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Wyoming's quiet governor faces a brash Interior Secretary, with a bird in the balance

To understand the latest battle over the greater sage grouse one need look no further than how Matt Mead and Ryan Zinke present themselves. Consider the bicep. For Zinke, the Interior Secretary, that’s easy. The department’s website offers a shot of the 56-year-old fly fishing, his flexed arm extended just so. Mead has formidable arms of his own. But the Wyoming governor poses in suits. Or shirtsleeves.

Of course, this isn’t a story about the biceps of western politicians. But it is about a federal administrator who seems close to unraveling one of the governor’s signature achievements — preserving sage grouse protections — and attacking one of Mead’s core beliefs about how politics should be conducted.

Mead exudes decency in his public persona. The 55-year-old prefers committees, task forces and multi-party initiatives to top-down orders. He is about as far from the zeitgeist of national politics in 2017 — the spectacle of clashing, aggressive personalities — as one can be.

If Mead is an outlier, he matches his state well. Wyoming is important, but quietly so. Quietly providing 40 percent of the nation’s coal. Quietly fighting Obama-era regulations in the courts. Quietly spending a decade developing its own conservation plans for the imperiled sage grouse that were eventually picked up by federal agencies and implemented in some form across 11 western states.

Over the summer, Zinke opened a 60-day review of those federal sage grouse management plans put in place to stop the bird from being listed as an endangered species. The review was followed by a notice in the federal register signaling key aspects will be reconsidered. The public has 45 days to respond.

The rushed timeline and long-term risk of weaker plans have led to strange bed fellows looking at Mead as their reluctant champion. And so onto a political landscape, where animosity is increasingly standard, struts an oblivious bird with a bright yellow chest, a swaggering former Navy SEAL-turned-bureaucrat and a mild-mannered western governor who doesn’t believe ruffling feathers gets the job done.

What could go wrong?


“It goes beyond just a bird to me and the reason it does is because what’s at risk.” — Matt Mead, Wyoming governor

It takes time for those new to the sage grouse dance to pick up its rhythm, the political, social and economic resonance it has across the West. From keeping Wyoming’s landscape open and wild to exploring for oil and gas and running livestock, virtually every western issue overlaps with the bird and conserving the places where it lives.

This isn’t as simple as whether the bird can coexist with a drilling rig. Experts say it’s about finding a way to repair a damaged habitat while maintaining the industries and interests of the people who love the West, the people who live and work in it.

“It affects everything. Industry — where they can drill, ranchers — how they graze their cattle,” said Dan Smitherman, Wyoming representative for the Wilderness Society, which opposes wholesale changes to the sage grouse plans that also protect the habitat of about 350 other species.

“It touches the entire political spectrum and nowhere more so than Wyoming.”

The state relies primarily on its energy economy for revenue. Nearly three-quarters of public funds come from taxes on mining companies. When Wyoming developed a sage grouse strategy to stave off an endangered species listing, it did so to protect the bird, sure, but more so to protect everything else. A listing doesn’t offer compromises for the Western way of life and cares little for state economies.

A listing has one objective: save the bird.

A governor has many.


“I certainly have all the confidence in the world in my governor.” — Paul Ulrich, industry representative on the Sage Grouse Implementation Team

On such a contentious issue, Mead is largely seen as having effectively shepherded a sage grouse policy acceptable to almost all those involved.

Now that the basis of the plan may be in jeopardy due to the federal review, those who’ve worked on sage grouse from the beginning — even those who say the plans are too strict, or not strict enough — like Mead’s style.

Mead is in the moderate camp when it comes to Zinke’s review. He believes there is room for improvement and clarification on what are complicated and detailed policies covering a wide span of the West, and Wyoming will be submitting its suggestions for change during the Interior’s public comment period.

But Mead has also voiced doubts.

“We understand that you are considering changing the Department’s approach to sage-grouse, moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states,” wrote Mead and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper in a June letter to Zinke. “We are concerned that this is not the right decision.”

Many interested parties see Mead’s measured approach as an effective counterpoint to the ineffective divisiveness popular of late.

“I really believe there are a lot of us that might have handled (the sage grouse changes) differently,” said Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy advisor for the Audubon Society.

Mead’s leadership, mild and diligent, may prove to be the most effective way to deal with Zinke, he said

A shadow strategy has developed for groups on all sides of the sage grouse debate: campaign for your interests, but stand with Mead while he takes the high road.

And it’s not only environmentalists that side with Mead when he respectfully disagrees with the administration’s approach.

The mining industries are worried. They don’t want a directive out of Washington to control sage grouse management in Wyoming.

