traveling for health care has always been a given for many of Wyoming’s rural residents. But Fremont County is home to the state’s 9th and 13th largest towns — these aren’t specks on the map. Riverton, the larger town, hasn’t had a labor and delivery unit since 2016.

There were 608 births in Fremont County in 2010, a number that fell last year by 44%, to 339, according to Wyoming Department of Health data. (Wyoming’s birth rate has also fallen statewide in that time).

Fremont County families had 442 babies last year, according to state records, meaning that 103 — almost one in four — babies were born out of county.

Losing confidence  

Nature Conservatory restoration scientist Maggie Eshleman initially saw an obstetrician in Lander when she became pregnant in 2021, but the office, which was relatively new, never seemed to have her test results, she said.

She found a provider in Casper instead. The decision to seek care elsewhere proved a blessing in disguise, she said, because a swarm of complications ensued. At one point, she was life-flighted to Denver to treat pregnancy-related kidney stones and an infection.

She and her husband ended up driving to Casper roughly a dozen times through the now infamous winter conditions of 2022-23, she said. They ultimately stayed for the final month because the weather was so severe. His employer has a Casper office, and she could work remotely.

The birth went smoothly; a favorite nurse ended up delivering her son.

Maggie Eshelman pushes her infant son in a stroller in Lander City Park. Eshelman delivered him in Casper. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Other mothers, like Riverton dispatcher Val Hinkle, have found themselves shuffled through doctors as provider turnover churns. Hinkle, whose first child was delivered 11 weeks early via C-section in 2017, has since established care with two midwives that left the county, including one she loved. “I just keep establishing a patient/doctor connection with these people, and they keep leaving.”

Even talking with other Riverton moms, she said, “it just seems like it's incredibly difficult to even find anybody.”

Hinkle’s first pregnancy was a frightening ordeal; her son weighed only 2 pounds and spent 55 days in the NICU in Denver. At this point, she said, her desire to have another child has dampened.

“I feel like it's pretty terrifying honestly,” she said. “Especially being high risk. It definitely changes the aspects of my life where I'm like, ‘oh, yeah, I want to have another baby,’ because it's just scary.”

Riverton mom Chelsee Kucera delivered her son in Thermopolis earlier this year. Most of the Fremont County moms she knows have done the same, she said. That’s despite Lander being closer, and the Hot Springs County facility being on the other side of the narrow, windy and often precarious Wind River Canyon.

In her case, she had plenty of time to get to the hospital. Just a few days after she delivered, however, a rock slide in the canyon caused hours-long traffic delays, she said.

Unforeseen complications 

As a resident of Dubois — the small, isolated mountain community in Fremont County’s northwestern corner — Sara Domek understood from the outset that traveling to deliver a baby in a larger town was part of the deal.

Her closest choices were Jackson, which lay over Togwotee Pass, and Lander, which lay on the other side of a stretch of a highway notoriously strewn with wildlife. Both are roughly 75 miles away.

Friends and peers had more positive reviews for Jackson’s hospital than Lander’s, she said, and she already saw a Jackson OB-GYN, so that’s where she went when she became pregnant in late 2019.

Her pregnancy entailed around 20 prenatal trips to Jackson, Domek said. She went into labor in the middle of the night in July 2020, triggering a late-night drive over the pass and south on a long, empty stretch of highway.

“I remember this cow elk standing on the side of the road,” Domek said. “Luckily my husband was attentive and aware. I was not so much, because I was having contractions.”

Domek delivered her son at St. John’s Health, Jackson’s hospital.

Unbeknownst to anyone, however, part of Domek’s placenta was retained in her uterus. That interfered with breastfeeding, which prompted many trips back and forth to Jackson to see a lactation consultant. All those hours in the vehicle likely contributed to a blood clot that developed in her leg about a week after giving birth — which doctors detected and treated with blood thinners.

On yet another trip to an OB appointment in Jackson soon after, however, she realized she was bleeding heavily. By the time they reached the doctor’s office, it turned alarming.

Domek was rushed to emergency surgery — the retained placenta had caused a hemorrhage. She lost so much blood she almost required a transfusion. It happened so fast.

“It was totally timely and so lucky that I was there,” she said. “Had I been here in Dubois and not happened to be over there, I don't know what my story would look like.”

When Domek thinks about having a second child, she worries about access to care, but also the sustainability of Jackson providers with the flood of patients from elsewhere. And the implications of a potential statewide abortion ban on reproductive health services.

“Even though it was really scary having a baby during COVID, it is a different kind of scariness now,” she said.

A mother holds a newborn baby. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Medical moms 

Annalee Neary grew up in Crowheart — a tiny hamlet on the Wind River Indian Reservation southeast of Dubois. She went to nursing school at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, and did her clinicals at SageWest Lander before moving away to advance her education. When she began thinking about moving back and working near Lander earlier this year, her partner in Minnesota was scared.

That’s because Neary is pregnant, and she has other health complications, including heart issues. The thought of moving to the middle of Wyoming far from specialists made him very uncomfortable, she said.

The allure of family and community outweighed those fears, and they moved back. Neary is due in February, and their plan is to deliver the baby in Jackson. She is seeing a maternal health specialist there and plans to stay at a friend’s house.

Pregnancy in Fremont County is a blessing and a curse, Neary said.

“Pretty much everyone that I've talked to, it's like, there's this excitement: ‘I'm pregnant. This is great!’” But that soon gives way to, “‘Oh, shit. Now what?’”

Lander pediatric nurse Aven Glazier also traveled for her second birth; she went to Jackson in October for a scheduled C-section.

For her and other mothers, she said, it comes down to confidence.

“There's one OB and one midwife right now that are serving non-reservation patients, and I just didn't feel comfortable with that option with no backup,” Glazier said. “It's something where you want to feel as completely comfortable as possible. Because it's just so important.

“One choice isn't a choice,” she said.

What’s next 

This provider paucity does not just touch mothers and newborns. It’s also a story shaped by doctors reluctant to join the rigorous world of rural health care. It’s about administrators balancing priorities to keep unprofitable labor and delivery wards open. About community leaders trying to ensure amenities to attract families.

And it’s a story of overburdened physicians on the brink of burnout while others try to keep up with a wave of clients coming from outside their county borders. That’s coming up in part two.

This story is part one of “Delivery desert,” an investigative series that digs into the causes and impacts of maternity care shortages in Fremont County and Wyoming. It was made with the support of the Center for Rural Strategies and Grist.

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A lot of bear: Yellowstone grizzly weighs in at near-record 712 pounds

Rotund, plump, hefty — go ahead and pick the fat synonym and it’ll likely aptly describe Grizzly 566, the second-heaviest grizzly bear ever documented in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The 19-year-old male was well known to biologists in Yellowstone National Park, where the big bear resides. As a 3-year-old in 2007, he weighed in at 232 pounds. During a 2010 handling, the boar had plumped up to 393 pounds. His weight stayed in that range, registering at 381 pounds when caught and immobilized at age 9 in 2013.

Then a decade went by without Grizzly 566 coming onto biologists’ radar.

