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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Tom Thompson's glasses seen next to an electric guitar under repair at Tommy Tunes Guitar Repair Tuesday afternoon, May 8, 2018.

Sportsmen push back on oil and gas leasing in western Wyoming mule deer migration corridor

Conservation groups and sportsmen are asking federal land managers to keep oil and gas leases out of a famous mule deer migration corridor in southwest Wyoming, at least until a regional plan exists to mitigate energy development.

The 150-mile corridor runs from the Red Desert to an area called Hoback south of Jackson. It is the longest recorded mule deer migration in the world and has attracted significant attention since it was discovered in 2012.

Later this year, the Bureau of Land Management will hold an oil and gas lease sale with seven parcels of land, totaling 700,000 acres, located in the mule deer corridor, sportsmen say.

Groups including the Muley Fanatatic Foundation, the Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen and the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation are asking federal land managers to defer those leases until the BLM’s Rock Springs field office has released the Green River Resource Management Plan — a broad bundle of policies and directives on everything from oil and gas development to mule deer.

A revised edition of the plan — which was last updated in 1997 — is expected this year. The lease sale in question is set for December.

Josh Coursey, president of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, said the management plan is the result of community participation, from sportsmen to oil and gas developers. Without that document, the federal agency should not move forward with oil and gas leasing in the corridor, he said.

“This kind of undermines that process,” he said. “It really kind of pulls the rug under ya.”

The Bureau of Land Management’s Rock Springs field office does not currently have a spokesman. The state office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Managing mule deer

Wyoming’s mule deer population is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. But unlike the state’s approach to other species, such as the imperiled sage grouse, Game and Fish does not have specific policies regulating oil and gas development in the mule deer corridor. Instead, the agency looks at leases on a case-by-case basis, and makes recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management on how to deal with drilling in the deer’s migration corridor, said Angie Bruce, habitat protections supervisor for Game and Fish.

“We’re not the permitting authority, (so) that’s all we can do,” she said. “It’s more about working with the BLM and the local person who gets the lease and saying, ‘How can we do this to make the least impact on mule deer?’”

The parcels proposed for the December sale are being evaluated by the state department. Its recommendations will be publicly available after the BLM releases a draft environmental analysis for the lease sale, Bruce said.

Federal oil and gas lease sales have brought significant revenue to the state of Wyoming over last year. As the price of oil has improved, and the agency moved to an online bidding system, the number of parcels leased for potential drilling have increased. However, the improved interest in drilling has drawn attention to the energy development that could take place in certain habitats, particularly those belonging to the greater sage grouse.

Mule deer face many of the same challenges to sage grouse, a bird that’s instigating significant conservation investment from the state. Like the bird, the deer’s population has fallen over the last 50 years due in part to fragmented habitat, weather impacts like drought and energy development.

Avoiding infrastructure

Existing concerns about mule deer habitats and oil and gas deepened last year when the University of Wyoming released a study based on 17 years of data on mule deer in the Pinedale Anticline. Once the largest gas field in the country, Pinedale appears to have put significant pressure on mule deer numbers, which declined by 36 percent.

The deer avoided infrastructure, even after the noisy activity of construction had petered out. Some years they strayed closer to wells and pads, others they eked out a living on fragments of good habitat or on the edges, according to the study, “Mule deer and energy development—Long-term trends of habituation and abundance.”

Some of the proposed leases lie within the mule deer’s winter range, the groups argue in a May 2 letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“A common misperception is mule deer ‘acclimate’ or ‘habituate’ to energy development, but long-term studies show deer continue to avoid infrastructure more than ten years after development,” the letter states, quoting from the Mule Deer Working Group’s fact sheet.

Coursey, of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, said the resource management plan represents the best approach for managing the different uses of federal land, from hunting to energy, he said.

“By no means are we against oil and gas. We know the importance of our energy needs for the nation,” he said. “The best-case scenario is to be mindful of the impact so that we aren’t reactive five years from now.”

In their letter to the interior secretary, the sportsmen groups note Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3362, Improving Habitat Quality in the Western Big-game Winter Range and Migration Corridors, and request that the Interior Department provide further guidance before leasing moves forward. The letter was also sent to the BLM Wyoming State Director Mary Jo Rugwell, Gov. Matt Mead and Wyoming’s congressional delegates.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Flowers bloom Tuesday outside Saint Anthony's Catholic Church in downtown Casper. Spring makes a beautiful — but brief — statement around this time each year as Casper's trees and shrubs seem to flower all at once. 

After Grant neighbors balk at idea of homeless shelter, councilman considers North Casper Elementary

City Councilman Dallas Laird received “long letters and long emails” after he floated the idea of buying the vacant Grant Elementary with the aim of eventually transforming it into a homeless shelter.