“I think there is general concern that Interior’s reopening of the federal plan could result in a ‘top down’ approach and come with significant unintended consequences,” said Travis Deti, director of the Wyoming Mining Association in an email. “With the state plan, we know where we stand. With the feds taking another look, it injects the element of uncertainty.”

The governor has noted this concern, pointing out that constant change isn’t good for Wyoming’s industries, besides being a dismal approach to species management.

Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs for Jonah Energy, is hopeful. Ulrich is a member of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, the body tasked with carrying out and updating the state’s conservation strategy. He believes industry has some valid concerns with the federal rules that can be alleviated without damaging the future of the grouse.

The core group that developed the plans in the first place is still there, and they haven’t changed their approach, he said, despite a number of distracting voices, from industry groups, environmental factions and politics.

“You are not going to affect significant change by battling it out in the media at any level,” Ulrich said, echoing his governor. “Where we have demonstrated success is sitting down at the table ... and having a good conversation that is based in reality and not rhetoric.”


“I guess it’s just however I am,” — Matt Mead, Wyoming governor

On the surface, Mead and Zinke have a lot in common. They were born in western states, went on to prestigious public service careers — Mead as a federal prosecutor, Zinke in the military — and ended up as Republican politicians considered moderates in a party that has veered to the right in recent years.

But Mead? He’s no Zinke.

Less than a year after being elected to the U.S. House in Montana, Zinke offered to become Speaker of the House. When he endorsed Trump, he offered to join the ticket as the vice presidential candidate. Zinke flies an obscure departmental flag when he’s working at his Interior Department office, a move his spokeswoman said is modeled after what military commanders do when they are “in garrison.”

He rode a horse to his first day of work.

Zinke’s also racked up a reputation as something of a bully. During the health care debate this summer, Zinke called Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who was refusing to vote for the GOP plan. Murkowski better fall in line, Zinke allegedly warned, or he might hold up energy development projects in her state.

(Zinke denies doing anything inappropriate and, through a spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Meanwhile, Mead presides over Wyoming’s state government with little pomp. He tends to avoid talking points and favors coalitions over dictates. Mead’s signature initiative this year has been Endow, a 20-year plan to improve Wyoming’s economic diversity through a series of detailed studies and measured recommendations.

Whether or not Zinke’s resolve to change the federal sage grouse plan has raised alarms at the governor’s mansion in Cheyenne, Mead has so far declined to throw out his trusted political playbook.

“I just don’t think there’s any substitute — and particularly the more thorny the issue is — than continuing to reach out and try and find common ground,” he said.

Mead won’t entertain hypotheticals about what happens if his approach fails. But it’s clear this is an important issue to him, and it’s not just about sage grouse or a potential endangered species listing.

“It has meaning to the West beyond just this bird,” Mead said. “It has to do with the collaborative process, with our state being able to determine our own destiny.”

Wyoming’s sage grouse plan brings out one of Mead’s deeper beliefs about politics as they should be. Get him talking long enough and what seems like genuine estrangement from both contemporary politics and his own party start to show through. He speaks of frustration with partisan battles, Republican versus Democrat.

“Those are instruments to help us make better decisions. They are not entities in themselves that are worthy of the protection that we seem to want to provide them,” Mead said in a September interview. “I want to know, is it good for the country? Is it good for Wyoming?”


“(This) sort of approach in Washington is not going to bode well for Wyoming,” — Jennifer Jensen, author of “The Governors’ Lobbyists: Federal-State Relations Offices and Governors Associations in Washington”

But for governors, successfully playing D.C. politics takes more than caring about a state or the nation. It’s often a tricky dance, and perhaps even more so under the current administration.

Jennifer Jensen, a political science professor and author of “The Governors’ Lobbyists,” said governors are most effective when they can argue that a cause has bipartisan support and states are better at handling a given issue than Washington.

But that requires flexibility on the part of administration officials, something Jensen said has not been apparent under Trump. A carefully-negotiated issue like the sage grouse plans, which included input from a broad coalition as well as scientific study, is unlikely to find a sympathetic hearing.

“It hits up against the president — who thinks, ‘OK, I’m going to have the Secretary of Interior do X’,” Jensen said. “That sort of approach in Washington is not going to bode well for Wyoming.”

Wyoming is also disadvantaged by not having an established lobbying presence in Washington. Jensen said that roughly half of all states have employees based in the nation’s capital or a standing relationship with a lobbyist based there. Washington is a city of relationships and Jensen said it’s difficult to be heard if you don’t know who to talk to or what to say.

Mead, for his part, got Zinke’s ear on sage grouse once, at a semi-public Montana event in June where the secretary was speaking to a group of governors. Since then he’s spoken with Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and thinks Bernhardt gets it.

Hendrix College political science professor Jay Barth, who has studied how governors can influence policy, said Mead may have a shot at prevailing in the sage grouse fight. It certainly helps that he’s a Republican working with a Republican administration. And, Barth said, Wyoming has a strong claim to leadership on sage grouse.