Yellowstone biologists nabbed him once more on Oct. 15 while trapping bruins for routine grizzly bear monitoring, according to Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader Frank van Manen. It was the tail end of a verdant summer following a long-lasting winter in the Northern Rockies. Grizzlies in the Yellowstone region eat upwards of 266 species in four animal kingdoms, and options for foraging were evidently plentiful in 2023 — and especially so for this bruin.

Grizzly 566 weighed a whopping 712 pounds.

“You don’t come across animals of this size very often,” van Manen said.

In fact, he said, the only heavier Yellowstone-region grizzly bear ever documented was encountered all the way back in 1977. That beast of a bruin was a 715-pound male.

Grizzly 566, captured here on a remote trail cam, was the heaviest grizzly bear assessed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 46 years. (U.S. Geological Survey/IGBST)

In some respects, Grizzly 566’s near record-breaking heft isn’t completely surprising. Male grizzly bears don’t reach their peak body size until age 14, van Manen pointed out.

Plus, a couple other grizzlies handled in 2023 had relatively high body fat percentages, he said. Ordinarily, by October, females reach 28% to 30% body fat and males are just a little bit fatter — it’s 32% or so of their fall body mass.

Boars are the fatter sex because they need extra reserves for when they emerge from the den. That’s breeding season: Males are more interested in getting to know female grizzlies than extensive eating, and they’re actually losing “quite a bit” of body mass in April and May, van Manen said.

Grizzly 566 figures to be set up well for ursine philandering come next spring.

“He had 41% body fat,” van Manen said. “It looks like the highest [body fat figure] we’ve had before was 43%.”

Were Yellowstone-region grizzlies as a population fatter than average in 2023?

Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee meeting in Cody in May 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Tough to say, van Manen said, though the rate of fat gain appeared “pretty much normal” this year, he said. The leanest time of year is the end of June, when grizzlies typically range from 15% to 20% body fat. Because dozens of grizzlies are captured across the ecosystem throughout each spring, summer and fall, comparing grizzly bear fat levels from one year to the next isn’t straightforward statistically.

Taking a longer view, however, the science on grizzly bear body fat is more clear. Grizzly fat accumulation rates have not changed over the decades, nor is there any correlation to population density, recent research has found.

That says a lot, van Manen said, about the remarkable plasticity of grizzly diets: Even as major food sources like whitebark pine, cutthroat trout and some ungulate populations have declined, bears are still packing it on.

“The way these animals are gaining fat from June through October hasn’t changed,” he said. “These are incredibly resourceful animals and they’re finding calories on the landscape.”

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A chunk of Grand Teton Park could go up for auction. Price tag: $62M

UPDATE: This story was updated at 8:25 p.m. on Oct. 2 to include remarks from Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper). —Ed.

The state of Wyoming has taken a key step toward unloading its last remaining 640 acres locked within the borders of Grand Teton National Park. The land, in the heart of Jackson Hole, could be sold at auction.

Progress toward the sale of the so-called Kelly Parcel came late Monday, when the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments announced it was initiating a land disposal in conjunction with releasing a detailed analysis of the square-mile property.

“This is one of the very first steps in the process, and there certainly is a long way to go,” Wyoming Office of State Lands Deputy Director Jason Crowder told WyoFile. “It definitely has consideration by the [State Board of Land Commissioners] still in front of it.”

The Kelly Parcel is located along the eastern edge of Grand Teton Park, though it also shares boundaries with the Bridger-Teton National Forest and National Elk Refuge.

The Kelly Parcel, center, is bordered on three sides by Grand Teton National Park. Its east border is shared with the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and there’s also a sliver of land touching the National Elk Refuge. (Teton County GIS)

The State Board of Land Commissioners — the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction and the auditor — are scheduled to review the issue at its Dec. 7 meeting. If the board approves of the proposed sale, it’ll direct the Office of State Lands to proceed with putting the pricy acreage surrounded by federal land to auction.

“Any sale of state lands, by constitution, has to be sold at public auction,” Crowder said, “unless we do an exchange or unless the Legislature gives the board authorization to do a direct sale.”

The Wyoming Legislature has enabled direct sale of state land to the U.S. Interior Department — the National Park Service’s government parent — twice in the past. In 2016, a $46 million sale was completed for 640 acres in the Antelope Flats. In 2012, the state sold off an 86-acre tract near the Snake River.

Negotiations between the Interior Department and Wyoming about state-owned land in Grand Teton began in 1949, the year before the park was enlarged.

All that remains is the Kelly Parcel.

The 640 acres has an estimated value of $62.4 million, according to the OSLI analysis. Past appraisals, in 2010 and 2016, put the value at $45 million, then $39 million. The tract is bisected by Gros Ventre Road, but its development potential is inhibited by a scenic easement lining the road.

There are no statutes currently on the books enabling a direct sale of the Kelly Parcel to the Interior Department, Crowder said.

But lawmakers have attempted to facilitate the sale in the past. As recently as 2021, former Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) ran a bill that would have authorized a direct sale, though it fell apart after Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) successfully passed an amendment that set the floor price at $3.2 billion — around 82 times the appraised value at the time.

Sota the pudelpointer traverses a snowy ridge in the Bridger-Teton National Forest immediately east of the state’s inholding in Grand Teton National Park, a tract known as the Kelly parcel. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The Wyoming Legislature has also unsuccessfully tried to wring more money out of the parcel. In 2019, a bill died that would have allowed for economic development on the tract — even a casino.

Securing permission for a direct sale could be difficult during the Legislature’s upcoming budget session, at least judging by one lawmaker’s reaction.

“Why would Gov. Gordon bargain sale for our most priceless 640 acres of state School Trust lands to the Biden Administration?” Harshman, a former two-time House speaker, told WyoFile in a text. “Wyoming people will be shocked.”

It’s unclear if Grand Teton National Park and its nonprofit partners have secured $62 million in the instance that the Legislature approves a direct sale to the Interior Department.

WyoFile was unable to reach Teton Park officials before this story was published.

Any major development, either an auction or direct sale, will not occur until 2024 at the earliest, Crowder said.

“We’re required to advertise it for four consecutive weeks before we go to a public auction, if [the board] approves us to move in that direction,” he said.

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A new owl species has bred in Wyoming. Not everyone’s thrilled.

Jackson photojournalist and birder Tom Stanton was cross-country skiing in Grand Teton National Park in late April, looking for owls, when he heard an unfamiliar song. He froze.

“In my head, I was like, ‘I’ve never heard a great horned owl make that kind of noise,” he said. “But it was coming from an area where there had been a nesting pair of great horned owls a couple of years prior.”

Intrigued, he waited. “About a half hour later, they did what I call the monkey call,” hooting back and forth. “I was like, ‘I’ve never heard great horns do that.’”

He skied over to the old nest site. An owl flashed by in the corner of his vision, too fast to identify. But then he saw a cottonwood tree with the type of cavity owls use for nests. A stray feather lay near the opening.

Stanton did what any good birder would do: He returned the following day.

“I was kind of sitting watching the cavity from a distance,” he said. “And all of a sudden, up pops the barred [owl].”

