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Nickerson bids farewell to WyoFile to pursue wildlife

This is my last column as a staff reporter at WyoFile. I have accepted an offer to be a research associate with the Wyoming Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming, led by biologist Matt Kauffman.

In the new position I’ll write articles and make short films to explain the science and history of Wyoming’s iconic big-game migrations. I’ll continue to be based in Laramie.

That may seem like a jump from covering politics, but for 20 years I’ve hunted elk as they made their seasonal movements through the Absarokas and the Gros Ventre Mountains. Five years ago I told my Dad as we left hunting camp that I wanted to learn more about how elk trek in and out of Yellowstone each year. Now that chance has arrived. Wyoming is at the forefront of important discoveries in wildlife migration, and I’m excited to play a new role in sharing this science with the public.

Though I’m leaving WyoFile and the political beat, I’ll continue my deep interest in all things Wyoming, and hope to share some of my writings here from time to time.

In my three years as a staff reporter — admittedly a short time for many in the industry — I’ve reported on some interesting events. One was lawmakers’ passing Senate File 104 in 2013, which shifted most duties of Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill (R) to an appointed director. I was in the House gallery when the House passed the bill in a 39-20 vote that drew a line in the sand between far-right Republicans and the rest of the Legislature. Wyoming finally resolved the issue, but it took two years, an investigation into Hill’s leadership, a Supreme Court decision overturning SF 104, a GOP effort to censure Gov. Matt Mead (R), and an election in which Hill failed to unseat Mead.

I also had a front-row seat to the abrupt resignation of University of Wyoming President Robert Sternberg, an event that spoke volumes about tensions at the state’s flagship institution.

I met Sternberg in the spring of 2013 during his first on-campus meeting with trustees. He was tall, wore a somewhat oversized jacket, and was emphatic about his values and his plans. I followed Sternberg through his first summer, often speaking with him about his plans for educating students to be “ethical leaders.” I was there at a UW Foundation event at the Powder Horn Golf Club in Sheridan when Sternberg misspoke and said how excited he was to be at Oklahoma State — a reference to his former employer.

In the audience that day was provost Myron Allen, whom Sternberg asked to resign a few weeks later, continuing the series of rapid-fire turnovers among key campus leaders.

One Monday afternoon in November, a long-time friend at UW forwarded me a few messages from an internal university email list, showing how professors and staff had grave concerns about the direction of the university under Sternberg. I began tracking key personnel changes and discovered two conflicting stories: Sternberg said he’d accepted Provost Allen’s resignation “with great regret,” while Allen said Sternberg had shown him the door.

Two weeks later, I joined reporters from every statewide newspaper and radio organization at an all-day watch in the UW library as trustees conducted an executive meeting. Word soon came that Sternberg had resigned. His severance package and compensation for five months’ work totaled $575,000. I stepped into a side office and called Sternberg on his cellphone to get a short statement:

“…my impression was there was a lot of faculty pushback to some of the personnel changes. … The faculty, some of them talked to the board about their dissatisfaction.”

I walked into a Laramie coffee shop the next Saturday morning and saw a table of senior faculty having an animated discussion. I didn’t pry, but it was clear that the community was abuzz with the news of Sternberg’s departure, and that many were hugely relieved.

Albany County Clerk Jackie Gonzales explains the process for applying for a marriage license to Teresa Bingham and Linda Mahaffey. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

Albany County Clerk Jackie Gonzales explains the process for applying for a marriage license to Teresa Bingham and Linda Mahaffey. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)

Emotions also ran high in just about everything relating to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. I saw teenagers crying in the House gallery after lawmakers killed a civil union bill in 2013. The following year, I watched a crowd in the Laramie Courthouse as two women prepared to apply for the first same-sex marriage license in Albany County, after a federal court ruling. The crowd fell silent the moment the Albany County Clerk came out of her office to talk to the same-sex couple about the forms they would sign. Later, one of the defendants in the court case handed out roses to the couple.

