THE BIG STORIES UP AND DOWN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS
A curated newsletter from the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West
From the fire lines
Controlled burns help prevent wildfires, experts say. But regulations have made it nearly impossible to do these burns.
Even though the 2021 Marshall Fire made it clear that the fire threat posed by Colorado’s grasslands endangers large urban areas, federal, state and local rules continue to make it difficult to address the risk.
Massive prescribed burn in Larimer County, Colorado, expected to help prevent wildfires for 10 years
"I've learned from this process how important the fires are," a nearby resident said.
Canadian military deployed to help fight Alberta wildfires
Canada brought in the military to help firefighting and recovery efforts in Alberta on Thursday after wildfires forced thousands to evacuate homes and prompted several oil and gas producers to shut operations in Canada's main crude-producing province.
Summer heat in May coming to the Pacific Northwest, rekindling threats from Alberta wildfires
An intense early season heat wave will strike the Pacific Northwest starting Friday, breaking records for several days from Oregon to Alberta. Both Seattle and Portland, Ore., may see their first 90-degree days of 2023.
‘Like Nagasaki’: Devastating wildfires will only get worse, new book warns
The world has entered an unprecedented era of wildfire danger, John Vaillant argues in his upcoming book “Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World,” which chronicles the devastation of Fort McMurray and warns of a hotter, more volatile future.
Fire retardant kills fish. Is it worth the risk?
A lawsuit could change how the Forest Service fights fires.
Colorado lawmaker is reintroducing a bill in Congress that would boost pay and benefits for wildland firefighters
Among other things, Tim’s Act would raise starting wages to $20 an hour for new federal wildland firefighters, increase base pay, provide health care and mental health services as well as provide housing stipends for all firefighters on duty more than 50 miles from their primary residence.
Records show National Park Service anticipated litigation from Montana over Yellowstone bison plan update
Documents obtained through a March records request suggest that in 2022, the National Park Service believed the state of Montana was poised to litigate if Yellowstone bison were not vaccinated and aggressively culled toward a target population of 3,000 animals.
Idaho threatens lawsuit if U.S. doesn’t delist grizzlies from Endangered Species Act
Idaho leaders intend to sue federal officials if the Department of Interior does not remove grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states from the Endangered Species Act list, according to a notice of intent filed Wednesday.
Group threatens to sue state, feds over trapped grizzlies
Missoula-based environmental advocacy group has threatened to sue the state of Montana and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over grizzly bears that get caught in traps set for other animals across the state.
Yellowstone-area grizzly bears have stopped expanding their range
After half-century of expansion, bears reach limit of “suitable habitat,” federal scientists report.
Hunter to pay $10K after mistaking grizzly for black bear
Although a judge praised a Cody hunter for his “very responsible” decision to self-report the violation, the man must pay $10,000 for his role in the mistaken killing of a grizzly bear last spring.
Here’s why Polis appears ready to veto a bipartisan wolf reintroduction bill
The legislation is meant to codify Colorado’s current restoration plan, but the governor worries it could throw a legal wrench into the process.
Idaho Fish and Game proposed a plan to kill majority of wolves. Officials just OK’d it
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission unanimously approved a wolf management plan that will slash the state’s wolf population by 62% — from 1,337 wolves to 500 — over the next several years.
Opinion: Three dead griz raise more doubts about states' ability to manage bruins
In op-ed, wildlife advocate Doug Peacock says Idaho incident points to serious flaws with alleged commitment to bear recovery.
Public land matters
How firing ranges’ hidden costs are passed onto taxpayers
An estimated 160 million pounds of lead is shaped into bullets and pellets each year, representing 4% of all the lead used in the U.S. A significant but unknown portion of this ammunition finds its way into the environment at thousands of outdoor firing ranges, according to the EPA. Some of these sites in Utah are now undergoing costly cleanups at taxpayer expense where decades of gunfire have left soils saturated with lead on publicly owned properties.
Greater Yellowstone Coalition announces bid to buy gold mine on Yellowstone's north border
In an ambitious and time-constrained fundraising effort, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition announced Thursday it needs to raise more than $2.5 million by Oct. 1 to purchase a gold mine on Yellowstone National Park’s northern border.
Survey of National Park Service employees shows an agency that's 'fallen on hard times'
Working at a national park is no picnic, according to a new survey of employees.