There was a moment of cognitive dissonance, he said, because Wyoming isn’t barred owl habitat. There have been sightings, but they are rare. He could see the pairs’ distinctive black eyes, however, and used his birding app to confirm their songs.

These were barred owls.

A male barred owl rests on a limb of a spruce tree near his nest in Grand Teton National Park. The medium-sized species measure about 19 to 22 inches in length with a roughly 42- to 44-inch wingspan. (Thomas Stanton)

Though he didn’t want to harass the birds, Stanton’s instinct was to document. So he returned to the site a couple days a week for the next few months to watch and photograph the pair calling, hunting, sleeping and eventually hatching two chicks. In doing so, Stanton documented Wyoming’s first breeding pair of barred owls.

The news will no doubt pique the interest of birders, who are known to travel on short notice to glimpse rare species. But biologists aren’t celebrating yet. The arrival of a non-native bird could have ramifications for the ecosystem’s other denizens, they say.

“We’ve definitely been apprehensive just because we kind of look at things from a bigger ecosystem-level picture,” Teton Raptor Center Associate Research Director Katherine Gura said. “And it’s hard to say what the impact is going to be on some of these other species that are really important in this ecosystem.”

Moving in?

Barred owls are similar in size to great horned owls, but lack the “horns.” They are similar in profile to great gray owls, but are smaller and have black eyes in contrast to the great grays’ distinct yellow ones. Though they are eastern birds, they have expanded their range westward through the boreal forests of Canada and down into the Pacific Northwest.

In Washington, Oregon and California, their negative impacts on federally protected northern spotted owls have created a high-profile management conundrum. Barred owls, which are territorial and eat a variety of prey, have edged out the shier and more specialized spotted owls. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has wrestled with the issue for years, even experimenting with killing barred owls to make room for spotted owls.

From left, barred owl, great gray owl and great horned owl. (Thomas Stanton)

Barred owls have also moved south from Canada into parts of Idaho and Montana. In Wyoming, there have been sightings of vagrant barred owls over the years, but never breeding pairs. Grand Teton National Park has 12 records of barred owls between 1982-1999, according to Public Affairs Officer Valerie Gohlke.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Nongame Bird Biologist Zach Wallace wasn’t terribly surprised by the news, given their expansion. It’s too early to know what it means for the state, he said, as it might be an anomaly. Any rare bird record in the state is reported to the Wyoming Bird Records Committee for review, Wallace said.

“At this point, it’s one pair,” he said. “We just keep track of it.”

Grand Teton National Park intends to do the same, Gohlke said, monitoring the owls and their relationship with other species in collaboration with the Teton Raptor Center.

The management crisis in the Pacific Northwest, Wallace said, is “a really extreme situation with an endangered species. They’re doing management as a last resort, real ecological triage. And we have no reason to believe that would happen here.”

But Gura of the raptor center, who has been studying great gray owls and other raptors in the region for about a dozen years, is uneasy.

A male barred owl pauses on a cottonwood branch in Teton County with a squirrel before delivering it to the female in the nesting cavity. (Thomas Stanton)

Her team discovered the owls independently of Stanton. They were conducting a prey survey one day this summer when a colleague came across one of the adults and then discovered a fledgling.

The Raptor Center team was “extremely surprised” by the discovery, Gura said. They were also concerned, “because of the potentially detrimental effects on the native raptors that we spend a lot of time researching and studying and working to conserve.”

What happened with barred and spotted owls is “highly concerning” to her.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘what are the potential impacts going to be on great grays in relation to barred owls?’” she said. Because great grays are one of the least studied raptors, she said, there isn’t a ton of research to draw from in considering potential competition with barred owls.

“There’s just really a lot of unknowns,” she said. “Maybe they’ll be able to persist no problem, but there’s just the potential that there’s going to be a similarly negative impact on great grays as there has been on spotted owls.”

Soon after their discovery, Gura said, she connected with Stanton, who shared his research and documentation. The center’s plan is also to monitor and study what happens next.


They may be cast as villains in spotted owl habitat, but the barred owl family charmed Stanton as he observed them over the months.

He saw the male dive for voles, squirrels and songbirds and deliver them to the female. He watched as the adults preened and cackled together in greeting — behavior he said was downright affectionate. They checked in often with one another and were extremely vocal, he said.

A pair of barred owls preen and scratch each other in Teton County. Photographer Thomas Stanton discovered and documented their nest in April 2023 — the first instance of breeding barred owls in Wyoming. (Thomas Stanton)

Stanton glimpsed the first evidence the owls had successfully bred on the afternoon of June 28. That’s when a fluffball of gray feathers appeared at the edge of the cavity around 2:30 p.m. A second chick popped up about three hours later.

The female kept a close eye on them, he said. He figured they were four to five weeks old. After that, he watched the two chicks fledge — they started by hopping from limb to limb before graduating to flying farther distances behind their parents.

Photographer and birder Tom Stanton with his binoculars in Rendezvous Park near Jackson. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

One of the chicks did not survive — its wing was discovered and it was likely taken by a predator, Stanton said. But he has consistently been able to find one of the remaining three.

All told, Stanton spent hundreds of hours watching the owls, taking thousands of photographs. It was certainly a remarkable wildlife experience, he said, a birding highlight. But Stanton is also aware that non-native immigrants can come with impacts.

“The big question is: How will it impact the great grays?” he asked.

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BLM’s new management plan balances conservation, energy extraction

As an energy rich state, Wyoming is no stranger to trying to find the balance between extraction and conservation. In the case of the Greater Little Mountain area near Flaming Gorge, the attempt to strike that balance has taken over a decade, resulting in a recently released draft plan that embraces two of the state’s key economic drivers: the oil and gas industry and our great outdoors.


This magical high desert region of over 500,000 acres in Sweetwater County boasts habitat of badlands, aspen groves and pine forests. This place, simultaneously rugged and fragile, is one of Wyoming’s most sought-after hunting grounds for mule deer and elk and holds intimate streams that shelter genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout. Since 1990, this area has also benefited from more than $10 million to enhance and maintain these resources from government agencies, as well as non-profits, local businesses and community members.

Last month, the Bureau of Land Management Rock Spring Field Office released a draft land use plan for southwest Wyoming that seeks to strike a common-sense balance between allowing for energy development and protecting sensitive fish and wildlife habitats.

What I appreciate most in the BLM’s balanced, thoughtful approach is how it does not impact existing oil and gas leases. In fact, over half of the planning area is already leased and there are already active, producing wells across the landscape. Simultaneously, the BLM’s newly proposed oil and gas rule would be a long-overdue win for local communities by reducing conflict between leasing and drilling and other uses that are essential to supporting Wyoming’s way of life: fishing, hunting, recreation and conservation.

For decades, the federal oil and gas leasing programs prioritized resource extraction over valuable fish and wildlife habitats on our shared public lands. This is why Congress had to pass legislation in 2009 to protect 1.2 million acres in the Wyoming Range from ill-advised oil and gas leasing. But now the BLM is working to improve public land management by curtailing speculative leasing that directly impacts wildlife habitat while providing little if any public benefit.