In 2015, I was sitting just a few feet away from a state representative who got kicked out of a committee hearing after saying that an LGBT non-discrimination bill should become law “when hell freezes over.” Many in the audience gasped at the words.

Some of my most memorable conversations as a WyoFile reporter came while writing in the lobby of the Wyoming House and Senate, long after most lawmakers and lobbyists had gone off to their evening receptions.

At that time of night, the Capitol is empty except for janitorial staff, night clerks, and a few lawmakers who are busy preparing for the next day’s debates. More than one time I had a great conversation with a lawmaker where I learned about where they came from and what mattered to them most. One night I spoke with the late Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan) about the reforms he’d led in the Legislature in the 1960s. The notes from that conversation formed the basis of the remembrance I wrote about him after his death in 2015. It is that kind of access, candor, and institutional memory that I love most about Wyoming’s Legislature.

One of the true privileges of being a reporter is indulging one’s curiosity on behalf of the public interest. Hundreds people from all walks of life have given countless hours of their time to answer my questions about their role in Wyoming. Only a very few of them have hung up on me or refused to take my calls. (Often those moments taught me how to be a better reporter.)

I met many who were eager to show me how our state government works. Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) and I spent an afternoon in his law office in 2012 going over state revenue charts. The meeting left my head spinning from a barrage of state budget account acronyms, and I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me to master the topic.

In Cheyenne, Bill Mai, the former fiscal advisor to Gov. Matt Mead, walked me through revenue flowcharts on his iPad as I began to understand how our budget works. (Many of those documents are publicly available here.) Renny MacKay, former spokesman for Mead and an old friend of mine from Laramie, often sent me helpful notes and corrections after reading my articles.

Don Richards, the Legislative Service Office budget manager who hails from the Bighorn Basin, has been a fount of knowledge and patient explanations. I liked very much that he sometimes drives hours on the weekend to hit up his favorite fishing holes in Northern Wyoming.

Former state investment officer Michael Walden-Newman gave me a list of the thousands of stocks that Wyoming’s Treasurer’s Office invests in. But before we talked business, he showed me pictures of his kids and told great stories about being a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. He said that people in Africa always greet a new person by asking about their family ties before showing any interest in their careers.

This past week I attended several holiday parties where I crossed paths with people I know both personally and through my work as a reporter. Many had thoughts about recent events in Wyoming news they wanted to discuss. It’s been a privilege and a joy to be part of such conversations, and I plan to stay involved however I can.  Thankfully, Wyoming is a small place, and I’m sure I’ll see many of you again in the future.

Thanks for reading and supporting WyoFile, and keep in touch.

Gregory Nickerson’s top 12 stories of 2015

Lawmaker ejected, non-discrimination bill makes historic progress, Feb. 20.
Libertarian Gore-Tex heiress fuels hidden political donations, Apr 28.
Data trespassing bill is aimed at public lands grazing battle, May 19.
What would it take to bring Wyoming expatriates home?, June 9.
Waning energy revenue could cause 10% budget decline, Sept. 1.
How does Wyoming spend $9.3 billion every two years?, Sept. 8.
Soccer unites Peruvian workers and rural Wyoming ranchers, Sept. 22.
UW report claims no racial profiling in bookstore incident, Oct. 7.
UW president’s worries caused Rothfuss to abandon job offer, Oct. 6.
Lawsuit challenges constitutionality of data trespass laws, Oct. 23.
Gov. Mead’s budget proposes cuts, borrowing from rainy day, Dec. 2.
Laurie Nichols named 26th University of Wyoming president, Dec. 18.

Follow Gregory Nickerson on his public Facebook page and on Twitter @GregNickersonWY.

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About the Author

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Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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13 Responses to Nickerson bids farewell to WyoFile to pursue wildlife

  1. Karen Day January 2, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

    Good luck with your new position. I’ve enjoyed following your progress and writings. Hope our paths may cross again soon.

