CHEYENNE — Smokers in Wyoming would pay an additional $1 per pack and roughly $10 more per carton under a measure given a tentative green light by the Legislature’s revenue committee.
POWELL — Karl Bear walked towards the back of a chukar pen to the sound of half-hearted applause. Dozens of partridges beat their wings nervously, crowding against one another and against the rear fence.
By ones and twos, birds made a break for it, winging past the round-shouldered man in the denim shirt, until all the birds were in the air, launching themselves toward the front of the pen. Bear hunched down with a grin.
Bear is a bird farmer in Powell, but he grew up in sage grouse country on the northern edge of Montana. He has watched the famous bird blink out in the wild and read about the political and environmental controversy of saving the grouse from further declines.
And he’s asked himself, could a farmer approach the sage grouse question from a new angle and perhaps do his part in keeping the bird from an endangered species listing?
“I don’t have a lot of biology background,” Bear said. “But I’ve worked with birds for the last 22 years.”
The whole affair has conservationists and biologists in the state shaking their heads. They’ve pushed back on the idea of captive rearing sage grouse since Bear and his financial backer, oilman Diemer True, pressed the Wyoming Legislature for the opportunity.
“My thoughts on captive breeding the bird is it’s a waste of time, a waste of energy and a waste of money,” said sage grouse biologist Matt Holloran.
But True and Bear have been dogged in their attempt.
If the state’s wildlife agency gives the go-ahead, Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds will test the first sage grouse captive breeding program in Wyoming in a matter of months. By spring thaw they could be collecting wild eggs and bringing them to incubators in Powell, where, fingers crossed, Bear’s chicks will hatch, grow to maturity and breed.
But it’s about more than just an experiment in bird rearing. In recent months the controversy of captive breeding has come to the fore of a much larger sage grouse debate as new political leadership takes aim at regulations that hamper the key industries of the West, the economic drivers of Wyoming. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke mentioned captive breeding as a possible approach to failing populations when heralding a massive sage grouse management review mid-summer. And diverse voices from biologists to Gov. Matt Mead have discouraged it as a path to failure for saving the imperiled bird.
For the farmer in a chukar pen in northwest Wyoming, the debate is distant and frivolous. The birds are in decline, why not try to grow more?
Saving the grouse has been a longstanding challenge in Wyoming, home to about 40 percent of the bird’s population. Its declining numbers brought the risk of an endangered species listing, which in turn threatened strict rules on oil and gas development, ranching and mining.
Wyoming’s economy is heavily dependent on those industries, but its people are variously proud of Wyoming’s wildness, its oil, gas and ranching heritage and its conservation efforts.
The sage grouse sits at a cross section of these conflicting values. It’s also the canary in the proverbial coal mine.
If the birds are in decline, you can assume that Wyoming’s sage brush ecosystem is, too, said Halloran, the sage grouse biologist.
Any research about this bird and its habitat in Wyoming is likely to turn up some of Halloran’s work. He’s been studying sage grouse in Wyoming since the mid-’90s, around the time when the bird’s dropping numbers started to alarm the scientific community. He’s an expert in the ways sage grouse respond to development and the ways to mitigate against disturbances like oil and gas drilling.
And he is dead set against what True and Bear are planning to do. He doesn’t believe they’ve thought it through.
There are a handful of important figures in sage grouse research in Wyoming and with the state’s record of working across disciplines to conserve the bird, they all know each other. Every debate that reaches the public ear has already been hashed out in hallways and hotel lobbies across the state. The Powell farm is no different.
“This has been my argument to [True],” Halloran said. “Focus on the gaps in our knowledge, and there is no (such) focus.”
The grouse farm, as far as Halloran can tell, won’t answer any of the mysteries that exist about sage grouse, and it doesn’t complement the habitat protections Wyoming is known for.
