Wyoming voids 28% of its voter registrations in mandatory purge

Wyoming voids 28% of its voter registrations in mandatory purge

Thousands of Wyoming residents could be surprised on Election Day when they show up to cast a ballot only to discover they’re no longer registered to vote. 

There are currently about 83,500 fewer registered voters in the state than at the end of 2022, a roughly 28% drop, according to data released Wednesday by the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office.

The sizable dip follows a mandatory voter purge that was likely magnified by a major shift in voter turnout between the 2020 and 2022 elections.

Wyoming law has long required county clerks to purge voter rolls each February, a process that involves removing voters who did not cast a ballot in the most recent election. So it’s not unusual for voter rolls to fluctuate. And, of course, some of that purge inevitably includes voters who have died or moved away. 

Still, local election officials and nonprofit organizations are hoping to inform voters ahead of time to avoid frustration or having to turn them away at the polls. 

“Our concern is simply people not realizing that they’re no longer registered and not bringing with them the appropriate materials to get re-registered, because you can register at the polls,” Tom Lacock with AARP told WyoFile. 

While a Wyoming driver’s license or ID card, a United States passport, a tribal ID card, a U.S. military card and some student IDs would be sufficient identification to register and to vote, other forms of identification would not. 

A Medicare or Medicaid insurance card, or a Wyoming concealed firearm permit, for example, would not allow someone to register to vote, but are acceptable IDs for already registered voters to cast a ballot. 

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Chuck Gray said the provision requiring the purge has been in state law for more than 50 years. 

“Voter roll hygiene and voter registry maintenance is extremely important to maintaining integrity and confidence in our electoral process,” he wrote in a statement to WyoFile. 

Details

All 23 of Wyoming’s counties have experienced a decrease in registered voters since December 2022, according to the data. 

Campbell County saw the biggest drop, losing 34% of its voter registrations, while the smallest decrease was recorded in Hot Springs County at 17%. 

Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee pointed to a very high turnout in 2020 as one cause for the decline.  

“And so our voter rolls were large. And then in 2022, we had record low turnout [in the general election],” Lee told WyoFile, which fits the convention that presidential elections draw more voters than the midterms.

“That’s why we ended up with so many people who were purged,” Lee said. 

As is routine, Wyoming’s county clerks mailed notifications to the last known addresses of those who were set to be dropped from the voter rolls in 2023. This gave voters the opportunity to notify the clerk if they wanted to remain registered. 

Thousands ended up purged anyway. 

That included many who voted in 2022’s primary election, but not the general — which squares with another typical voting trend. The majority of races in Wyoming are effectively decided in August due to the state’s Republican supermajority.

Lacock said AARP is encouraging voters to contact their local county clerks to verify that they’re still registered, or ask any questions related to other changes to this year’s election. 

The window for absentee voting — also known as early voting — is shorter than before for most voters, and there’s a new limit on when voters can affiliate with a political party. 

The primary election is Aug. 20. Voter registration is now open. The last day registered voters can change their party affiliation is May 15. Unregistered voters, like those recently purged, can choose their party affiliation while registering, even if doing so after May 15, including at the polls on election day.

The candidate filing period runs May 16-31.

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Feds reject plan to pump Moneta oilfield waste into potential drinking water

Federal environmental officials have rejected a request by Aethon Energy to pump Moneta Divide oilfield wastewater into the Madison aquifer, saying the deep reservoir could be used for drinking water, especially by tribal nations on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in November 2020 approved wastewater disposal into the 15,000-foot deep well, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week the state’s decision did not align with federal rules.

Aethon’s plan does not support a finding “that the aquifer cannot now and will not in the future serve as a source of drinking water,” the EPA wrote in a 20-page record of decision. Aethon argued, and the Wyoming commission agreed 4-1, that the underground Madison formation was too deep and remote to be used for drinking water.

The EPA relied on the Safe Drinking Water Act as the authority under which to protect the aquifer. It also cited climate, environmental justice and tribal interests in its decision, pointing to the nearby Wind River Indian Reservation as a community that could use the water.

“We have to make sure our future generations have a reliable source of clean water.”

Wes Martel

“The significance of that is the EPA finally didn’t wimp out on us,” said Wes Martel, a member of the Wind River Water Resources Control Board. “We’re just glad they now have some people in place following up on their Indian policy.”

The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes “foresee increased reliance on groundwater for drinking water purposes and anticipate needing to access deeper aquifers, such as the Madison aquifer, as the climate changes and water resources grow scarcer,” the EPA wrote in a 94-page analysis of tribal interests. The agency cited historic cultural and spiritual ties to the land and water and tribes’ status as sovereign nations in its decision.

“We have to make sure our future generations have a reliable source of clean water,” Martel said. “Our reservation, this is all we have left. We’ve got to do our best to protect it.”

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, along with the Wyoming Outdoor Council and others, has spent years monitoring discharge reports and industry permits and was vital in challenging pollution threats, Martel said.

The EPA understood that science, and the law did not support Aethon’s request, said Shannon Anderson, organizing director and staff attorney with the resource council. “They recognized the value of our groundwater resources and the need to protect those into the future,” she said, hailing the decision.

Vast quantities of water

Aethon must find a way to dispose of produced water — a brine pumped from energy wells to release gas and oil — as it expands the Moneta Divide field by 4,500 wells. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management authorized that expansion in 2020, leaving the question of water disposal to Wyoming, which has authority over surface and underground water quality under overarching federal standards.

Aethon must find a way to dispose of the equivalent of 120 Olympic-sized swimming pools full of produced water a day to expand the field. Aethon and Burlington Resources, a co-producer at Moneta, could generate $182 million a year in federal royalties, $87.5 million a year in Wyoming severance taxes and $106 million annually in County Ad Valorem taxes from the expansion.

An elk skull adorns a fencepost near the Eastern Shoshone’s buffalo management land on the Wind River Indian Reservation. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

But Aethon has violated state permits that allow it to pump some produced water into Alkali and Badwater creeks that flow into Boysen Reservoir, a drinking water source for the town of Thermopolis. Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality has notified the Dallas-based investment company of its infraction and has required Aethon to reduce the salinity of surface discharges this year.

The DEQ this year listed the two creeks as “impaired” and unable to sustain aquatic life. Underground injection of wastewater into the Madison was to be a new component of the disposal program.

The EPA cited climate change, drought, increasing temperatures and use of reservation surface water by others as some of the reasons to preserve the Madison aquifer.

“Removing the existing statutory and regulatory protections for a potential source of high-quality drinking water for the rural and overburdened communities in Fremont County and on the WRIR would further exacerbate existing inequities particularly with respect to historic and ongoing adverse and cumulative impacts to water resources and community health,” the EPA wrote.