Public lands oil and gas development has no doubt benefited Wyoming and our country, and will continue to do so for years to come. But what’s important moving forward is continuing to find a balance between our economy and special places like Greater Little Mountain.

As Wyoming sportsmen and sportswomen begin to ramp up for hunting season — with many pursuing game in the landscapes where they work — I appreciate that the BLM’s proposed management plan for southwest Wyoming seeks to provide for both responsible energy development and conservation.

Throughout the fall, the BLM will be taking public comment on the four proposed alternative plans, and now is the time for those who care about the future of public land hunting and fishing in southwest Wyoming to speak up. Energy development and conservation need not be mutually exclusive, but it takes smart planning to strike this balance. This is our moment to get it right.

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Wyoming is killing Colorado’s wolves, again, and the state’s keeping it secret

At least one wolf from what is likely the first breeding pack Colorado has seen in 80 years wandered into Wyoming in 2023 and was killed.

That’s according to credible reports from ranchers and other stakeholders interviewed by WyoFile.

No Wyoming or Colorado official, however, has confirmed the wolf killing.

Wyoming claims the information is confidential and that not even Colorado wildlife officials have a right to know.

An 11-year-old state law intended to conceal the identity of people who legally kill wolves in Wyoming is keeping Wyoming officials tight lipped. The statue is being interpreted so broadly that Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials say they cannot share anything more specific than the aggregate number of wolves that have been killed in the state’s 53-million-acre “predator zone” — an area that covers roughly 85% of Wyoming. So if a wolf dies well outside of Canis lupus’ normal range in southern Wyoming, even the general region of the killing is considered confidential.

In other words, state officials say merely confirming a wolf killing in a Wyoming county — or even the southern half of the state — would run afoul of the law because that information could somehow identify the person who pulled the trigger.

“We talked to our attorney, and she said basically that we cannot provide [wolf deaths] by location or areas like we used to,” said Dan Thompson, the large carnivore supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It’s all aggregate.”

Wolf 1084, pictured, was a member of Wyoming’s Snake River Pack before departing south and dispersing all the way to Colorado. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

The statute, and the Wyoming Attorney General’s reinterpretation of it, are hamstringing Colorado’s ability to monitor its historic and closely watched North Park Pack — founded by a known Wyoming migrant wolf, 1084M. The pack, which established a home range in northern Colorado’s Jackson County, has continued to eke out an existence on the eve of the expected broader reintroduction of wolves to the Centennial State, now just months away.

Although Wyoming law has stymied the free flow of information about North Park Pack wolves when they’ve crossed an invisible state border and died, word has gotten out anyway. Last October three black subadult female members of that pack wandered north and were legally killed by hunters, an incident that drew headlines and triggered threats of a lawsuit. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials learned of the suspected losses to the pack from a private landowner, spokesman Travis Duncan told WyoFile in an email.

There are no seasons or other limitations on killing wolves in Wyoming’s predator zone — eradication is openly the goal — but the state does require that successful hunters and trappers submit reports notifying authorities of their kills. Colorado officials have learned that their counterparts in the Equality State are unwilling to share those reports, or any information within them.

“Wyoming Game and Fish said they cannot provide those data to us,” Duncan said in the email.

But the southern Wyoming wolf deaths — of animals likely associated with the North Park Pack — continued this year. Colorado didn’t receive any reports of the deaths this time, Duncan said.

‘Everybody knows about it’

It’s no secret that wolves have been killed recently in Carbon County, not far from the southern border, said Pat O’Toole of the Ladder Ranch. A neighboring Wyoming rancher, he said, killed a wolf “a couple months ago.”

“Everybody knows about it,” O’Toole said. “I’ve seen pictures of it.”

O’Toole’s not thrilled that his Little Snake River-area ranch, which straddles the state line, has once again become the domain of the wolf, a sometimes difficult-to-live-with large carnivore that was eliminated from Colorado’s southern Rockies by the mid-1940s. Wolves that gain a taste for domestic animals often kill until they’re killed themselves, he said, and they make livestock ranching more difficult.

Pat O’Toole stands at the confluence of Battle Creek and the Little Snake River in 2016. (Phil Taylor)

O’Toole was not surprised that likely North Park Pack wolves haven’t lasted long once they’ve crossed the state line. With a step across that line, a wolf goes from a “State Endangered” classification — fully protected from hunting — to a “predator” that can be shot on sight without a license by anyone.

“This valley is full of hunters, and boy, it’d be a pretty smart wolf to make it in this valley,” O’Toole said. “Everybody here drives around with a rifle in their pickup because that’s the culture.”

Wyoming’s predator zone and unregulated hunting near the state line has hampered wolves’ ability to establish in Colorado.

“Essentially, one state is blocking a national success story from happening,” said Matt Barnes, a rangeland scientist who was a member of the advisory group that helped shape Colorado’s wolf management plan. “It is absolute night and day, either side of this invisible line, which is always not good for wildlife.

In 2020, Colorado’s first modern-day wolf pack found a home range off to the west in Moffat County, not far from the Wyoming border. The pack wasn’t confirmed to have produced a litter, like the North Park Pack has, and it also didn’t last long. Three wolves from the pack were reportedly shot in Wyoming, right near the state line. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers investigated that boundary killing incident, WyoFile has confirmed, and the inactive case was recommended for closure. But the federal agency didn’t formally close the investigation, leaving the files unretrievable through the Freedom of Information Act.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists placed GPS collars on two wolves in North Park on Feb. 2, 2023. CPW’s team was doing wolf capture and collaring work in conjunction with elk and moose capture efforts for ongoing research studies in the area. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

And now the North Park Pack has been cut down by legal hunting across the state line. In February, Colorado Parks and Wildlife captured and collared two males: wolves 2101 and 2301. Even if reports continue to come in, any other wolves remaining in the state are unconfirmed.

“CPW is currently only aware of these two wolves in Colorado,” Duncan said in an email. “There was no evidence of reproduction in 2023.”

Reintroduction looms

Biologically, it likely won’t make much difference if the North Park Pack is hunted out of existence. The reason is that Colorado is months away from initiating its plan to reintroduce wolves to the southern Rockies. That plan, set in motion by voters in 2020, is to import 30 to 50 wolves west of the Continental Divide at least 60 miles from Colorado’s borders with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is looking to reintroduce wolves in the west-central part of the state, well south of where members of the North Park Pack have been dwelling in northern Colorado’s Jackson County. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Wyoming declined to provide wolves to its southern neighbors. Gov. Mark Gordon explained the decision in a statement, saying Wyoming is opposed to Colorado’s wolf reintroduction and “has the scars and lessons learned” from its own wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park nearly three decades ago.

“Wyomingites know all too well the challenges associated with introducing a new large carnivore into an existing ecosystem,” Gordon said. “It does not matter that the wolves may have been a part of the system in generations past; it is still a huge change.”

Montana and Idaho also declined to provide their fellow western state with wolves. But talks are ongoing with Washington and Oregon and northern Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe, reported the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Duncan, at CPW, told WyoFile in the email that he’s “confident” Colorado will gain the cooperation of one or more states or jurisdictions.