But when it comes to Mead’s particular ability to sway federal policy, there’s some bad news.

Barth conducted a study on how the personality of governors across the country corresponded to their effectiveness.

“The two traits that really matter in a positive way are higher levels of desire for achievement and higher levels of desire for power in a traditional sense,” Barth said.

While Mead seems focused on achievement, the business of governance, he hasn’t shown much interest in hardball politics. Barth said that governors who used their public platform to talk about cooperation and unity were generally less effective. When Mead spoke about sage grouse policy at an energy conference in Colorado last Tuesday, he focused precisely on the importance of cooperation.

“If we go down a different road now with the sage grouse, what it says is, when you try to address other endangered species problems in this country, don’t have a collaborative process, don’t work together, because it’s going to be changed,” Mead said. “To me, that would be a very unfortunate circumstance.”


“I do remain convinced that Wyoming’s voice is and should remain strong in this discussion, and we’ll continue to make that the case,” — Matt Mead, Wyoming governor

Mead has faced off with the federal government over sage grouse before, and the former lawyer has an impressive history of suing the Obama-administration on a variety of issues.

It’s a pattern he admits isn’t the best way to develop policy, but regardless of who is in the White House, the governor says his role is to protect Wyoming.

“If we have disagreements with the federal government on an issue that I believe is harmful to our state, I will challenge that in any way that I can,” he said.

Ulrich, from Jonah Energy doesn’t expect a battle this time. But Rutledge, of the Audubon, and a fellow member of the sage grouse team, is rolling up his sleeves.

Both men from either ends of the political spectrum say Mead has a loyal following that will rally around him if things get tough.

“We’ll take the hits with him,” Rutledge said. “I don’t think there is anybody here that won’t walk into the fight with him.”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

University of Wyoming color guard members make their way through the tailgate area Saturday evening on their way to War Memorial Stadium for the annual Border War game against Colorado State.

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Wyoming Women Warriors group grows, evolves

The light blue stickers posted on the front door of Jacquie’s Bistro, Brunch & Bar aren’t large or particularly flashy, but the café’s owner hopes they send a powerful message.

“Me too,” reads one sign. “I believe you,” states the other.

The phrase “Me too” has become a popular rallying cry on social media in the last month, meant to encourage victims of assault to share their stories and support others. And inside the restaurant on Thursday morning sat a handful of women living that message.

Seven members of the Wyoming Women Warriors were gathered at the cozy café to offer guidance and comfort to a woman dealing with the aftermath of leaving an abusive ex-boyfriend. They sipped coffee and talked while reading over police reports and calling up attorneys to see who’s taking on clients.

“It’s something that I don’t feel that I could have faced alone,” said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous.

And that’s the point of the organization—-that no woman should have to be alone, according to founder Aimee Kidd.

The group was created about three months ago to empower victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and has since grown to 350 members, said Kidd. Although the Warriors were initially focused on offering emotional support, the organization has since expanded to include advocacy efforts.

“It’s not us just sitting around and sharing our stories and hashing all that out,” explained Kidd. “It’s proactive.”

Group members accompany women while they attend court hearings or undergo sexual assault forensic testing, raise funds for those who cannot afford attorney fees and physically assist those who need to move out of abusive homes.

The organization partially formed as a result of anger regarding how local police were handling sexual assault cases. Kidd first approached Casper City Council in 2016 with concerns about how police were dealing with a complaint she filed. Prosecutors ultimately declined to pursue charges, citing insufficient evidence. In the meantime, dozens of women had reached out to share their own stories.

This summer’s well-publicized arrest of Casper businessman Tony Cercy, who is facing sexual assault charges related to allegations that he raped an unconscious 20-year-old, also played a role in the group’s creation. Cercy has pleaded not guilty.

Casper City Council member Amanda Huckabay, who was elected in part for her advocacy for sexual assault victims and is a member of the Warriors, said Thursday that she’s elated to see the “Me Too” movement sweeping the nation.

“I think when these things are going on at a national level, it creates momentum,” she explained.

Huckabay compared the country’s current atmosphere to that of a “boiling tea pot,” and said steam is finally starting to be released.

“Women are standing up and saying we’ve had enough,” she remarked.

The “Me Too” social media movement went viral in October as a response to The New York Times investigative report detailing a multitude of sexual assault allegations against prominent film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Huckabay, who has previously identified herself as a rape survivor, said hearing about sexual assault cases can also be difficult for victims. It’s infuriating to think about how many people experience assault, she explained, and it can bring up painful memories about their own experiences. But the group is also glad people are speaking out.