“Thus, equity and environmental justice considerations, which include Tribal interest considerations, support maintaining the existing [Safe Drinking Water Act] protections that apply to the aquifers consistent with Congressional intent to protect both current and potential future sources of drinking water,” EPA documents state.

Neither Aethon nor a representative of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission responded immediately to a request for comment Wednesday. But WyoFile received this response from Tom Kropatsch, oil and gas supervisor for the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, shortly after publication:

“We do not agree with EPA’s decision on this application. We are still reviewing their decision and the information utilized by EPA in support of their decision. Much of this information was not part of the original application or a part of the record. EPA did not follow the standard procedure of allowing the WOGCC and the applicant to review and respond to the additional information they had available prior to making their final decision. EPA evaluated data that differs in its geographic, geologic, engineering, and other technical information. EPA also inappropriately related the proposed injection location to other areas of the state. Since the data EPA reviewed does not accurately reflect the conditions at the location of the proposed disposal well it is not appropriate to rely on it for a decision on this application. The WOGCC is reviewing EPA’s decision and weighing its options for further action.”

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Wolf policy set the stage for tragedy of tortured animal and public outcry

As people from Wyoming and beyond join in righteous indignation over an ugly incident in which a man tortured and killed an animal simply because it was a wolf, we would do well to examine the policy framework that set the stage for tragedy. As in all tragedies, the result is not just the downfall of the main character. The story has layers of irony — not situational irony, which would be a surprise, but tragic, dramatic irony with an air of inevitability, not fully recognized by the participants but strongly sensed by the audience.

Opinion

One man has become the public face of Wyoming by torturing an animal — running down a wolf on a snowmobile, taping its mouth shut, dragging it to town broken yet alive, showing it off at the Green River Bar, and then finally killing it. In doing so, he confirmed stereotypes many Americans have about hunters, rural Americans and the Cowboy State. 

The irony isn’t just that an ethically challenged hunter undermined the social license of all hunters while bringing the treatment of wolves to national attention just as non-governmental organizations are suing, again, over the status of wolves in the Northern Rockies. It’s also that those who hate wolves regularly tout the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of principles that guides hunting policy based on the idea that wildlife is held in public trust, to be scientifically managed, and only killed for valid reasons. Yet, the treatment of animals legally classified as predatory is hardly consistent with the model.

I last stopped at the Green River Bar, the oldest building in Daniel, my kind of place — heretofore known for its slaw dawg — while paddling the Green River from its headwaters in the Wind River Range, across western Wyoming to Utah and Colorado. I was investigating possible corridors from the Northern to the Central and Southern Rockies, routes by which animals like wolves, wolverines or perhaps grizzlies might reoccupy habitats to the south. The conclusion was clear: Absent persecution by people, it could happen, but Wyoming’s policies are a thinly veiled attempt to restrict large carnivores to the mostly federal lands of Greater Yellowstone. In the Predatory Animal Management Area or “predator zone,” wolves can be shot on sight, year-round, for no reason.

The people I’ve worked with in Wyoming are almost all conservationists; many of them are also hunters and ranchers. Most of those folks don’t kill wolves except to reduce livestock conflicts, and most of them wouldn’t condone the events that culminated at the “GRB.” 

Wyoming Game and Fish on Wednesday released this video evidence collected during the investigation into Cody Roberts, a Wyoming man who was fined $250 for possessing a live wolf. Game and Fish released this image as part of a public records request made by WyoFile. (Wyoming Game and Fish)

Nevertheless, a series of policies set the stage. Apparently, there is nothing illegal about running an animal down with a snowmobile, provided that animal is classified as a predator. That happens more than most of us would like to admit, and not just in Wyoming. But perhaps most of all, that stage is the predator zone — which has prevented nationwide recovery, and, ironically, federal delisting. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally develop a nationwide recovery plan for the gray wolf across its historic range, likely identifying suitable habitat throughout the Rockies. Had such a plan been in place a decade ago, it seems unlikely that Wyoming’s state plan would have been approved. Or perhaps wolves would have been delisted where they are abundant (Greater Yellowstone), but not where they remain rare (the predator zone). 

In any case, nothing was stopping Wyoming from setting policy in what is now the predator zone. A new federal listing may force the state to remove or redraw the predator zone.

I submit that an adequate regulatory mechanism would take a live-and-let-live approach, incentivize conflict reduction, and retain lethal control as a backstop to address repeated conflicts. The recent outrage suggests that many Americans would agree that such a policy is needed.

The Green River Bar in Daniel pictured in April 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Gov. Mark Gordon, Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik, Wyoming Speaker of the House Albert Sommers and Sublette County Sheriff K.C. Lehr have condemned the recent incident. I’d prefer that they had done so before the story went viral, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt considering the legal state secrecy around wolf killings. Now, I’d like to see Sublette County’s lawmakers and candidates lead the state Legislature to revise animal cruelty laws to cover all wildlife. 

Wyoming, a state known for its live-and-let-live mentality, could at least pass laws to protect a wild animal’s right to die with dignity and not be run down by a snowmobile and suffer in a bar. And to the species that so reminds us of ourselves, on to which we project so much human meaning, the Equality State could extend the right not to be killed simply for being a wolf.

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Eyewitness describes Wyoming wolf’s final hours in the Green River Bar

Cody Roberts walked into the Green River Bar joking that he’d found a lost cattle dog. The woman tending bar that evening seemed to know what would happen next.

“The bartender goes, ‘Cody, you better not bring in a fucking lion,’” an eyewitness recalled. “She knew he was going to bring something in that was not a dog.” 

Roberts didn’t listen. It wasn’t a dog and it wasn’t a lion, but moments later he reappeared with a muzzled, leashed wolf — an animal that wanted nothing to do with the Green River Bar. 

“It didn’t want to go,” the bar patron recalled. “Like you know when your dog doesn’t want to go to the vet?” 

The Green River Bar in Daniel pictured in April 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The 42-year-old resident of the small western Wyoming town of Daniel muscled the reticent animal inside. The gravely injured wild wolf remained in the rowdy tavern for hours thereafter.

Wyoming, and the rest of the world, wouldn’t learn of Roberts and the wolf for a month. Since then, the allegations against Roberts — that he ran down the wolf on a snowmobile, taped the injured animal’s mouth shut and showed it off at the bar before killing it — have become international news. Authorities have released few details about what happened beyond two short videos and a citation that showed he was fined $250 for possessing a live wolf.

This account of what happened at the Green River Bar on Feb. 29 comes from an eyewitness to whom WyoFile has granted anonymity. The person, who was at the bar that night and later alerted authorities to what had occurred, is being left nameless at their request for their own safety. The worldwide outrage over this incidence of animal abuse has generated rampant death threatseven toward those who had nothing to do with it. The eyewitness provided WyoFile with videos from that night which corroborated their account.