“CPW plans to release the first wolves in Colorado this winter,” he said. “We anticipate that we will find a source in time to release wolves prior to the December 31, 2023, deadline.”

Wolf reintroduction was set in motion by Colorado voters in 2020. The populated Front Range tilted the tight vote in favor of reintroduction, but rural western Colorado voters were largely opposed. This sign was located in Walden, Colorado. (Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

Given the looming reintroduction, former federal wolf biologist Mike Phillips isn’t surprised that Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials haven’t made much of historically significant North Park Pack animals getting shot up in an area outside of their control.

“If I was Colorado, I’d have plenty to do without getting in a pissing match with the state of Wyoming,” said Phillips, who was a member of Colorado’s wolf reintroduction advisory panel.

‘It’s crazy’

Still, Phillips described Wyoming’s practice of keeping the wolf deaths classified as a “sad state of affairs.”

“It speaks to just how irrational people are when thinking about gray wolves,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Controversy around the wolf deaths in southern Wyoming have also fueled calls to federally protect Canis lupus across the species’ range in the West.

“It’s intolerable that Colorado’s invaluable, endangered wolves can be secretly gunned down upon entering Wyoming,” Center for Biological Diversity staffer Collette Adkins told WyoFile in an emailed statement. “This travesty reinforces the need to return federal protections to wolves in Wyoming and across the northern Rockies.”

Adkins’ employer already threatened to sue the U.S. Forest Service for not safeguarding wolves on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming, contending Endangered Species Act violations. But the lawsuit didn’t materialize after the Forest Service informed the advocacy group that there was no evidence of “confirmed gray wolf populations, denning or gathering/rendezvous sites identified” on the national forest.

A lone wolf stands out on the horizon near Bondurant in 2017 in this photograph by Wyoming Game and Fish Department employee Mark Gocke. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

As Colorado’s wolf population picks up steam in the years ahead, it’s likely that there will be more incidents of dispersed wolves being legally hunted across the northern border in Wyoming. After the Yellowstone and central Idaho reintroduction in 1995 and ‘96, the population of 66 reintroduced wolves grew rapidly, roughly tenfold within six years. Unless the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office reinterprets the statute yet again, exactly how many of Colorado’s newfound wolves meet their end in Wyoming is likely to remain a mystery.

A bill protecting the identity of legal wolf hunters made it through the Wyoming Legislature in 2012 in the aftermath of an Idaho wolf hunter’s identity being posted online, which led to harassment.

There are two applicable sentences in the legislation: “Any information regarding the number or nature of wolves legally taken within the state of Wyoming shall only be released in its aggregate form and no information of a private or confidential nature shall be released without the written consent of the person to whom the information may refer. Information identifying any person legally taking a wolf within this state is solely for the use of the department or appropriate law enforcement offices and is not a public record …”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik in June 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Until recently, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department did not interpret the statute quite so broadly. Just this spring, for example, Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told WyoFile that, “We do know of harvest down in southern Wyoming in the predator area in 2022.”

It’s unclear what changed.

Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King did not specify how releasing wolf mortality data on a regional scale — which the department isn’t doing — would violate the statute. “The Department does not comment on the legal advice we have received,” he said in an email.

Journalist-turned-attorney Bruce Moats in his emptied-out Cheyenne office in January 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Recently retired longtime First Amendment attorney Bruce Moats suspects that the attorney general’s interpretation of the statute runs afoul of the Wyoming Public Records Act and legal precedent, which established that agencies have an obligation to “segregate material, redact exempt material and turn over the rest.”

“I think that applies here,” Moats said. “Why can’t you redact the names?”

The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office did not respond to WyoFile’s request for an interview.

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Killing more lions to boost Wyoming deer draws scant support

Laramie resident Sylvia Bagdonas asked Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners to “not disappoint the public” as they mull a 50% hike in mountain lion hunting in western Wyoming to help mule deer populations that took a beating last winter.

“After reading news accounts about this proposal it seems that the boosts in hunting quotas are intended to appease outfitters and big game hunters with little science involved in the decision,” Bagdonas wrote in a comment letter. “It is assumed that proper stewardship of Wyoming wildlife is based on science, not politics and money.”

Bagdonas was one of 84 people who wrote in response to a state proposal to increase the maximum numbers of cats that can be killed in four hunt areas from 46 to 70 animals. The 24-cat increase is under consideration outside the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s triennial regulations review, because concerned outfitters pressured the commission to target more coyotes, black bears and mountain lions in hard-hit deer range. The agency obliged, reopening the process out of cycle.

Mountain lion tracks in the snow in northern Teton County in December 2015. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The majority of the seven dozen people who jotted down thoughts on the mountain lion hunting hike were opposed. That includes many commenters from out of state, but also those who typically pay the most attention to Wyoming lion hunting: the houndsmen who partake.

“I don’t want to speak as a collective for the group, but most of the people I’ve talked to who are avid mountain lion hunters don’t support increasing quotas,” Dan Thompson, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s large carnivore supervisor, said about the regulation change at a July public meeting in Pinedale.

Brad Huffaker, of Rock Springs, was one houndsman who wrote in opposition to boosting quotas. Alex Krabbenhoft, of Cheyenne, was another.

“I am currently not in favor of raising quotas in the state as all quotas were renegotiated last year,” Krabbenhoft wrote, “and I don’t believe the data is conclusive enough to warrant an increase already.”

Houndsmen were widely supportive of another revision to the regulations: a new mountain lion “pursuit season” that will let successful resident lion hunters continue running their dogs after they’ve fulfilled their one-cat quota. That change sprang from Senate File 179 – Mountain lion pursuit seasons, which cleared the Wyoming Legislature this year.

An Idaho houndsman releases his lion dogs in the Buffalo Valley in 2015. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

There was also some support for increasing quotas in the four hunt areas that encompass the Wyoming and Salt River ranges. Specifically, unit 14 would go from a 20-cat quota to 30; unit 17, from five to eight; unit 26, from 15 to 23; and unit 29, from six to nine cats.

Sy Gilliland, who presides over the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, encouraged the increase: “Everything we can do to help keep mule deer on the landscape we must do, and this includes significant predator control,” he wrote. “Coyotes, black bears and especially [mountain] lions must be heavily harvested to give the few remaining mule deer a chance to repopulate their habitat.”

A representative for a national trophy hunting advocacy group, Safari Club International, also took the time to weigh in. The state’s lion hunting proposal “generally demonstrate responsible and sustainable management,” SCI State and Local Liaison Chris Tymeson, of Kansas, wrote.

Other out-of-state wildlife advocates wrote in opposition.

Nancy Hilding, president of Prairie Hills Audubon Society in South Dakota, argued to commissioners that the planned reduction of lions “may be pointless” because quotas in two of the four hunt areas didn’t even fill anyway.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has proposed 50% increases in mountain lion quotas in four hunt areas, pictured here. Specifically, unit 14 would go from a 20-cat quota to 30; unit 17, from 5 to 8; unit 26, from 15 to 23; and unit 29, from 6 to 9 cats. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Thompson affirmed that’s the case at the Pinedale public meeting. Lion hunters killed three of the six maximum cats allowed in hunt area 29, which runs south of the town of Jackson and includes the Snake River and Gros Ventre mountain ranges. In hunt area 14, which encompasses the southern Wyoming and Salt River ranges, 18 of the 20 cats allowed were harvested by hunters, Thompson said.