“There’s not one neighbor in that neighborhood that wants that done up there,” he said of the school, which sits atop a hill above the YMCA near 15th Street in central Casper.

The sentiment from the neighbors, Laird said, could be boiled down to one sentence: It’s a noble idea, but do it in your own yard.

Laird had previously told the Star-Tribune he was interested in buying Grant, an elementary school that was closed last June after 94 years of service, and donating it to the Rescue Mission to turn into a shelter. After that report, Laird said he received long letters, as did the district and the Wyoming Rescue Mission, opposing the suggestion.

At the next school board meeting after the report was published, a woman told the board that she lived near Grant and was monitoring the building’s future.

Laird said he’s starting to shift his gaze toward North Casper Elementary, another school the district is set to put up for sale. Unlike Grant, the building has yet to be appraised twice to determine its value.

The councilman and lawyer said he may still bid on Grant, albeit for a price lower than the average appraised value of roughly $350,000. He said North Casper may be used as a learning center for homeless people, with space for them to stay there overnight if needed.

Brad Hopkins, the executive director of the rescue mission, said the group was honored that Laird had thought of them. But he said he understood that here was no appetite within Grant’s neighborhood to turn it into a shelter.

Still, there’s need in Casper and the state as a whole for more housing like it, he said.

“A year ago it was about 875 (homeless) throughout state,” he said. “And 260 for Natrona County. If you combine all the facilities statewide, there’s not even a third of the bed space based on need. For Natrona County and our region, we’re the only homeless shelter.”

Earlier this month, the district jumped through a final regulatory hoop to begin selling Grant, North Casper, Mills Elementary and the abandoned special education services building. The School Facilities Commission OK’d the plan in early May, clearing the path for the district to advertise for the building’s sales and begin accepting bids.

Dennis Bay, the district’s executive director for business services, said bids are going to be open for Grant around May 31. He said he hopes to bring the bids to the board on June 11, at which time the trustees can accept or reject them.

Mills and Grant are the only two buildings to have been appraised. Next will be the special education building, followed by North Casper.

Laird told the Star-Tribune he may still offer a lower-than-advertised bid on Grant, especially because the building needs a new roof. He said he had also heard that someone was interested in buying the building, tearing it down and building apartments on the plot.

Bay said that if a bidder lowballs the district, the board may accept it, but the buy “better have a real good description on what they’re intending to do with it.”

“Let’s say a nonprofit comes in and says, ‘We’ll give you a $100,000 less, and we want to do this or that,’ then we can turn it over to the trustees and they may or may not accept it,” he said.

The North Casper bidding won’t come before the board until October, Bay said.

N. Korea threatens to cancel US summit

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Wednesday canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea and threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over military exercises between Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang has long claimed are invasion rehearsals.

The surprise declaration, which came in a pre-dawn dispatch in North Korea's state media, appears to cool what had been an unusual flurry of outreach from a country that last year conducted a provocative series of weapons tests that had many fearing the region was on the edge of war. It's still unclear, however, whether the North intends to scuttle all diplomacy or merely wants to gain leverage ahead of the planned June 12 talks between Kim and Trump.

The statement by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency was released hours before the two Koreas were to meet at a border village to discuss how to implement their leaders' recent agreements to reduce military tensions along their heavily fortified border and improve their overall ties.

It called the two-week Max Thunder drills, which began Monday and reportedly include about 100 aircraft, an "intended military provocation" and an "apparent challenge" to an April summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, when the leaders met on their border in their countries' third summit talks since their formal division in 1948. KCNA said the U.S. aircraft mobilized for the drills include nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and stealth F-22 fighter jets, two of the U.S. military assets it has previously said are aimed at launching nuclear strikes on the North.

South Korea's Defense Ministry said the drills will go on as planned.

"The United States must carefully contemplate the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit amid the provocative military ruckus that it's causing with South Korean authorities," the North said Wednesday. "We'll keenly monitor how the United States and South Korean authorities will react."

North Korea's first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, later released a separate statement saying Pyongyang has no interest in a summit with Washington if it's going to be a "one-sided" affair where it's pressured to give up its nukes.

He criticized recent comments by Trump's top security adviser John Bolton and other U.S. officials who have been talking about how the North should follow the "Libyan model" of nuclear disarmament and provide a "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement." He also took issue with U.S. views that the North should also fully relinquish its biological and chemical weapons.

"We will appropriately respond to the Trump administration if it approaches the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting with a truthful intent to improve relations," Kim said. "But we are no longer interested in a negotiation that will be all about driving us into a corner and making a one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes and this would force us to reconsider whether we would accept the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting."