Patrons of the Green River Bar had a mixed response to a wolf in their midst, the eyewitness recalled. About half of the 30 or so people who came and left the watering hole while the wolf was present that evening appeared to be friends and family of Roberts. 

“People were petting it, taking photos of it, hugging on it,” the person recollected. “I want to be clear: He wasn’t kicking or beating or torturing it. The torture was in not putting it down when he ran it over.” 

“He was a jokester about it,” the eyewitness added, “while it was just sitting there bleeding to death.” 

Wounded wolf

The eyewitness who described the events of Feb. 29 to WyoFile also reported the incident to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In response to the tip, State wildlife managers began investigating Roberts on March 1, the day after he brought the animal to the bar. By March 4, Roberts and his attorney met with wardens Adam Hymas and Bubba Haley, during which time he admitted to possessing the live wolf at both his home and a private business, according to legal documents WyoFile acquired through the Wyoming Public Records Act. 

During the night at the Green River Bar, the eyewitness did not hear Roberts brag about how or when he acquired the wolf. 

Wyoming Game and Fish on Wednesday released this video evidence collected during the investigation into Cody Roberts, a Wyoming man who was fined $250 for possessing a live wolf. Game and Fish released this image as part of a public records request made by WyoFile. (Wyoming Game and Fish)

But through subsequent communication with a Game and Fish staffer after the tip, the eyewitness was told that Cody Roberts admitted to running it over with a snowmobile. He “injured it so bad it could barely stay conscious,” one state employee told the eyewitness.

Roberts ran down the wolf in an area where Wyoming manages wolves as a “predator” — a zone covering 85% of the state in which there are virtually no regulations on how wolves can be killed. Bludgeoning wolves with snowmobiles here is legal. 

Wolf biologist Doug Smith, recently retired from a decades-long tenure at Yellowstone National Park, has reviewed the footage of the wolf in the Green River Bar. Smith was confident the wolf was a yearling born in 2023, which means it would have been about 9 months old by late February. The retired biologist had a read on the animal’s behavior.  

“It’s recovering from severe injury, and it’s probably got internal organ damage,” Smith told WyoFile. “The fact that this wolf should be freaking out — and it’s not — indicates it’s in pain and badly injured.”

It’s not always obvious when a wolf is dying from internal injuries, Smith said.

“Having necropsied wolves that have been kicked to death by elk,” he said, “it’s hard to tell externally that they suffered any damage and trauma.”  

Wyoming Game and Fish on Wednesday released this video evidence collected during the investigation into Cody Roberts, a Wyoming man who was fined $250 for possessing a live wolf. Game and Fish released this image as part of a public records request made by WyoFile. (Wyoming Game and Fish)

Roberts could not be reached for an interview. He declined to speak with Emily Cohen, the reporter for community radio station KHOL, who first broke the story, and could not be located when a WyoFile reporter tried to interview him at his home.

Mixed reaction

In the eyewitness’ opinion, Roberts, who runs a trucking company, thought the entire episode was hilarious.

“I don’t know if he’s literally low-IQ, and just doesn’t get that this shit’s not OK,” the eyewitness said. “He was drunk and rambling mostly. A guy who thinks highly of himself.” 

After Roberts initially ignored the bar owner, she “didn’t waste her breath” and did not ask the Daniel man to leave or remove the wolf. The eyewitness could tell that the Green River Bar’s owner, who worked solo that night, “was not OK with it,” but was in a tough spot. 

“His family were half the patrons at the bar that night,” the eyewitness said. “What are you going to do, kick the whole bar out and close up for the night?” 

WyoFile’s attempts to reach the bar owner for an interview were unsuccessful. 

Allegations that a Wyoming man captured, tortured and killed a wolf have sparked outrage across the world and prompted a wave of social media posts. One image published by Cowboy State Daily purports to show the man, Cody Roberts, posing for a photograph next to a wolf with its jaws taped shut. (collage by Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

Nobody forcefully told Roberts that he needed to put the animal out of its misery during the hours the eyewitness was present. Some patrons were clearly bothered by what was happening, but those folks just removed themselves from the situation and left, the eyewitness said. 

Roberts, meanwhile, kept trying to draw attention to his prize. 

“By the end of the night, he was calling it a wolf,” the eyewitness said. “He definitely admitted that he put the collars on it.” 

In two short video clips of the wolf taken in Green River Bar released by Game and Fish on Wednesday, the prone gray-coated wolf is wearing what appears to be a commercial tracking and shock collar. The eyewitness never saw Roberts shock the dying animal. 

The eyewitness left the Green River Bar not knowing what became of the wolf. Later, the witness learned from a Game and Fish staffer that the animal was killed.

A WyoFile reporter heard it was shot behind the Green River Bar when he visited the establishment. 

Roberts was fined $250 for illegal possession of warm blooded wildlife, but that was the full extent of the penalty administered by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Subsequently, the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office launched its own investigation, probing Roberts’ actions for potential animal cruelty violations. 

“Our office, along with the Sublette County Attorney’s Office, are working with Wyoming Game and Fish to gather evidence and information relevant to the case,” a statement from the sheriff’s office reads. “As this is an active investigation, we will not be able to release any details at this time.”

CONTENT WARNING: The following video contains footage of animal cruelty. WyoFile has chosen to publish it here in order to corroborate, and to fully communicate, the severity of previously described allegations. Viewer discretion is advised.

The eyewitness, who “loves” Sublette County, regrets how the community’s reputation has been tarnished because of one man’s actions. 

“It didn’t need to happen,” the person told WyoFile. “It gives it a bad name. It’s a beautiful place, and there’s great people here. We’re not all Cody Roberts.”  

The witness to the tormented, gravely injured wolf also hopes that law enforcement punishes Roberts much more severely so that he and others learn a lesson. 

“He’s been going around town telling people it was worth it,” the eyewitness said. “$250? That’s a round for the bar.” 

“I would like to see a law that is determined enough to keep people from keeping animals alive when they should not be alive anymore,” the witness added.

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Highway crossing threatens unique pronghorn herd

In the rolling sagebrush flats east of Cody roams one of the most unusual pronghorn herds in the world, but rarity doesn’t spare its members from a familiar threat of the modern world. 

Most antelope — sinewy creatures able to run faster than any North American land mammal — spend winters and summers in the safety of the plains. But instead of summering in roughly the same areas where they winter, this herd starts wandering west in early spring. The animals traipse through public and private land before looking for spots to crawl under, hop over or shimmy through fences along Highway 120. And then a portion of the herd keeps going, migrating high into the Absaroka Mountains where they find an oasis of open plateaus well above 10,000 feet elevation.

“The distance and elevation these pronghorn go are incredible,” said Hall Sawyer, a wildlife biologist with West Inc., and longtime Wyoming migration researcher. “They’re also really the only herd we know of that occupies alpine habitats.”