“We have a problem in this community,” said Jacquie’s Bistro owner Jacquie Anderson, adding that she decided to start her own restaurant years ago after repeatedly experiencing sexual assault and discrimination at work.

Anderson wants everyone who enters her downtown establishment to understand that it’s a safe space. Harassment of any sort, be it to a customer or an employee, will not be tolerated.

That’s why she welcomes groups like the one that came together Thursday.

They had returned from a hearing at a nearby Casper courtroom to support the woman trying to obtain a protective order. She recently decided to hire a lawyer, so the hearing Thursday was brief and no conclusion was reached. But that’s not to say it wasn’t stressful.

Moments before entering the courtroom, she was served custody papers from her ex-boyfriend, who is asserting that she should not be allowed to care for their children because he claims she is suicidal.

Group members, some of whom attended the hearing, assured her that attempting to blindside victims before they enter a courtroom is a common technique used by abusers, and urged her not to be intimidated. The woman, who periodically broke down into tears, said she was grateful to have the group’s support throughout this ordeal.

“It’s empowering,” said Kidd. “We’re not going to take this stuff anymore”

Elysia Conner, Star-Tribune  

Wyoming performing artist Paul Taylor talks Friday about a mural project involving students across Wyoming during the Wyoming Arts Summit in Lander.

Wyoming near top for some Obamacare premium prices next year

Some Wyomingites will pay more than $600 a month for a standard bronze plan on the health care exchanges in 2018, the third-highest amount in the nation, according to a new study.

The study, conducted by HealthPocket, found that the average 40-year-old, nonsmoking Wyomingite will pay $608.65 per month for an average, unsubsidized plan. The national average is $426.81. Only Iowa — at nearly $610 — and Nebraska — $618.46 — have higher costs for customers purchasing that plan.

Kev Coleman, HealthPocket’s head of data and research, said there were a number of factors that could explain why Wyoming’s rates were so high. For one, the state has one provider — Blue Cross Blue Shield — for health plans on the exchanges, which, Coleman said, means there’s little economic pressure to lower costs.

“At the core of the issue is the rate and typology of health care usage among enrollees and the cost of delivering that care,” Coleman explained Friday. “The big issue when we’re taking a look at a risk pool, how often is it being used and what type of care is being used? Things like emergency rooms, hospitalizations, specialty drugs. Those are big cost-drivers. It’s much different than someone going into their primary care physician to talk about a cough or flu.”

Essentially, he said, older or more chronically ill Wyomingites are already more likely to use their health care for more expensive, specialty care. That drives costs up, particularly if healthier people aren’t buying plans.

“If you have a more frequent use of higher cost, it creates greater cost, which raises premium,” he continued. “The issue, then, is looking at costs of delivering health care.”

Double-digit increases

Nationally, the analysis found that every level of plan from bronze through platinum would see double-digit percentage increases. The average increase for silver plan premiums compared to last year, for instance, is 31 percent, across several age profiles.

The results come after a tumultuous period for the American health care system, during which President Donald Trump and Republican leaders tried repeatedly to roll back various parts of the Affordable Care Act. Though the legislative efforts largely failed, the president last month took steps to loosen some insurance regulations, and he said the government would stop payments to insurance companies, intended to offset the lower prices those companies must offer to low-income Americans.

Trump had threatened to withhold that money earlier in the summer.

As the debate continued in Washington, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wyoming announced that it planned to increase its premiums for some ACA plans by 48 percent. A spokeswoman for the company said the largest factor in the increase was uncertainty from Washington, particularly related to the potential that insurers would stop receiving the cost-sharing reduction payments.

Coleman said the uncertainty “absolutely” played a role in premium increases and that most insurers had “baked in” the loss of the cost-sharing payments into their rate increases.

In his opinion, the solution to the seemingly eternally rising health costs is looking at new strategies to care for the small, but — for insurers — more expensive population of older, sicker Americans.

That won’t be easy, Coleman acknowledged.

“Much greater attention needs to be given to telemedicine and other means of delivering health care less expensively,” he said. “And we also need to look at how we might create different health care designs for the most expensive people within risk pools. The way you manage and monitor and deliver care for someone who has diabetes can be very distinct from a younger, healthy person in their late 20s or early 30s.”

That means effective strategies and interventions. Wellness efforts, while well-intentioned, are problematic because the most expensive medical problems — like cardiovascular or diabetic conditions — build over years, even decades, of behavior.

In any case, costs are up in Wyoming. A 40-year-old nonsmoker in Wyoming on a standard bronze plan can expect to pay more than $280 every month in premiums than a similar person in Montana. That number grows larger — and more frustrating — as you look at states like Arkansas, where the difference is closer to $300 a month.

“That’s a big chunk of income, just for the difference,” Coleman said.