Wyoming led the charge on protecting the grouse by taking a broad view of the landscape. The Wyoming way, mimicked in federal land use plans that now hang in limbo, identifies areas that should prioritize the grouse and those where other uses like oil and gas take precedence. Controversial at first, the approach pleases scientists like Halloran who say there isn’t a sage grouse numbers problem but a sage grouse habitat problem. Industries and ranchers may not agree on some of the hoops they are asked to jump through when drilling or grazing in sage grouse territory, but they’ve been instrumental in hashing out this compromise to protect the bird.
Captive breeding is generally a hail Mary for a dying species. So it worries biologists committed to improving habitat.
They lost that battle in Wyoming when the Legislature agreed to the five-year trial period for grouse farming. But they dusted off their debating notes when the Interior Department plugged captive breeding earlier this year, part of their push to boost energy development by opening up federal regulations for review and revision.
Though some of the debate has cooled over the last few months, as Wyoming’s sage grouse leaders sat down to the business of discussing change, environmental groups say the federal government has taken a path that is not supported by their years of research on the grouse. and, they are confident that the way forward from the Interior Department’s perspective is a way backwards to conservationists.
The Powell farm may be a small effort by a few people, but it’s linked to this larger disagreement for some.
There’s a valid concern about the approach by Diamond Wings, said Halloran, but just how worrisome the farm is in the larger context of sage grouse management, he wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know that I’m overly concerned with the one farm in Powell,” he said. “I think that it’s a bad precedent, and it has the potential to refocus our efforts. We cannot have that happen right now.”
There hasn’t been a rush of farmers eager to try raising the finicky bird. Though the state’s rules allow up to five farms to be certified, only one has so far applied. It’s too expensive, with little promise of a financial return, some argue.
Diamond Wings wouldn’t be able to do it without the financial support of True, said Bear.
True is a lean and tall figure with a sharp profile. He’s is a former state senator and a well-known member of one of Casper’s prominent oil and gas families.
Diemer’s father, H.A. Dave True, started his first company in Wyoming with a partner in 1954. That firm become True Companies and the family-owned business persists as a myriad of businesses from oil and gas exploration to crude pipelines to ranching.
True sold his share of the family business in 2006 and founded his own firm, Diamond Companies. He has served as chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. He won the Chief Roughneck award in 2008 for a lifetime of promoting the industry.
Saving the grouse goes hand in hand with preserving the future of industry in Wyoming, for True. It’s not an unusual perspective. Many of the sage grouse figures in Wyoming are tied to industries. They arguably have the most to lose if sage grouse efforts go haywire. An endangered species listing would hit industry hard and fast.
“Listing the bird has the potential of an annual (negative) economic impact of $5.6 billion across the 11 states that have the bird,” True said.
He and Bear forged a friendship when True was a customer, purchasing pheasants and chukers to be released on his property and hunted. In 2016, True bought the farm, kept Bear on to manage it and petitioned lawmakers for a chance to raise sage grouse.
The former Wyoming senator recently joined the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team as well, a cross section of the various groups interested in sage grouse management in Wyoming, from mining companies to environmental groups.
Like Bear, he believes breeding the bird in captivity could help with the larger problem of declining numbers. It’s been done with other animals, from the black-footed ferret to the peregrine falcon, he said.
But he doesn’t agree with some who say farming is a distraction from the habitat approach. The existence of those habitat protections allows for experiments like the Powell farm that are another way Wyoming can keep an endangered species listing at bay, he argued, reiterating comments he’s made in recent months standing before the Game and Fish Commission and in public meetings on sage grouse farming.
“This is not a silver bullet,” he said. “I think people misunderstand that.”
Talk of captive breeding from the head of the Interior Department created a panic in the conservation community earlier this year.
Bob Budd, chairman of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team has been preaching calm ever since.
Whether it’s captive breeding or population targets, Wyoming’s approach to managing this bird is not going to be derailed, he said.
“I don’t anticipate we are going to change (dramatically),” he said. “The reason is pretty simple: It’s worked.”
He said he’s skeptical of the Powell experiment for some of the same reasons biologists are. But there’s no harm in them trying, he said.
“I think it’s one attempt by someone who wants to see if they can do it,” he said. “We are open minded (in Wyoming) and are willing to take risks that are calculated.”
