As 2016 comes to an end, WyoFile pauses to take a look back at the Wyoming news landscape, highlighting the stories readers liked most from the last 12 months. From bathing grizzly bears to laid-off coal miners, from environmental battles to the awe inspired by a mammoth bull elk, WyoFile readers experienced many facets of the Equality State. Here’s a summary.
Readers showed they were ready for the 100th anniversary of the birthday of the National Park Service when they flocked to a story about the documentation of bear bathtubs in Yellowstone National Park. Park scientists and photographers working for National Geographic documented a swimming hole used by grizzlies to cool off during the summer.
“Park researchers discovered the pool some years ago while retrieving a radio collar that slipped off a grizzly,” our story read. It referenced the latest edition of Yellowstone Science, a collection of articles regarding research in the federal reserve. Yellowstone’s bear management biologist Kerry Gunther edited the issue.
Bears played in the pool, brought their cubs along, and marked the area with scent. “It appears that bears enjoy a nice cold soak on a hot summer’s day as much as humans do,” the Yellowstone Science article said. “The bear bathtub is just one of the many special places in Yellowstone National Park that grizzly bears have helped us discover.”
WyoFile’s most-read article in February was actually written in 2015. Kelsey Dayton’s story about archaeology in the Shirley Basin must have struck an internet nerve because thousands of readers looked it up months after it was first published.
Archaeologist Bryon Schroeder believes the Shirley Basin site could be connected to ancient villages recently discovered in the Wind River Mountains. The villagers may have spent the summers in the high alpine and the rest of the year in the basin.
Among articles written in February 2016, one about Lincoln County Commissioners and a struggle over access to public lands drew the most attention. The county restricted public access when it sold a strip of land in 2013 to a longtime Idaho rancher. One outcome was that the environmental watchdog group Western Watersheds Project could not use the route to monitor grazing conditions. The issue revealed how public access and trespass emerged as environmental conflicts across the state.
At 84, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson wasn’t ready to sit on the sidelines of national or local politics.
He remained a member of the ReFormers’ Caucus — a bipartisan group of former members of Congress and governors working to reduce the influence of money in politics.
“My dad always taught me, if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, then do,” Simpson said. “Instead of bitching, get in the game.”
He spoke with WyoFile about the allure of Donald Trump and the crippling grip of money in politics — what he calls a cancer on American democracy. “All of us have felt the sting of having to raise the bucks, having to waste the time, having to beg and scrap and get out there,” he said. “And be careful of sticking this bill in or the AARP will tear you up. Or the NRA will tear you up. Or the teachers will tear you up. Or the cowboys will tear you up. Sure. How do you think it works?”
Citing a prolonged weak market made worse by the warmest winter on record, the nation’s two largest coal companies announced massive layoffs at their Wyoming mines. Peabody Energy cut 235 miners, and Arch Coal cut 230 miners on “Black Thursday.” That represented about 15 percent of each company’s Wyoming workforce. Both companies are based in St. Louis, Missouri and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016.
“We regret the impact of these actions on our employees, their families, and the surrounding communities in the Campbell and Converse county areas,” Peabody Americas president Kemal Williamson said in a prepared statement.
Sean Seems, who worked at several Powder River Basin coal mines, left in 2015 to move to Alaska to work there. “One of my friends just bought a house in Wright just after I left,” he said. “I think about that and think, gosh, if he loses his job what is he going to do? … A lot of my friends I worked with live in Douglas and Casper, not just Gillette. Right now the market in all three of those is not strong.”
For the past four winters visitors to the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole have glimpsed a mammoth elk that’s drawn worldwide attention for its large antlers. When the elk comes to the refuge for its winter range and supplemental feeding program, the big bull hangs out on the remote McBride feedground. He’s elusive.
Lynn Bagley, who drives horse-drawn sleighs and wagons among the wintering elk for Bar T 5 outfitters, told a wildlife guide to come on a tour. Jody Tibbitts, a guide with Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, brought a group to the refuge and Bagley showed them something special. With his iPhone, Tibbitts filmed the big bull and posted a 17-second clip.
“I got about 2,000 friend requests on Facebook,” he said. “I got people from the Middle East, Mongolia, China, Brazil, Mexico, all the Asian countries. That thing got shared probably 75,000 times. I had 1.1 million views just on my page. I know the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has close to 1 million views. I’m assuming it got over 2 million views.”
On the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service, stupid-tourist stories rolled out of the world’s first national park like water down the Lewis River Canyon. WyoFile discovered one mishap — a goring by a bison — that people could laugh at.
The victim this time was Helvetica Man, the international graphic representation of a human that marks almost every public men’s restroom, the story said. “You’ve seen Helvetica Man before — slipping on wet floors and falling over crumbling cliffs. His latest misadventure appears on thousands of flyers being distributed at entrance stations to the world’s first national park.”
Helvetica Man put a more soulful figure out of work. Millions of Yellowstone visitors will no longer be warned by drawings depicting the bison-launched, Anguished Airborne Illustrated Tourist.