The nearly 60-mile migration from sagebrush lowlands to grassy high-mountain meadows sustains thousands of pronghorn each summer. But that journey across Highway 120, a busy stretch of two-lane road between Cody and Meeteetse, is becoming increasingly hazardous. And as more cars race up and down the highway to and from Yellowstone National Park and neighboring areas, more elk, deer and pronghorn meet their fates on the bumpers of trucks, sedans and SUVs. 

On average, at least 100 deer, elk and pronghorn die each year on a 27-mile stretch of Highway 120. Sawyer worries that without intervention, and as traffic only increases, the world’s highest pronghorn migration may one day be severed completely.

Collision carnage

Biologists have long known pronghorn summer on the Absaroka plateaus. Outfitters, hikers and hunters have told stories of sightings. But no one knew for sure where they were coming from. 

That changed in 2019, when Sawyer and colleagues placed GPS collars on about 120 pronghorn in the Carter Mountain herd and spent two years following their movement. They found that about half of the 7,000 animals in the herd migrate from the prairie to the mountains, with a fraction of those going all the way to the top. For whatever reason, the animals decided the alpine food was worth not only the long migration but also the dangers that come with summering amid grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions. 

Western Ecosystems Technology biologists Hall Sawyer and Andrew Telander studied the Carter Mountain Pronghorn Herd for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department from 2019 to 2021. A total of 806,528 GPS locations were collected from 118 adult female pronghorn, their movements illustrated here. (Western Ecosystems Technology/Courtesy)

Even the antelope that don’t wander 4,000 feet uphill into the mountains each year still move west every spring and early summer. And slicing right in the middle of that transition is Highway 120, a death trap for not only pronghorn but a suite of other wildlife. 

In October, one car collided with a herd of elk, resulting in seven animals dead from the impact or euthanized because of injuries. While official counts say about 100 animals die each year, a 2021 study shows that actual deaths are likely two to even three times higher. 

The highway affords a few potential quick fixes, according to a recent report by the Beyond Yellowstone Program, a group of researchers and biologists tackling some of the thorniest wildlife problems in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Some box culverts — those square tunnels under highways created for water and occasional livestock to pass through — could be modified for mule and whitetail deer and elk. More fencing could also be modified. 

But biologists say wildlife, especially wary pronghorn, may ultimately need a roomier crossing.

Wildlife priority list

Even more dire than the number of wildlife deaths are the percentages. Because herd numbers are either stagnant or declining, the proportion of wildlife killed by vehicles is increasing, Sawyer said. 

“It’s a pretty long stretch of road that has a lot of collisions from a lot of species,” Brian Nesvik, Wyoming Game and Fish’s director, said of Highway 120. “The road runs right through the middle of the winter range as they transition across to get from winter to summer.”

Pronghorn cross a highway near Pinedale, following a route known colloquially as the Path of the Pronghorn. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Dept.)

Game and Fish works with Wyoming Department of Transportation engineers each year to create a list of the highest-priority projects. It’s a rolling tally that shows government agencies and nonprofits like The Wyldlife Fund where project needs exist and why. Project implementation relies on money, of course, which can reach tens of millions of dollars. 

The state’s current top three include a project on Highway 26 between the Wind River Reservation and Dubois and one on Interstate 80 between Laramie and Rawlins. A third project is currently being assessed, and Nesvik said the Highway 120 crossing is pushing its way to the top. 

Severing a route

While highway engineers and biologists wait for the gears of the highway-crossing machine to grind, they’re considering other possible options. WYDOT has spent the past five years working with the Bureau of Land Management and Game and Fish to create wildlife-friendly fencing. Much of it includes using strands that antelope can crawl under and fences with wood logs on top that make it easier for elk to jump over without catching their hooves or legs, said Randy Merritt, WYDOT’s District 5 construction engineer.

Those efforts have helped cut down mortalities, Merritt said.

“We’ve tried to maximize the opportunity for them to cross wherever they want,” he said. “If we can allow these animals to squeeze through, it will lessen their time spent in the right of way.”

Those are great short-term fixes, Sawyer said, but if traffic volumes continue to increase at the rate they have been, the highway may as well be a brick wall. 

Large reaches of the Francs Peak and Carter Mountain areas southwest of Cody have ecological characteristics that support species like pronghorn and sage grouse, typically found in much lower-elevation high desert. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Corinna Riginos, The Nature Conservancy’s Wyoming field office director of science, found that if 60 seconds pass between vehicles, deer are generally able to cross a road successfully. If less than 30 seconds pass between vehicles, the deer will either turn back or “make an unsafe crossing decision,” which results in either a collision or a car swerving or slowing way down. Those numbers are likely similar for pronghorn.

“Traffic is the real challenge for animals to get across the road,” she said. 

And that traffic will likely only intensify as more people flock to Wyoming’s northwest corner. Traffic has increased from about 800 vehicles per day in the 1970s to almost 2,500 vehicles per day now, according to a report by the Beyond Yellowstone Program. About 500 more vehicles drive on the highway each day than did a decade ago. 

“These are all a reflection of people loving the landscape and wanting to be near it, in it, part of it,” said Arthur Middleton, a senior advisor on wildlife conservation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and longtime Yellowstone-area researcher. 

“The risk is that this love for the place ends up harming it through a death by a thousand cuts,” he continued. “If people want to keep diverse and abundant wildlife, they will need to find ways to develop and recreate responsibly and lessen the impacts of high traffic volumes on roadways.”

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Majority of bills related to gender identity fail introduction, three remain

People hold the trans pride flag and the gender nonbinary pride flag in front of the Wyoming Capitol building on a sunny, windy day
People hold the trans pride flag and the gender nonbinary pride flag in front of the Wyoming Capitol building on a sunny, windy day

As the Wyoming Legislature’s budget session began, lawmakers had at least 10 bills to consider related to transgender people, gender-affirming care, pronouns, obscenity and school programming. 

As the week ended, only three measures remained. 

The rest failed to receive enough votes for formal introduction, a higher bar because non-budget bills require a supermajority.

The fact that legislation like House Bill 50 – What is a woman act failed to garner enough votes may be a sign of lawmaker pragmatism and a focus on the budget, said Wyoming Equality’s Executive Director Sara Burlingame. But perhaps it was something else, too, she added. 

“I’m not sure if this is true or not,” she said, “but I think it’s possible that people have grown really fatigued of hearing people be really hysterical about what’s in other people’s pants.”

The Senate was the only chamber to formally introduce bills that could still affect trans Wyomingites this year — in part because of disagreements between factions of House Republicans. The first reading of the budget bill also went late into the evening in the lower chamber Friday, leaving limited time to introduce additional legislation before a key deadline.