Quotas filled in the other two areas: Star Valley’s unit 26, and unit 17, which covers the east slope of the Wyoming Range.

The intent of the 50% quota increase is to transition the four hunt areas into “population sinks” that drive down lion numbers, Thompson said. And the amount of pressure proposed is not unheard of. When mule deer populations were much higher in the early 1990s, there were similar numbers of cats being targeted in the Wyoming Range, he said.

If the quota hike succeeds and lion numbers do tumble, Thompson anticipates that the puma population could promptly bounce back if pressure was eased up down the road.

“That’s what our plan is predicated upon: That [lion numbers] can rebound, as long as there’s prey and habitat,” he said.

Whether reducing lion numbers helps the embattled deer population is another question.

A study out of southern Idaho in the early 2000s found that extensive predator removal essentially had no impact on fawn production, though did temporarily increase doe survival. Ahead of the proposed lion hunting hike, Wyoming Game and Fish did not attempt to model how killing up to 24 more cats could influence a deer herd that’s historically numbered in the tens of thousands.

“We’ll be able to look at that,” Thompson said. “Hopefully we can answer some of those questions with ongoing research.” Game and Fish commissioners are scheduled to consider the agency’s lion hunting regulation revisions at their Sept. 13 meeting in Gillette.

A mountain lion rests in a western Wyoming outbuilding in 2020. (Addy Falgoust)

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Wyoming could gain the most from federal climate funding, but obstacles remain

Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis, leading Republican voices on energy policy, have been among the foremost critics of the nation’s first comprehensive climate law.

Barrasso has called the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, the Democrats’ “reckless green spending spree,” while Lummis derided its “unrealistic measures to cut carbon emissions.”

But earlier this summer, Barrasso and Lummis co-hosted what they billed as a first-of-its-kind  “federal funding summit” to help train Wyoming communities and organizations to apply for the new funds available under bipartisan infrastructure legislation and the IRA’s unprecedented $370 billion federal investment in the clean energy transition.

In a press release announcing the four-day session, the senators acknowledged that they had opposed the bills, but said “both senators are committed to ensuring Wyoming communities and citizens have fair access to the programs their tax dollars are helping to fund.”

Wyoming, the nation’s top coal-producing state, second only to Texas as a net energy supplier, finds itself in a unique position under the incentives-driven climate policy that President Joe Biden succeeded in getting through Congress one year ago.

If the United States acts aggressively enough to meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement, Wyoming has the potential to reap more than $7 billion from the climate-related provisions of the IRA, according to an analysis by the think tank RMI, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute.

That would work out to more than $12,000 per person in Wyoming — greater potential per capita benefits than any other state.

Wyoming could take advantage of numerous provisions in the law designed to assist fossil fuel-dependent communities while tapping into some of the best wind energy resources in the country, which roll off its mountain ranges and across its vast expanses of ranchland.

But there are obstacles to Wyoming making a rapid, federally funded transition from fossil fuel giant to national leader in carbon-free energy. The Barrasso-Lummis summit was meant to address one of those barriers — the rural state’s lack of capacity and experience in competing for big federal dollars. Other hurdles may be more difficult to overcome, including local resistance to renewable energy growth and the state’s deep commitment to coal, oil and gas — and the tax revenue they generate.

Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican who hosted the federal funding summit along with Barrasso and Lummis, has welcomed clean energy technologies as an addition to — not a replacement for — the state’s traditional energy sources. Fossil fuels are “a vital component of any effort to successfully address reasonable climate goals,” he said earlier this year.

Gordon’s office would not comment on RMI’s projection of the potential windfall for Wyoming in the IRA. “We find the methodology to be speculative and flawed, as there are many factors that will determine whether or not Wyoming may benefit from potential funding/incentives from the IRA,” said his spokeswoman, Ivy McGowan-Castleberry, in an email.

New opportunities in wind, nuclear and carbon capture

Most of Wyoming has a competitive advantage in attracting clean energy development projects and associated federal funding under the IRA. The Biden administration’s mapping delineates nearly all the state as within an “energy community” zone, either adjacent to a former coal-mining or power-plant site or reliant on fossil fuels for jobs and tax revenue.

Clean energy projects that locate in energy communities are eligible for a 10% bonus to the federal clean electricity investment tax credits, which cover 30% of project costs. Further bonuses are available for projects that include apprenticeship programs, rely on domestic content for raw materials and aid low-income communities.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) speaks to an audience before the antler auction begins at Elk Fest in Jackson May 20, 2023. (Natalie Behring/WyoFile)

RMI senior associate Ashna Aggarwal, who worked on the think tank’s state-by-state analysis on the potential impacts of the IRA, said more than half of the benefits that could flow to Wyoming are from the clean electricity investment tax credits. That analysis takes into account the state’s substantial wind energy resources as measured by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The laboratory projects that wind power capacity could expand five-fold by 2030 in Wyoming if the state takes full advantage of the incentives available in the IRA.

“Wyoming is really well-poised to take advantage of clean resources that they have in the state, like wind, and Wyoming is already taking action,” said Aggarwal.

She points to the 3,500-megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project now under construction near Rawlins in southern Wyoming, set to be the largest wind farm in the United States. Once it begins operations in 2027, its power will flow to Nevada, Arizona and California via the 732-mile TransWest Express high-voltage transmission line, which is also under construction, after receiving final approval from the Biden administration earlier this year.

Another IRA provision that could be important to Wyoming is the new Energy Infrastructure Reinvestment Program, expected to roll out next year, offering support to projects that seek to “retool, repower, repurpose or replace” existing energy infrastructure. Unlike other federal clean electricity loan programs, the EIR program will not require projects to use innovative technology; they can be eligible as long as they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reinvest in the affected community.

The idea of retooling legacy energy sites had taken hold already in Wyoming before the IRA’s passage, with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’ company, TerraPower, selecting an old coal plant site in Kemmerer as the location for his liquid sodium-cooled Natrium advanced nuclear energy demonstration project. After the IRA’s passage, TerraPower and its partner, the utility PacifiCorp, announced that they would study deploying up to five additional commercial Natrium reactors and integrated energy storage systems, including the possibility of locating them near current fossil fuel sites.

And carbon capture, which Gordon and other Wyoming politicians have long seen as the hope for maintaining coal’s future in the state, also could get a boost from the IRA. Utilities have viewed the technology as too expensive, but the IRA could ease the costs by greatly increasing the value of the tax credits available for carbon capture and utilization (for enhanced oil recovery, for example) or sequestration. A test case could be the direct air capture carbon removal project, Project Bison, announced after passage of the IRA and being constructed in Rock Springs near a coal plant that is currently switching over to natural gas. Meanwhile, the University of Wyoming has been tapped to receive the largest of nine federal grants to develop carbon storage hubs across the country.