Some analysts say bringing up Libya, which dismantled its rudimentary nuclear program in the 2000s in exchange for sanctions relief, would risk derailing any progress in negotiations with the North.

Kim Jong Un took power weeks after former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's gruesome death at the hands of rebel forces amid a popular uprising in October 2011. The North has frequently used Gadhafi's death to justify its own nuclear development in the face of perceived U.S. threats.

Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, and analysts have wondered whether their continuation would hurt the detente that, since an outreach by Kim in January, has replaced the insults and threats of war. Earlier — and much larger — springtime drills, which Washington and Seoul toned down, went off without the North's typically fiery condemnation or accompanying weapons tests.

South Korean called North Korea's move "regrettable" and demanded a quick return to talks.

Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Baek Tae-hyun said the North's decision goes against the spirit of last month's inter-Korean summit, where the Koreas' leaders issued a vague vow on the "complete denuclearization" on the Korean Peninsula and pledged permanent peace between the rivals. He didn't provide a straightforward answer on whether Seoul sees the North's talks cancellation as potentially affecting the meeting between Trump and Kim.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department emphasized that Kim had previously indicated he understood the need and purpose of the U.S. continuing its long-planned exercises with South Korea. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. had not heard anything directly from Pyongyang or Seoul that would change that.

"We will continue to go ahead and plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un," Nauert said.

Army Col. Rob Manning said this current exercise is part of the U.S. and South Korea's "routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness." Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said the purpose of Max Thunder and exercise Foal Eagle — another training event — is to enhance the two nations' abilities to operate together to defend South Korea.

Casper's Pathways enrollment ticks upward as second year ends but remains well below capacity

Fewer than 300 high school students are set to attend Pathways Innovation Center next year, a bump of as much as 75 students from current levels but still well below the building’s capacity.

The Natrona County school board, district officials and high school leaders met Monday night to provide an update on PIC, which is in the midst of another revamp after its enrollment languished below a quarter of its potential of 1,000 students — 500 in each the morning and afternoon. The building, which cost $25 million and shares a campus with the new Roosevelt High School, will begin its third year in the fall.

But the high school leaders — Pathway’s Ron Estes, Midwest’s Chris Tobin and incoming Kelly Walsh Principal Mike Britt — all expressed determined optimism about the future of Pathways. The building will primarily host KW students in the morning and Natrona County High kids in the afternoon next year, with Roosevelt students attending during both blocks. Many classes offered there will be unique to the facility, but some will have overlap at the other schools.

Britt, who will take over next year for the retiring Brad Diller, said the two large high schools — his Kelly Walsh and Shannon Harris’ Natrona County High — will have Pathways instructors teach introductory courses. The goal will be to make connections between the teachers and their subject areas and the students, who may want to pursue them further at PIC.

“As we get the opportunity for our teachers to get to the big schools, good things are going to happen,” Estes said. “Enrollment this year is what it is. We’re excited about having more students next year.”

Estes, who’s an assistant principal and the top official on-site at Pathways, said the building’s recent open house drew a crowd of hundreds of people. Britt added that word of mouth may spread from older kids to their younger siblings and among parents.

But some members of the board were still concerned. Pathways’ enrollment has been consistently low, to the point that the district abandoned much of PIC’s project- and problem-based learning and academy approach — the curriculum upon which the facility was built — in October.

Trustee Debbie McCullar told the high school administrators it was easy to sit and say that Pathways students will carry the good word of the program back to Kelly Walsh and Natrona County High.

“But we’ve had kids in the building for two years, and that doesn’t seem to be the case,” she said.

“I don’t think you can force them to do it,” Estes replied. “Our draw is certifications. That’s going to be the draw.”

He listed the numbers of students who’ll be receiving certifications this year in CPR, automotive areas and as certified nursing assistants. Plus, the high schools are also moving closer to being on the same schedule, Tobin said.

That was greeted with a literal “hallelujah” from the board.

“I thought that was a sacred cow,” trustee Clark Jensen said.

“It’s taken us two years,” Superintendent Steve Hopkins said.

Trustee Dave Applegate expressed optimism for the future. While fewer than 300 students may not seem impressive given the building’s capacity, a jump of 70 to 75 kids is significant.

“Three hundred’s not enough,” board chairwoman Rita Walsh replied. But she praised the idea of sending teachers to the large schools to sell Pathways. “Kids choose classes by the teachers. If you can get teachers showing them that it’s good, I think that as much as the kids is going to get them. But 300‘s not enough. But we’ll have to go slow.”