The first gender-based bill to achieve introduction and head to committee was Senate File 94 – An act regarding compelled speech and state employers. Mirroring bills and laws in many other states, Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) said she’s sponsoring this constituent-requested legislation to protect state employees from repercussions if they misgender someone.

Sen. Hutchings sits at her desk on the Senate floor, looking at her computer screen
Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) during the 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

That is, the state wouldn’t be able to “compel or require an employee to refer to another employee using that employee’s preferred pronouns,” under threat of adverse actions, to maintain employment, or to secure a contract, grant, license or other benefit. 

Those still required to use a coworker’s preferred pronouns can sue under this bill.

Burlingame said she fears the legislation could enable harassment by those who intentionally misgender coworkers because of their looks. She recalled an incident with a female state employee.

“She worked with a man who wouldn’t use female pronouns for her and referred to her as male. She wasn’t,” Burlingame said. “But she was able to go to HR and get it resolved. Because in the state of Wyoming, we believe in decency and good manners and people aren’t allowed to mock you or deride you for your appearance or how you present yourself.”

Old and new

Two other bills headed to committee hearings are Senate File 98 – Statute of limitations-medical procedures on minors and Senate File 99 – Chloe’s law-children gender change prohibition, both sponsored by Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne).

Senate File 98 allows minors who received “gender transition services” to sue a doctor over that treatment until the age of 21. 

“It just includes the hormones, puberty blockers, surgeries — all of it,” Bouchard said Friday.

Noting someone who had surgery while still a minor and regretted it, Bouchard said, “this is happening all over the country where there’s just two years that they can actually come back and say, ‘whoa wait a minute, this doctor did this to me.’”

Studies show that situations like what Bouchard described are exceedingly rare. Less than 1% of people who undergo gender-affirming surgeries regret it, according to a study of nearly 8,000 teens and adults who underwent these procedures. 

Regardless, there is no evidence that gender reassignment surgeries are performed on minors in Wyoming. 

Sen. Anthony Bouchard sits in his chair, looking out onto the Senate floor
Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) on the Senate floor. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

Senate File 99 is a rerun of a bill that failed during the general session last year, minus a section about health insurance. Named after a woman who underwent a mastectomy as a child in California and later regretted it, Bouchard has championed the legislation both years.

“It has teeth in it,” Bouchard said. “[The bill] says you can’t do it in Wyoming, you can’t change the sex of a minor.”

That includes using surgeries, hormones or puberty blockers. 

Opponents of last year’s bill — like Wyoming Medical Society Executive Director Sheila Bush — argued it demonized doctors who don’t use surgeries but in rare circumstances do use medications like puberty blockers “to give kids more time.”

“I think what we have with this bill is a sad example of when politics overcomes good policy,” Bush told the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee last February. “Good policy might have looked like working together and crafting a bill that maybe outlawed the procedures and surgeries.”

There are exceptions in the bill, including for genetic sex development disorders and abnormally early puberty, but some of those testifying last year feared there weren’t enough protections, and that parents of disabled children could be affected. 

Meantime, a federal judge in Idaho blocked enforcement of a similar law in that state last year, citing violations of the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

“It just includes the hormones, puberty blockers, surgeries — all of it.”

Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne)

As WyoFile reported last year, trans people have the highest rates of suicide among any identified group, according to research and a national survey from 2015. Meanwhile, researchers have found worse mental health and double the rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts among youth who don’t receive gender-affirming care when compared to youth who do.

Numerous medical groups back the use of gender-affirming care for minors. They include: the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Endocrine Society, among others.

Wyoming is home to one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, though rates have been falling

Failed introduction

Early in the session’s first week, two bills focused on gender and transitioning didn’t receive enough votes to be introduced. That included House Bill 50 – What is a woman act and House Bill 63 – Sex and gender changes for children-prohibited.

House Bill 50, sponsored by Wyoming Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper), aimed to define females and males based on what their “reproductive system was developed to produce” and their chromosomes, with some medical exemptions. 

It specified how the definitions would apply to spaces denoted for females or males in athletics, detention facilities, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, locker rooms, restrooms “and other areas where safety or privacy are implicated.”

“It gives dignity to womanhood by protecting it,” Ward said on the House floor, later referencing a private sorority’s decision to accept a transgender University of Wyoming student into their group. 

A lawsuit over that sorority’s decision was dismissed at the district court level in August, but plaintiffs have appealed

House Bill 50 failed introduction 37-24, with 20 Republicans voting against it.

House Bill 63, on the other hand, didn’t go far enough, according to the Freedom Caucus. It would have banned surgeries or procedures altering the sex of — or sterilizing — minors.

Rep. Lloyd Larsen sits back and stares out onto the House Floor
Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander). (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

“There aren’t any gender reassignment surgeries taking place currently [in Wyoming], but my feeling is that a child under the age of 18 is developing emotionally, mentally and physically, and really … should be prohibited from making those types of decisions that can have such long-term impact on their life,” Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) said Wednesday on the House floor. 

But Rep. Sarah Penn (R-Lander) argued “this bill does not go nearly far enough,” pointing to the omission of hormones and medications from the bill.

“There’s other vehicles that are much better, much more encompassing to actually protect our children, and I would urge no vote on this,” she said. 

That bill failed introduction 33-28. 

Bill breakdown

There are other bills this session that could have disproportionately affected transgender people and the larger LGBTQ+ community in Wyoming — but failed to receive enough votes for introduction. These are some WyoFile identified as of Friday.

House Bill 61 – Fiscal accountability and transparency in education: Sponsored by Rep. Penn, this bill would have required school districts to submit exhaustive annual reports on how much they spent to “implement, deliver or support” programs that directly — or indirectly — address social issues, political or social activism, and diversity, equity or inclusion. 

Districts would also need parental or guardian permission for kids to participate in classes or training involving those programs. Others in the district would be allowed to opt out.

The bill’s definitions of the programs include topics that polarize society, school-endorsed activity meant to affect or prevent change in government policy, and policies that promote “differential or preferential treatment of individuals or classifies such individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

House Bill 68 – Obscenity-impartial conformance: This short bill, sponsored by Rep. Ben Hornok (R-Cheyenne), would have eliminated a statutory exemption that allows people within “bona fide” schools, colleges, universities, museums or public libraries to have or disseminate what the state considers to be “obscene material.”

Burlingame said legislation aimed at theoretical obscenities has targeted trans people in other states.

“The obscenity [bills] we definitely include in our ‘hostile to trans folks’ category, just because that’s how we’ve seen it implemented in other states,” she said. “The existence of a trans person is what’s being weaponized and called obscene.”

House Bill 88 – Public display of obscene material: Rep. Pepper Ottman (R-Riverton) sponsored this bill, which would have made it a misdemeanor to “publicly communicate” obscene material. The legislation defines that phrase to mean: “[D]isplay, post, exhibit, give away or vocalize material in such a way that the material may be readily and distinctly perceived by the public at large by normal unaided vision or hearing.”