Nathan Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, a non-partisan think tank focused on engaging energy communities in the clean energy transition, said he sees great interest across the state in the new opportunities offered by the IRA.

“We might have some of the best energy workers in the world and a lot of the necessary energy infrastructure,” Wendt said. “Wyoming wants to continue to remain a leader in energy production. And I think that they see the great opportunity to do so by, you know, chasing as aggressively as they can the clean energy opportunities that are really now turbocharged because of the inflation Reduction Act.”

A loaded coal train rolls through Gillette in March 2020. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Community concerns about wind power, harm to ecosystems

But there have been obstacles to the clean energy build-out in Wyoming, as is clear from the fact that the state is not now among the top 10 wind energy producers, despite the extraordinary resources that whip across its landscape as air flows from higher to lower elevations.

Because Wyoming — the nation’s least populous state — produces nearly 12 times more energy than it consumes, any new energy generation projects have to be able to move power outside the state to population centers. And because the state is located on the eastern end of the nation’s western electric grid, that means putting transmission lines over hundreds of miles of federal land to Western population centers. It took 18 years for the TransWest Express line, which is crucial to the viability of the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project, to get all of the needed approvals before the groundbreaking this year. The debt ceiling legislation Congress passed this summer included new deadlines for environmental reviews of such projects; it remains to be seen whether they will substantially speed the permitting process.

Some clean energy projects have faced opposition in Wyoming, including a 504-megawatt wind project near Laramie where local landowners waged a years-long fight before their defeat before the state Supreme Court earlier this year.

“People really like the long views we have in Wyoming,” said Jonathan Naughton, director of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming. “It’s big sky country and you can see the horizon, so you can see turbines that are 50 miles away.”

At the same time, Naughton said, local economies see benefits from wind development, with landowners earning substantial royalties for turbines located on their properties. That’s revenue that allows them to weather ups and downs in the agricultural markets, and avoid subdividing and selling off their land. “Part of the agricultural community really embraces wind energy because it allows them to keep those big ranches intact,” he said.

Another issue on which there is continuing scientific study and debate is how to accelerate the build-out of wind energy while protecting the fragile sagebrush ecosystem of Wyoming, and the species that rely on it, including the iconic sage grouse.

“I think people look at Wyoming from the outside, and they’re like, ‘Oh, small population, lots of land, lots of space, the perfect place to put the large-scale renewable energy build-out that our country, frankly, needs,” said Monika Leininger, director of external affairs and climate policy at The Nature Conservancy. “What I don’t think people always understand is the sensitivity of the landscapes we have.”

The Nature Conservancy has an initiative to encourage siting renewable energy on the previously disturbed land in Wyoming — often, former fossil fuel sites — to avoid breaking new ground.

“We think there is enough room for wind and solar and wildlife and our landscapes to thrive,” she said. “I think it’s going to depend on how well utilities can work together to plan and utilize existing rights-of-way for transmission and think about the best way to share resources.”

No income taxes, but lots of fossil fuel revenue

But Wyoming’s Republican leaders do not talk about clean energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. With no state income tax, Wyoming is heavily dependent on severance taxes and other fossil fuel revenue to fund its state government.

Wyoming does levy an excise tax on wind energy production in the state, but it does not begin to approach the revenue generated by coal, oil and natural gas. A study last year by University of Wyoming researchers estimated that with aggressive growth of wind energy in the state, wind production tax revenues could increase to $89 million per year. But Wyoming currently expects to bring in $744.3 million in mineral severance tax revenue over its two-year 2023-2024 budget period. With another $597 million expected in federal mineral royalties, fossil fuel revenue will make up about 40% of Wyoming’s expected $3.5 billion in revenue.

Although the state Legislature has repeatedly considered raising the wind energy tax, lawmakers concluded that such a hike would cause Wyoming to lose wind development to other states.

Wyoming doesn’t have a renewable energy portfolio standard, the kind of policy that has driven an increase in wind and solar development in other states. And the state puts limits on net metering — payments to rooftop solar owners for the excess power they sell back to the grid — in a way that could hinder the kind of community solar projects supported by the IRA.

But Rob Joyce, organizer for Sierra Club in Wyoming, said there are positive signs, including indications that Wyoming will apply for a climate pollution reduction grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that the state is pursuing energy efficiency rebate programs. Such small steps alone show the state has come a long way.

“It’s been a little bit tenuous to have these conversations — even the idea of taking federal money is an issue in some parts of our state, and certainly at our state legislature,” Joyce said. “But I think the majority of people in Wyoming, even the people who are in those positions of power, recognize the opportunity here. We’re maybe not moving as quickly as we would like to, but we’re certainly not at a standstill here.”

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for their newsletter here.

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Residents, elected officials blast utility over historic Wyoming rate hike

Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal to hike electric utility rates in Wyoming by an average of 29.2%, if approved, would put households and businesses in peril and only serve to line the pockets of the company’s shareholders and executives, which includes its parent company PacifiCorp’s owner, billionaire Warren Buffett.

That was the consensus among about two dozen people who spoke at a public comment hearing held by the Wyoming Public Service Commission Thursday in Casper.

“We’re going to lose a lot of businesses in the state when we start raising those costs,” Natrona County Commission Vice Chairman Dave North told Public Service Commission officials. “We need to have some justification. I just can’t see any way that the citizens of the state of Wyoming can afford to pay an additional 29-to-34%.”

Approximately 200 people attended the hearing at the Thyra Thomson Office Building, forcing organizers to open a spill-over room to accommodate the crowd. In response to the proposed increase — the largest utility rate hike in recent history in Wyoming — Gov. Mark Gordon and other state officials asked the commission to add more public comment hearings around the state.

The next hearing regarding the rate case will be at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 18 at Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

Candy Luhrsen of Douglas urged utility regulators to spike an electric rate hike proposal she believes is driven by renewable energy on Aug. 24, 2023 in Casper. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Among those who commented at Thursday’s hearing — elected officials, business owners, retirees, ranchers and fossil fuel workers — none believed that Rocky Mountain Power is being honest about its actual expenses, and expense forecasts, that are driving its request for higher electric rates.

Casper Mayor Bruce Knell alleged the utility has purposely inflated its request as a starting point to bargain for something lower that would more accurately reflect the actual level of its increasing costs.

“They even said this when they met with us last week, that they knew they were asking for too much,” Knell said. “Let’s actually ask for what you truly need, because the way of doing business this way is not appropriate. This is a $134 billion company, and it’s doing business like they’re selling a used car. That’s very bothersome.”

Rocky Mountain Power sometimes settles a proposed rate increase with state regulators based on specific stipulations, but it “does not artificially inflate the results of its expenditures,” spokesman David Eskelsen said. “All supporting financial information is disclosed to the commission, staff and intervening parties.”

This graphic depicts how Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed general rate increase of 21.6% would be applied to different classes of ratepayers. (Rocky Mountain Power)

The general consensus among commenters was the utility’s shift away from coal for generating electricity, and its spending to add renewable sources of energy, is likely the primary driver behind increasing expenses. The shift represents a double-jeopardy for Wyoming by diminishing revenues from fossil fuels while increasing the cost of electricity for residents, businesses and government.