Tribes: Utah bid to reject monuments is 'absurd and confusing'
Native American tribes this week pressed a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the boundaries of two national monuments in Utah, asserting state officials misread a 1906 law to obtain “absurd and confusing results.”
Barrasso bill would block sweeping BLM public lands rule
Senate Republicans are trying to block a rule proposed by the Bureau of Land Management that would place conservation on equal footing with energy development, recreation and other uses of bureau lands.
Idaho legislative committee hears from opponents of BLM's proposal to protect public lands
An Idaho legislative committee that was created to be a check on federal power met Tuesday, taking testimony against a proposed federal rule on conservation and public land management — amid drought, wildfires and other drastic changes in the West.
Zinke introduces bill to improve collaboration between parks, gateway communities
Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke has teamed with Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) to introduce bipartisan legislation to aid communities adjacent to national parks deal with the impacts of skyrocketing visitation.
Water resources face increasing pressure, from chemicals to crowding
As Montana’s population has grown, development, drought, disease, invasive species and recreation have combined to put more and more pressure on the state’s water resources in all their forms — from rivers, lakes and streams to groundwater.
How development forced Bozeman’s namesake creek underground
The plight of Bozeman Creek is an indicator of how the health of waterways in Greater Yellowstone and the West are facing a multitude of damaging threats.
Could Grand Teton National Park’s Oxbow run dry?
Oxbow Bend, a tourist hot spot known for its breathtaking views of the Snake and Teton Range behind it and the habitat it provides for fish and other wildlife, is at risk of drying out this spring. The solution — using up all of Wyoming’s allocated storage — is only a stopgap.
J.R. Simplot Company sued for alleged pollution on the Snake River
Snake River Waterkeeper, a nonprofit advocacy organization, claims its water tests near Simplot’s Grand View Feedlot show dramatically higher bacteria content due to runoff from livestock waste.
Indigenous tribes were pushed away from the Colorado River. A new generation is fighting to save it.
As climate change diminishes flows in the Colorado River, regional leaders are negotiating its future and Indigenous people want that to include establishing their full access to the water.
A New Mexico pueblo’s antiquated irrigation system is being tested by drought, wildfires
Water is scarce in much of the Mountain West. That’s why, every spring, one tribe spends days cleaning ditches that are vital to irrigating their farmlands. But aging infrastructure and the effects of climate change are making it harder for farmers to get enough water – even after the cleanings.
New book and interactive map spotlight the threat of aging dams in the West
A new interactive story map shows many of the nation’s dams are aging. That poses a threat to downstream communities, including dozens in the Mountain West.
Can we engineer our way out of drought?
The Low Flow Conveyance Channel suggests the answer is "no."
Colorado gets $5 million more from U.S. to help clean up Gold King Mine blowout
The federal government will pay Colorado $5 million more for ongoing cleanup of the Gold King Mine spill into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
Half of the West out of drought, but not fully recovered
NOAA hydrologists said deep snowpack across much of the West will bring short-term relief, but the equally deep “bathtub rings” at Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs are a reminder of the long road to bringing supply and demand in balance.
Dispatches from the energy transition
EPA: New pollution limits proposed for U.S. coal, gas power plants reflect 'urgency' of climate crisis
The Biden administration proposed new limits Thursday on greenhouse gas emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants, its most ambitious effort yet to roll back planet-warming pollution from the nation’s second-largest contributor to climate change.
Is carbon capture viable? In a new rule, the EPA is asking power plants to prove it.
For years, fossil fuel companies and utilities have touted carbon capture and storage, or CCS, as a way to cut climate pollution from the power sector. Now, federal regulators are asking them to walk the walk.
EPA carbon emissions plan raises challenges for Colstrip
Montana’s Colstrip Power Plant is one of the nation’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide pollution, with about 10.9 million tons emitted in 2021.
Biden is scrambling for minerals. This U.S. cobalt mine just closed.
White House clean energy adviser John Podesta this week touted a cobalt mine in Idaho as just one example of a new domestic critical mineral project getting permits and coming online to support a booming electric vehicle industry. There’s just one problem: The mine quietly stopped construction in late March, a victim not of government red tape but of the vagaries of a global marketplace.
How can we speed up solar and wind energy? Here are some ideas
How can we start resolving the conflicts that have plagued renewable energy development, rather than just talk about them? What are the specific steps that will allow us to accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuels?
Growing eggplants and electricity to benefit both?