House Bill 136 – Gender identity-definition repeal: Sponsored by Rep. Hornok, HB 136 sought to repeal the definition of gender identity from the education section of state statutes. 

That definition is: “as stated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. A person’s gender identity can be shown by providing evidence, including but not limited to medical history, care or treatment of the gender identity, consistent and uniform assertion of the gender identity or the evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held, part of a person’s core identity and not being asserted for an improper purpose.”

House Bill 156 – Best interests of a child-gender affirming treatments: Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) sponsored this bill.

It would have added specific language to several parts of Wyoming statute stating: “To the extent applicable, in determining the best interests of the child under this article, there shall be a conclusive presumption that it is not in the best interests of the child to undergo any gender transition or gender reassignment procedures.”

That includes hormones and puberty-blocking medications.

For more legislative coverage click here.

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FBI launches initiative to investigate Wyoming’s missing and murdered Indigenous people

A sea of people wearing black and red and holding signs with people's faces and MMIP
A sea of people wearing black and red and holding signs with people's faces and MMIP

John Washakie knows what it means for friends and family around the Wind River Indian Reservation to go missing.

“Abigale Washakie was my niece,” he said during a press conference Thursday in Fort Washakie. 

She had a family and home, he said, but drifted off and became involved with someone. She went missing. And then she was found.  

“She was murdered and put in a trash can in Riverton,” he said.

He also knew a girl named Adrianna Goggles. When he worked at the local library, he remembered her checking out one Phyllis Reynolds Naylor book 14 times.

“They found her remains frozen in a snowbank,” he said. 

Washakie is a member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. After he spoke, Lloyd Goggles, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, needed a moment before he could talk. When he did, he said the effects of these murders and missing people go beyond the confines of a family — or even the reservation.

“It affects all the surrounding communities,” he said. 

A man stands at a podium in front of a blue wall with FBI logos
John Washakie talks about women he knew on the Wind River Indian Reservation who were murdered. (Screenshot/Eastern Shoshone Tribe Facebook Page)

In Wyoming, fewer than 3% of residents are Native American. Meanwhile, about 12% of homicides here were perpetrated against Native people in 2022, according to a 2023 Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center report

While homicide rates against Indigenous people in Wyoming have started to decline, “[t]he 2022 five-year average homicide rate for Indigenous people was 18.3 per 100,000, nearly six times higher than the homicide rate for White people,” the report states.

The vast majority of those missing or murdered are kids. 

After years of local and state initiatives — ranging from a task force and reports to a missing persons website and a new alert system — the FBI is now starting a 90-day initiative to gather more information on missing and murdered people in the state. That includes an effort to compile a complete list of cases involving Native Americans as well as solving cold cases. 

The FBI is the main agency investigating these crimes on the reservation.

After the three months of data collection, the agency says it will research and investigate tips. The timeline of that work being presented to the tribes and public will depend on how much analysis the tips prompt, the FBI added. 

“Findings will be presented to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, then to the public,” it stated in a press release. 

It’s asking the public to provide the FBI with tips via the hotline 307-433-3221 and the email address WYMMIP@FBI.gov.

The FBI has been cooperating with more local agencies and is responding to a consistent call for more and better data, according to Public Affairs Officer Vikki Migoya. Based on what the FBI learned from an MMIP initiative in New Mexico, the agency wanted to create something uniquely impactful for Wyoming, she said.

“MMIP isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ issue,” she said. “We have worked with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho to craft a plan specific to here.”

Rifts

There has long been a strained relationship between tribal members and law enforcement, especially federal agencies. 

That rang true in the 2023 WYSAC report, which identified the rift as an ongoing challenge to reporting missing and murdered people in Wyoming. 

“I believe that some people that have had an unfriendly encounter with the police (and there are many) have little faith that anything will be done,” an unnamed community stakeholder is quoted saying in the report. 

The FBI sees this 90-day initiative as a step towards healing some of that relationship, having sought out input and assistance from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho business councils.

“This is an opportunity to shine another light on the MMIP crisis.”

Lloyd Goggles, Northern Arapaho Business Council

“In the past, tribal members have not always been comfortable working with law enforcement in general and the FBI specifically,” the agency stated in a press release. “The FBI recognizes these historical barriers and wants to do everything possible to improve the flow of information.”

Goggles appreciates these efforts from these federal partners, he said, and asked for both tribal and non-tribal community members to participate.

“It’s an important step because it also encourages healing,” he said of the initiative. “This is an opportunity to shine another light on the MMIP crisis. And I know that other people across the nation go through similar things … but this is our chance to achieve a measure of justice.”

Even if people don’t trust the agency, FBI Assistant Special Agent In Charge Leonard Carollo said, they can potentially bring information to others who they do trust.

“We understand that they might not want to come talk to us, they might not have trust in us or law enforcement,” he said. “If that’s the case, come to their tribal leaders or other tribally respected members of their community, and they will come to us. It takes time to build that trust, and we’re willing to be patient.”

Another challenge with working with the FBI has long been a perceived lack of transparency when it comes to cases like murdered and missing tribal members. 

News sources, long scrutinized for their role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes and under-reporting these crimes, want more information from the FBI, too.

Responding to a question about that during the Thursday press conference, the FBI’s Migoya said, “We are very restrictive in what information we can give to the public about victims and about cases that are open.”

She acknowledged that the agency’s protocols are different from local law enforcement, adding, “We are going to do our best to communicate as clearly as we can to the tribes as well as to the public about that,” she said. 

Three men stand in from of a blue wall with FBI logos
John Washakie, Lloyd Goggles and Leonard Carollo stand together after the Feb. 8 FBI press conference in Fort Washakie. (FBI)

From the ground up

National efforts to address the inequities in murders and kidnappings among Indigenous populations have spanned nearly a decade. Many of those efforts have come in the form of trying to get law enforcement agencies — tribal, state and federal — to improve communication and better track this demographic.

However, a key point in the discussion is a lack of resources. That’s for both tribal members and law enforcement tasked with addressing crimes involving them. 

Many see this as a continued failure on behalf of federal, state and local governments nationwide. 

When asked about FBI resources going to this particular initiative Thursday, Carollo said he couldn’t reveal numbers. 

However, he said there is a “large presence” of permanent FBI personnel in Lander and that there could be more resources and agents allocated to the area as the agency sees fit.

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Wyoming’s latest coyote-killing plan results from brutal 2022-’23 winter

Last winter killed most of western Wyoming’s mule deer. 

That prompted calls to kill predators, and wildlife managers listened — even though there was little scientific support to prove it would work to bring deer back.

Because of speculation that mountain lions would hold the deer population low, more were targetedand killed — in the regions where winter hit mule deer the hardest. 