“Rocky Mountain Power has been pulled by a radical left-wing agenda to invest in unreliable [renewable energy] generation,” Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) said.

The company says its continued reliance on fossil fuels is responsible for the bulk of rising expenses given the price volatility of those commodity markets. Its shift to more renewable sources of energy — along with federal production tax credits — has saved Wyoming ratepayers an estimated $85.4 million, according to Eskelsen.

But most in attendance Thursday were not convinced. Several elected officials said the proposed rate increases are a case against renewable energy.

“The bulk of this [renewable] energy is not serving our Wyoming residents,” Mills Mayor Leah Juarez said. “Yet we are the ones who are assisting in building the infrastructure.

“If the commission chooses to approve the 29% total,” Juarez continued, “as mayor I will have no choice but to take a stand and start saying ‘no’ to [renewable energy] projects coming to Natrona County. There will be no more renewable farms in Natrona County under my [mayoral] term if this is the price that we have to pay.”

No municipality has such authority over projects outside its borders.

Rate cases

Rocky Mountain Power, the largest regulated monopoly utility in the state serving about 150,000 customers, filed a “general rate case” in March to set prices for the next several years. It says it needs to increase rates by an average of 21.6% to cover an extra annual $140.2 million in expenses necessary to serve its Wyoming customers.

This graphic depicts how Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed “energy cost adjustment” would be applied among different classes of ratepayers. (Rocky Mountain Power)

At the same time, the company is asking for a temporary rate increase — an average of 7.6% — to recover $50.3 million of about $90 million in unexpected fuel cost and power purchase overruns in 2022 due to extreme weather events, according to its April filing with the state. Extreme cold, heat and drought last year spiked demand for electricity, forcing the utility to purchase natural gas, coal and “power purchases” at premium pricing, according to Rocky Mountain Power.

For example, as homes and businesses cranked up the heat in response to a cold snap that settled over much of North America in December, utilities were forced to compete for a limited supply of natural gas, temporarily pushing the market rate for the commodity beyond 400% of what it sold for in previous months, according to the company.

A portion of the $50.3 million energy cost adjustment rate increase has already been granted to Rocky Mountain Power. However, that rate case is still under review and subject to final approval.

The Public Service Commission will make a determination on both rate cases before the end of the year.

Risk and reward

Both residents and elected officials took aim at requests by Rocky Mountain Power to shed its risk of bearing part of fuel-cost overruns and its proposal to earn a maximum rate of return in Wyoming of 10.3%.

James Kirk DeBrine of Evansville testifies to utility officials about how he must carefully budget a fixed income on Aug. 24, 2023 in Casper. He said a proposed electric rate hike of 29.2% would be a burden on himself and others like him. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Regulated utilities in Wyoming typically split the risk of fuel costs with their customers in what’s referred to as a “cost-sharing band.” Currently, Rocky Mountain Power is responsible for 20% of fuel-cost overruns, while its Wyoming customers pick up 80%. In its current request, the utility wants to eliminate the cost-sharing band to make Wyoming customers accountable for 100%.

“They’re not going to take any market risks,” Rep. Stith said. “And if that’s the case, then the rate of return on equity should likewise reflect that fact.”

Though he has faith in the Public Service Commission to weigh Wyoming’s best interest in the rate cases, Stith said the Legislature is ready to take action if it becomes apparent that residents take all the risk and Rocky Mountain Power reaps all the benefits of rising energy costs. One effort lawmakers may take up again is a proposal for deregulated energy zones, Stith said, which could allow for more independent electrical power structures within the state.

“If the result of this is that we have unacceptable rate increases, then I think for the state Legislature, everything will be on the table,” Stith said.

Comments regarding Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed rate cases can be submitted via email at, or mailed to 2515 Warren Ave., Suite 300, Cheyenne, WY 82002.

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Vast majority of Wyoming kids get vaccinated

A lone pronghorn buck stands in grass in front of a school
A lone pronghorn buck stands in grass in front of a school

A new school year is nearly upon us and families are racing to complete their back-to-school to-do lists. But how many will get the required vaccines with COVID-19 skepticism still so high?

Initial data suggests the vast majority will. 

Schools in Wyoming don’t require COVID-19 vaccines, but the inoculations are encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, years-old requirements range from vaccines against hepatitis B to measles to polio.

At Fremont County School District 25, K-12 students last year averaged a 97% vaccination rate, according to special services director Dallas Myers. While some practice their right to get a waiver, he said they are in the minority.

Head nurse Janet Farmer with Laramie County School District 1 heard from a Wyoming Department of Health employee that the use of vaccination waivers was down, she said. The health department has not confirmed that yet. Families in Farmer’s district have until Sept. 22 to submit health-officer-approved waivers, she added.  

Some school kids are particularly vulnerable to illnesses because of health conditions like recovering from cancer, Farmer added, and others getting vaccines helps keep them healthy.

“If we have that herd immunity that’s strong, we’re in a much better position for all those students.”

Head nurse Janet Farmer

“We always have people who are very immune compromised,” she said. “If we have that herd immunity that’s strong, we’re in a much better position for all those students.”

The latest data from the 2021-22 school year shows that more than 92% of Wyoming kindergarteners had gotten the required vaccinations.

“The big takeaway is that the vast majority of Wyoming’s school children continue to receive the required vaccines by the time they enter school,” Wyoming Department of Health spokesperson Kim Deti stated in an email.

“At the same time, there have been small dips in the coverage percentages and some increases in exemption numbers,” she added, referring to the data ending in 2022. “That was starting to be a concern across the country about decreasing rates before the pandemic, and then the pandemic likely had some additional effects.”

Vaccine skepticism is “not unexpected,” Deti stated, but the health department urges families to utilize both the required and suggested vaccines at this time. 

Federal funds also bolstered a Wyoming-specific campaign urging residents to consider vaccination. Based on an archival news clip about a Basin man who died from tetanus after shaving, Deti said, the commercial “takes a lighter approach to reminding residents of the successes vaccines have had over time.”

“One reason affecting vaccination rates is likely that younger generations are not familiar with many of the diseases vaccines can prevent,” Deti stated. “These diseases may not seem like real threats today.”

The mandatory vaccine with the lowest uptake in Wyoming, according to kindergartener records, was one for tetanus and diphtheria. About 92.5% of the schoolkids had that vaccine versus 94.6% who were vaccinated against hepatitis B.

Students can be exempted from vaccine requirements for religious and medical reasons. The latter is “very rare,” Deti stated. 

The health department website cites state code allowing for the exceptions, but adds with emphasis, “The law does not allow parents/guardians to request a waiver simply because of inconvenience … Wyoming statute does NOT allow for the authorization of waiver requests based on philosophical beliefs. Schools should maintain an up-to-date list of students with waiver, so they may be excluded during a vaccine-preventable disease outbreak as determined by the State Health Officer o[r] a County Health Officer.”

Statewide vaccine information from last year and this coming year’s school kids is not yet available, and Deti said she doesn’t know when it will be. It is required by the state for anyone attending school to provide “documentary proof of immunization” within the first 30 days of the school year.

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