    Karen Day

    Cody, Wyoming

  2. Michael Walden-Newman December 31, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    Greg: Good for you! Not enough people get to do what they really want to. You’re a real talent I know WyoFile and the rest of us appreciated very much. All the best in your new life. Trust me: change is great!

    Michael Walden-Newman

    Lincoln, Nebraska

  3. Liz Howell December 30, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    Greg, you’ve given back greatly to our State with your well-researched articles. Can’t believe you’d give up the political intrigue and insider view for the opportunity to document Wyoming’s wonderful landscapes and wildlife. You must be giddy with excitement for the new outside opportunity! Best Wild Wishes,

    Liz Howell

    Sheridan, Wyoming

  4. Mike Morris December 30, 2015 at 7:42 pm #

    Did a good bit of freelance reporting for Wyoming PBS during the 2012-14 sessions. Greg was always incredibly knowledgable, helpful, and decent – definitely set a great example for young journalists to follow. You’re a tremendous asset to the University now and I have no doubt that you will be extremely successful in your new position. Congratulations!

    Mike Morris

    Cheyenne, Wyoming

  5. Mike Shay December 29, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    Greg: Best of luck in your new venture. Hope to see more of your insightful reporting and no-nonsense writing style in the future.

    Mike Shay

    Cheyenne, Wyoming

  6. Tom Lubnau December 29, 2015 at 11:07 am #

    Greg was one who always got it right. Whether you liked the essence of the truth or not, Greg always hit the mark. His reporting was a credit to WyoFile, and to his integrity. His unbiased reporting for Wyoming is an asset that will not easily be replaced.

    Tom Lubnau

    Gillette, Wyoming

  7. Bruce Burns December 29, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    I’ve known Greg from his high school days. I’ve always respected his intellect, his objectivity, and his work ethic. I’m proud to consider him a friend. WyoFile will be a lesser journal without him.

    Bruce Burns

    Sheridan, Wyoming

  8. Dan Neal December 29, 2015 at 10:43 am #

    Greg –

    Your departure is a painful loss for Wyoming journalism and WyoFile in particular. Thanks for all your excellent work.

    I hope you’re helping Dustin and the WyoFile board identify a successor.

    Best,

    Dan Neal

    Casper, Wyoming

  9. Alyson Hagy December 29, 2015 at 10:20 am #

    I will miss your sharp, detailed reporting, Greg. And your admirable curiosity. Good luck with the migration work. It’s also important — and fascinating. Here’s hoping Wyofile can find someone hard-working and attentive to fill your shoes.

    Best,

    Alyson Hagy

    Laramie, Wyoming

  10. Donal O'Toole December 29, 2015 at 9:56 am #

    Greg –
    I am sorry to hear you are leaving WyoFile, but pleased to hear you remain in the state – at UW, no less! Thank you for your excellent reporting over the past three years. Many of us depended on your in-depth stories to help figure out why things happen the way they do at the university and in the legislature.
    Sincere best wishes in your new position.

    Donal O’Toole

    Laramie, Wyoming

  11. Barbara Townsend December 29, 2015 at 9:03 am #

    Terrific summation of your time at WyoFile, Gregory. I enjoyed reading your “farewell” article. I’ll miss your insightful reporting in WyoFIle. I’m relieved you’ll still be in Wyoming and we can still enjoy your work. Best wishes to you!

    Barbara Townsend

    Atlantic City, Wyoming

  12. Loring Woodman December 29, 2015 at 8:29 am #

    Greg –

    Sorry to hear that you are leaving WyoFile. I’ve enjoyed your reporting over the last few years and can assure you it will be missed.

    Good luck on your future work with game migrations and stay in touch.

    Loring Woodman

    Wilson, Wyoming

  13. Miles Dahlby December 29, 2015 at 5:24 am #

    Greg,
    All the best to you in your new job! I, too, have moved on from Wyoming politics, but will always be interested in WY and really draw my identity from there.
    Blessings on you in the name of Christ Jesus,
    Miles Dahlby
    Former Lobbyist
    WY Family Coalition

    Miles Dahlby

    Colorado Springs, Colorado

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