There were outfitter calls to kill more black bears, too, though the Wyoming Game and Fish Department did not update its quotas to grant that request, citing the already heavy bear harvest. 

The ecological and political implications of the historically severe winter that lasted well into spring 2023 still linger. For another predator species — coyotes — the implications remain as well. 

Meeting Jan. 16 in Cheyenne, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved a $200,000 sum requested by wildlife managers to supplement existing aerial gunning of coyotes in western and south-central parts of the state. Like lions and bears, coyotes dine on mule deer, especially fawns. 

Rick King, chief warden for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, listens to a committee meeting during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2023 general session. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“Last spring we recommended it would not be the time to go do it because we had [deer] coming through the winter in such poor condition,” Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King told the commission. “We recommended that we wait and reevaluate that this winter, and we’ve done that. We feel that this would be the time, if any, to do predator control work action like this.” 

Although it hasn’t been decided where and when the funds will be expended, King did specify that the funding would be routed to the federal government: specifically, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture known as Wildlife Services

“We would contract with Wildlife Services to do the work,” King said. “Our local managers would identify key fawning areas to go do that work. They’d get started this spring, and implement that control action before, during and potentially just after the fawning.” 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department putting its budget, which is funded through hunting and fishing license revenue, toward aerial predator gunning is nothing new. The $200,000 will come from the agency’s discretionary pot of money, Game and Fish director Brian Nesvik said in the meeting. 

Game and Fish has routinely helped fund the Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board, which had an overall budget of $4.2 million last year — a record. Projects the wildlife management agency have paid for include research, but also special predator-killing efforts aimed at protecting species like mule deer, pronghorn and sage grouse.

There’s also precedent for extra Game and Fish spending on coyote killing in the aftermath of severe winters that hit ungulate herds hard. After the big winter of 2016-’17, the agency spent $100,000 to shoot coyotes from aircraft on mule deer fawning grounds in the Little Mountain area and southern Wyoming Range. That effort, also contracted to Wildlife Services, yielded 177 dead coyotes, which pencils out to $565 per canine. 

Wyoming Game and Fish Department habitat biologist Troy Fieseler removes the tracking collar from a mule deer fawn killed by the harsh winter of 2022-’23. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Before his board unanimously approved the $200,000 in extra 2024 funding, Game and Fish Commission President Ralph Brokaw asked if the 2016-’17 coyote gunning had any effect on mule deer fawn survival. 

“What bang did we get for our buck?” Brokaw asked. 

There’s no evidence, the chief warden told him, that it helped. 

“We don’t have any direct correlation to show that predator control work created any kind of spike in fawn numbers,” King said. “We just don’t have that data, it’s really tough to tease that out.” 

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Vaccine exemptions surge in Wyoming

Marcela wears a face mask while drawing vaccine into a syringe
Marcela wears a face mask while drawing vaccine into a syringe

More and more Wyoming students aren’t getting vaccines.

These aren’t the much-maligned and distrusted COVID-19 vaccines, though. They’re long-utilized inoculations against diseases like polio, diphtheria and measles, Wyoming Department of Health data shows.

Wyoming requires a range of vaccines, but since 2020, the number of K-12 students securing exemptions has grown from 714 to 1,224 — an increase of 71%. There were 130 more in just the last year. 

The vast majority of students still get vaccines — more than 90% of Wyoming kindergarteners get all the shots — but this growing minority puts kids with cancer, immune disorders and the unvaccinated at risk.

With a less robust herd immunity resulting from fewer vaccinated people, diseases like measles have reared their ugly head, leading to outcomes like pneumonia, diarrhea, ear infections and — in rare cases — death. The World Health Organization recommends a 95% inoculation rate against measles to keep the highly contagious virus from spreading — others argue even that wouldn’t be enough in some cases. 

Only about 91% of Wyoming kindergarteners had the MMR shot — vaccinating against measles, mumps and rubella — last school year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Chart showing a marked rise in religious vaccine exemptions while the medical exemptions remain very low over the years
The number of reported vaccine exemptions for K-12 students in Wyoming from 2018 to 2023. Data from the Wyoming Department of Health. From spokesperson Kim Deti: “These are for school and child-caring facility required immunizations and do not include adults or immunizations that are recommended but not required. These numbers are not cumulative, but show new waiver requests processed for that calendar year.” (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

Who’s exempt?

While medical exemptions are a contributing factor, they’re a small minority, making up only about 2% in 2023, according to Wyoming Department of Health data. That leaves religious exemptions.

“I certify that I have a religious objection to the immunization(s) indicated on this form and therefore am requesting a waiver to the mandatory immunizations for myself or my child to attend a Wyoming preschool, child caring facility or school (K-12),” the waiver required for an exemption states. 

The waiver goes on to have guardians state that they understand their child won’t be allowed to go to school during a “vaccine-preventable disease outbreak,” and, “I understand the risks and possible outcomes of my decision to exempt my child from the mandatory immunizations, which may include serious illness, disability or death.”

Purely ideological exemptions, or those stemming from a busy schedule, are theoretically not allowed in Wyoming.

“The law does not allow parents/guardians to request a waiver simply because of inconvenience,” the health department states. As presented on the health department’s website, the exemption policy emphasizes that “Wyoming statute does NOT allow for the authorization of waiver requests based on philosophical beliefs.

Seeking a religious exemption does not require any proof, though.

University of Wyoming community and public health professor Christine Porter said that the increased exemptions are likely not the result of growing devotion to religious doctrine.

“So it’s not really, in most cases, about religion,” she said. “It’s about, you know, fear and beliefs … And again, I know that the parents who apply for these are trying to protect our children with the knowledge and understanding that they have.”

“I understand the risks and possible outcomes of my decision to exempt my child from the mandatory immunizations, which may include serious illness, disability or death.”

Wyoming religious exemption form

While this trend of more exemptions started years before COVID-19,  the pandemic certainly didn’t help. Porter said for the MMR shot, many nefarious rumors started in the late 1990s after a paper erroneously claimed that it could cause autism. 

“That paper was horrific science,” she said. “It had 12 participants, and it was ultimately retracted because they thought the data was fraudulent and badly analyzed, even among just those 12. But the damage had been done.”

The studies tying the vaccine to autism have since been ridiculed for their lack of scientific rigor. Meantime, other studies — including one with hundreds of thousands of participants — found no such connection. 

Vaccines do have side effects, including those shots required in Wyoming schools. However, the benefits of these required shots outweigh the risks, Porter said. 

Still, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that there’s a growing number of people who believe exemptions should be granted. It showed that from 2019 to 2022, the number of people who think MMR vaccines should be required of healthy school children dropped from 82% — as reported by the Pew Research Center — to 71%. 

Over the same time frame, there was an increase in those who believed parents should be able to decide whether to vaccinate their school-age children, swelling from 16% to 28%. 

“Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, there has been a 24 percentage-point increase in the share who hold this view (from 20% to 44%),” Kaiser found.

That means the majority of people still support these vaccinations on both sides of the political aisle, but with growing anti-vaccine sentiment, public health experts are concerned that vaccination rates won’t be enough to prevent future outbreaks of highly contagious diseases.

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Corner-crossing hunters: Cattle King era is over

Four Missouri hunters argued in court papers filed Friday that the owner of Elk Mountain Ranch perpetuated Wild-West history by illegally trying to block others from thousands of acres of public land so he can use it exclusively.

In documents submitted to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the hunters defended a federal Wyoming judge’s decision that they did not trespass when they crossed through the airspace above Fred Eshelman’s property to hunt public land in Carbon County.

The Missourians accessed some 6,000 acres of public land by corner crossing — stepping from one piece of public land to another at the common corner with two pieces of private land, all arranged in a checkerboard pattern. Corner crossing is accomplished without setting foot on private property.

“Congress and the courts have rejected every device that has the effect of enclosing the public domain in the Checkerboard and obstructing reasonable access thereto.”

Hunters’ brief before the 10th Circuit

The case pits the public’s right to access its property against private property rights in a legal rodeo that could undo customary restrictions on corner crossing and affect the routes to some 8.3 million acres of public land across the West.

In their recent filing, the hunters defended the decision by Chief U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl, who ruled last year that Eshelman could not obstruct their passage. Relying in part on the 1885 federal Unlawful Inclosures Act, Skavdah ruled against Eshelman in the ranch owner’s civil suit that sought to forever bar the public from corner crossing to reach property that belongs to all Americans.

Eshelman joins a long list of “cattlemen and powerful others” who have tried to control the public domain, the hunters’ filing states. Those forces achieved temporary control first with barbed wire, prompting Congress to pass the 1885 law, the filing contends.

The University of North Carolina published this photo of Fred Eshelman at a ceremony for the school of pharmacy, to which he has donated millions. He is the manager of Iron Bar Holdings LLC, a New Hanover County, North Carolina, company that owns the Elk Mountain Ranch. (Screengrab/UNC)

“[T]hese public land monopolists ignored, evaded, or tried to invalidate the UIA,” the hunters’ attorneys wrote, “but their efforts withered under repeated judicial scrutiny.”

The Unlawful Inclosures Act is once again under attack by Eshelman and his Iron Bar Holding’s company who seek to exclude the public from its own property, the filing states.

“[Eshelman] cannot use a trespass lawsuit to transform common corners into hardened checkpoints blocking access to the public lands beyond,” the filing reads, “and so [Skavdahl] properly rejected Iron Bar’s claims.”

All across the West

Skavdahl’s ruling applies to a 40-mile-wide swath across southern Wyoming where federal railroad-construction land grants created an ownership checkerboard on either side of the Union Pacific line. As a result of Skavdahl’s ruling, corner crossing is now legal there.

Eshelman’s Iron Bar Holdings has title to the 22,045-acre wildlife-rich Elk Mountain Ranch, which enmeshes thousands of acres of checkerboard federal, state and municipal property near Saratoga. Eshelman’s civil suit against the hunters claims they trespassed by passing through the airspace above his land. Such corner crossing, if legal as Skavdahl determined, diminishes the ranch’s value by up to $9 million, according to one Eshelman assertion.

In a separate criminal case, a Carbon County jury in 2022 found the four men — Bradly Cape, Phillip Yeomans, Zachary Smith and John Slowensky — not guilty of criminal trespass when they hunted in 2020 and 2021. But Eshelman filed a civil suit, lost, and is appealing that judgment by Skavdahl to the 10th Circuit.

Corner-crossing defendants wait for their trial to begin in Rawlins on April 27, 2022. They are Phillip Yeomans, second from left and partly obscured; John Slowensky, foreground in the front row, Bradly Cape, second from left in back row and Zach Smith, right. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

That court has jurisdiction over Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and parts of Idaho and Montana in Yellowstone National Park. Consequently, a decision by the 10th Circuit would apply to all those states and perhaps beyond.

A Montana landowners’ group argued as much when it filed a brief, supporting Eshelman, which contends the 10th Circuit decision will have West-wide consequences. Some 8.3 million acres are considered “corner locked” by any definition that corner crossing is illegal.

In its ruminations, the appeals court will consider a series of cases that tested the 1885 UIA. Those include “Leo Sheep,” which decided the government could not construct a road across a checkerboard corner; “Mackay,” in which a sheep herder won the right to trail his flock across private checkerboard to reach the public domain; and “Camfield,” where ranchers erected fences on their checkerboard sections to effectively block access to public land.

Eshelman, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and the Montana landowners all say Skavdahl interpreted those decisions, other court rulings and various laws incorrectly. The hunters, through attorneys Ryan Semerad, Lee Mickus and Alexandria Layton, assert that Eshelman is trying to exert a “nonexistent right” of excluding others from the public domain and that corner crossing therefore is not violating property or a property right.

Corner-crossing hunters’ attorney Ryan Semerad addresses the jury in the hunters’ criminal trial in 2022 in Rawlins, during which a jury found all four not guilty of trespassing. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Eshelman can exclude others from Elk Mountain Ranch, but he cannot extend that exclusion to property he doesn’t own, the hunters argue. Although property rights grow from state statutes, even those do not override federal laws, including the UIA, according to the filing.

“Congress and the courts have rejected every device that has the effect of enclosing the public domain in the Checkerboard and obstructing reasonable access thereto,” the hunters state. “This Court should likewise reject Iron Bar’s lawsuit as one more device that would unlawfully enclose public land.”

Spilled ink

Eshelman’s interpretation of laws and decisions are flawed as he “plows the same barren ground” as those who have sought to skirt the Unlawful Inclosures Act before, the hunters state.

Eshelman can’t use Wyoming trespass law to obstruct passage to the public land, they say. Obstructing access is a nuisance that has and should be abated, they say.

“[T]o abate the nuisance of unlawful monopolization of public lands, the Supreme Court concluded Congress could regulate the use of private land to enclose or obstruct access to public land,” the hunters say. “The strict rules regarding trespass upon lands are not entirely applicable, or, at least, are very much modified,” their brief states, quoting one court decision.

The 1885 UIA was a reaction to “a few would-be cattle kings … trying to leverage ownership of railroad sections in the Checkerboard to obtain exclusive control over the entire landscape,” the hunters state. The Mackay case, which Skavdahl relied on in ruling against Eshelman, stands firmly under scrutiny, they say.

“Iron Bar spills much ink criticizing the District Court’s reliance on Mackay,” the brief states. Instead, Mackay supports access and is “a trailhead signaling the way forward.”

Both parties have asked to debate the case in front of the court in Denver.

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