In Colorado's North Fork Valley, Mark Waltermire grows hundreds of varieties of vegetables. Will he be able to add electricity to his community offering?
Idaho awarded $20 million to study future energy and water use in state
Idaho researchers will receive $24 million for a new research project on the impact of changes in climate, population and technology on energy and water use in Idaho.
Lawmakers back speedier dam licenses for grid, climate goals
Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) announced Wednesday a fresh legislative effort to speed up hydropower licensing, arguing that looming dam closures threaten power grid reliability and climate goals.
BLM seeks comments on proposed Star Range Solar Project in southwest Utah
The proposed Star Range Solar Project could generate up to 600 megawatts of electricity on approximately 4,288 acres of public land managed by the BLM.
U.S. regulators OK spent nuclear fuel facility in New Mexico
U.S. nuclear regulators licensed a multibillion-dollar complex to temporarily store tons of spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico from commercial power plants around the nation, a decision likely to be challenged in court.
Norwegian company wants tax breaks for possible Butte factory
Norwegian company developing silicon-based materials for higher-density batteries with faster and longer-lasting charges is considering Butte and three other locations to build a large manufacturing plant.
What else we’re reading today
Extreme heat will take an unequal toll in tribal jails
Decades of inadequate funding and rising temperatures are putting Indigenous detainees at risk.
Arlee family seeks answers in deadly Highway 93 crash
Mika WestWolf, a Native woman, was hit and killed while walking on Hwy 93. Officials are investigating Sunny White, who ascribes to White nationalist ideology and whose children are named "Aryan" and "Nation."
Native-serving financial institutions ‘fill gaps,’ but new federal rules could undermine them
Community development financial institutions fill gaps in the economy, but many worry that new federal rules could undermine their work.
Why inflation runs hottest in the Mountain West
Annual inflation peaked at over 10% last year in the Mountain West. It was running at an annual rate of 6% in March, a whole percentage point higher than the national average. The cost of housing accounts for a third of the CPI. So, it adds up that the index is running hottest in the region.
With growth seemingly inevitable in Utah’s future, residents are urged to weigh in
Gov. Spencer Cox urged residents Thursday to help prepare for a future of “more,” telling them to speak up about the urgent challenges posed in particular for housing and water supplies, transportation, open spaces and recreation access.
Idaho leads the U.S. in child population growth. The kid demographic has shrunk in most states.
In Idaho and North Dakota, annual school enrollment has increased over the past five years, except for temporary drops early in the pandemic. But Idaho is bracing for a decline starting in 2025, when children from a historic 2007 baby boom in the state start turning 18.
‘It seems they’re on hyperdrive’ — at least 9 Utah communities have opened the door to inland port projects
Utah Inland Port Authority’s mission to develop a massive international import-export hub in Salt Lake City, piled high with shipping containers and idling semi trucks, appears to be on pause for now, if not outright abandoned. Instead, the focus has shifted to smaller truck-to-train intermodal sites in key areas of the state.
Fernie’s fight: Emotions run high over looming decision to develop a stretch of B.C. forest
A proposed housing development on the Galloway Lands, just outside Fernie, B.C., has sparked concerns about wildlife, affordable housing and recreation.
Atlanta Falcons owner puts 8,800-acre Paradise Valley Ranch in conservation easement
The largest conservation easement in the Paradise Valley was recently created when Arthur Blank signed a deal with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust for his 8,800 acre Paradise Valley Ranch.
A first step toward decoupling livestock feed from the land
Pushing the boundaries of synthetic nutrition, researchers have turned CO2 from the air into a protein substitute for animal feed.
Lawsuit: Oil and gas pollution violates New Mexico's constitution
A coalition of Indigenous and environmental groups filed a lawsuit this week against the state of New Mexico, alleging the state has failed to protect the earth, air and water against pollution, as spelled out in the New Mexico constitution.
Commentary: A Supreme Court ruling the fossil-fuel industry doesn’t like
Communities can now sue in state courts for compensation for the costs of climate change—something oil companies have fought against for years.
Climate anxiety is more common than you think. These CU Boulder students want to help
Four students wanted to learn more about climate anxiety, how it’s affecting others at CU Boulder and to see whether they could offer any help. Their project started as an assignment in a Environment, Media, and Society class and ended up as a website and Instagram account to share their findings.
Edited by Matthew Frank, associate director of regional journalism at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana
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