Graphic artist Diane Benefiel of Wilson bemoaned the change. “The guy’s face in the original one is more effective,” she said. “He looks like he’s getting killed, fearing for his life. The other one [Helvetica Man] is just kind of cold and non-emotional.”
As wildfires broke out across Wyoming, WyoFile traveled to the headquarters camp of the Cliff Creek Fire near Bondurant, where hundreds of firefighters from across the West were ensconced. Our most popular story in July was a series of portraits, Faces of the Firefighters, that was taken during a visit to the camp.
New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for her piece “The Big One” about a potential earthquake on the west coast. This year she published a remarkable story called “Citizen Khan” about Wyoming’s 100-year-old Muslim community. WyoFile’s former editor Rone Tempest interviewed Schulz about what started out as “a tawdry flap over a new mosque in Gillette.”
Her story documented the life of Zarif Khan, the owner of a small restaurant in Sheridan. Tempest wrote: “In 1926, he was stripped of his American citizenship under the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which federal courts had determined to include South Asians like Zarif Khan. Enduring one of the cruelest eras of American immigration law, Khan did not win back his US citizenship until 1954.”
Said author Schulz, “One of my purposes as a writer was to show how remarkable it was that this man’s life intersected directly with this terrible era in American history, where we were denaturalizing citizens. I think it is unquestionably true that Sheridan Wyoming in 1909 was a shockingly cosmopolitan place and certainly in many ways as diverse and accepting of its diversity as it is today.”
Regarding the future, she’s uncertain. “I don’t think that everything is inevitably getting better all the time and that we are so much more enlightened than we were 100 years ago when Zarif Khan first showed up in Wyoming,” she said.
When the mountain community heard of the death of Alpinist Kim Schmitz of Jackson, they recalled a life of astonishing climbs around the world. It was unsettling that he would die in a car crash. Schmitz, a climbing guide, had been crippled by a series of climbing accidents, prostate cancer and addiction to drugs and alcohol. He fought his way back time after time.
Able to hobble only with a pair of canes, friends took him on a wilderness whitewater adventure down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. There, he was at peace, free from the obstacles, hospitals and traffic of his regular life. Initial reports said he died in a car crash driving home from that trip.
WyoFile investigated the crash along the banks of the Salmon River and discovered Schmitz made one last excursion after the Toyota 4Runner he was driving smashed into a boulder in the dark. He walked down to the banks of the Salmon River, found a large tree and lay down for his last bivouac.
After years as the only journalist pursuing in depth the story of Michael J. Ruffatto and his failed Two-Elk coal-fired plant near Gillette, Rone Tempest saw the entrepreneur charged with criminal fraud. The charges were “for bills he submitted under a 2009-2010 federal stimulus grant to research carbon storage on his site in rural Campbell County,” Tempest reported.
Ruffatto has since pleaded guilty, awaits sentencing and faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and possible restitution.
“The North American Power Group and its chief executive were the focus of a seven-part WyoFile investigative series, ‘The Two Elk Saga,’ that appeared in May and June 2014,” Tempest wrote. “Notable among the questionable government payments received by Ruffatto, WyoFile reported, was a $2,791,103 invoice from his subsidiary North American Land & Livestock, ostensibly to develop the site. Ruffatto also used the stimulus funds to pay himself and his vice president Brad Enzi, the son of Wyoming’s senior U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, more than $1.2 million in salaries over a two-year period.”
He faces sentencing Feb. 3, 2017.
After the upset election that saw Donald Trump win the presidency, Pete Simpson offered some thoughts about politics — both nationwide and in Wyoming. A member of a political dynasty himself, Simpson garners attention when he opines about his Equality State.
“Wyoming’s political identity is made up of a fiercely patriotic, often parochial, always cautious constituency that prizes leaders who are plain spoken, folksy and accessible,” he wrote in our most popular piece published in November. “We value tolerance of others, even those from outside, so long as they accede to deep-seated Wyoming values and are accepting of Wyoming’s self image. We prize amateurism in politics and despise bureaucracy. As the founding fathers intended, our representatives in the political realm live with the people they represent and live with the laws they make. And, because of that they are more amenable to compromise and political accommodation for the good of the state as a whole.”
But things have changed. “I’m sorry to say, that longstanding political identity is being challenged by outside forces,” Simpson wrote. “In this case it is not alleged federal intrusions, but outside dollars funneled through large PACs and 501(c)(4) social-welfare, dark-money organizations. Republic Free Choice, an offshoot of the Wyoming Liberty Group, the Brophy PACs and others are among these. People elected last week have benefited from that funding.”
Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent is fearful the proposed removal of federal protection for grizzly bears could diminish wildlife watching in the world’s first national park, he told WyoFile in December.
There is enough ambiguity in federal grizzly bear plans that Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk is worried they could lead to a declining population. Fewer bears would undercut one of the prime draws to Yellowstone, where the Park Service has found that 99 percent of those visiting hope to see a bear and 67 percent actually see one.
“This is one of the greatest wildlife-viewing opportunities,” Wenk said. A potential shift in the wildlife landscape “changes dramatically the visitor experience coming to Yellowstone,” he said.