Other key figures in Wyoming’s sage grouse round table are also willing to give Bear and the bird farm a shot. In fact, the attempt to hatch chicks isn’t much of a challenge.
That part’s been done, at the Calgary Zoo in Canada most recently, and for the last two decades by scientists studying the imperiled Attwater’s prairie chicken in Colorado.
“It won’t surprise me to see the folks have success actually raising birds in captivity,” said Tom Christiansen, the sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game And Fish Department.
“I think the Bears have shown their interest, their passion, their capability of raising captive game birds,” he said. But the real problem with captive breeding, and the challenge if it is ever a necessity for grouse in Wyoming, is that the birds don’t survive in the wild, Christiansen said.
They don’t adapt and there are a host of unknowns that come along with releasing captive birds into the wild, from disease risks to watered down genetics.
There hasn’t been any planning for those challenges, yet, he said.
Game and Fish was tasked by the Legislature to develop the rule book for sage grouse farming and it’s also the leading agency in Wyoming’s effort to protect the bird’s habitat.
There’s no harm in knowing more about captive rearing the grouse, particularly while the population is still arguably healthy enough to withstand eggs being taken from wild nests, Christiansen said.
But like most biologists, Christiansen said captive breeding is an end of the line effort, not a conservation strategy.
“If we actually ever needed to apply it, it’s going to be a sad story,” he said. “It will mean we have failed.”
It was a cold afternoon outside of Powell in mid-December. Bear made his rounds on the Diamond property, a quaint farmhouse at the intersection of two country roads, surrounded by fields the color of dust.
The bird pens, connected by corridors that lead to the barns, look like the grounds of an old nursery. Instead of roses, the greenhouse-like yards topped with netting house brightly plumed pheasants and quick-moving chukars.
Bear has a number of options for where he’ll place the sage grouse if he gets the chance. A breeding area here, a hatching area there. Knowing the habitat demands of the bird, he’s let a field go wild with brush for a future flock of grouse. He and True recently submitted their application to the Game and Fish Department. But they haven’t started the work of preparing sage grouse pens or converting buildings for the bird. They are waiting for state approval before they invest.
Bear said he’s not sure how much this will cost. True declined to speculate. But the Calgary Zoo is spending about $5 million on its captive program, Bear said.
The five-year window for trying bird farming, as per the Legislature, is already down to four years without a single egg collected from the wild.
The groundwork is laid, but it’s an admittedly tight timeline, Bear said. He’s banking on his experience learned from other birds to lead him through. His strategy, since the family started bird farming in 1995, has been trial and error, he said.
“We’ve raised a lot of different birds and they all have their unique little deal about them,” he said. “You’ve got to learn.”
In some ways the grouse’s behavior will differ. Biologists say it needs sage brush to eat, whereas pheasants and chukars eat corn and enriched pellets. In other areas, raising grouse will be much the same, he expects. The incubator system set up for the game birds, which gently rocks the eggs to simulate a hen’s movements and keeps humidity and temperature at a perfect pitch, should work for grouse as well.
He’s is aware of the push back, and it disheartens him.
Driving his pickup through the beet field that separates the hatchery and the bird pens, he wondered at the mentality of those who don’t want him to go forward, or are convinced that he’ll fail.
“It is controversial, the privatizing of wildlife, I understand that,” Bear conceded of the broader issues with captive breeding the wild bird.
Then he rallied, debating strategies with himself, throwing out ways he could collect the bird eggs without damaging wild nests. Maybe instead of using dogs to find clutches, they can radio collar hens at night when the birds are calm and docile, he said. Then picking up eggs will be as easy as coming back later.
“I think we are going to overcome a lot of [debates],” he added. “But we’ll never know until we try.”
Better Wyoming first caught the attention of several state lobbyists in August when the group published a biting broadside attacking three of them: Dave Pickard, Mark Larson and Mike Moser.
The organization was angry that the Legislature’s revenue committee decided not to raise cigarette taxes, and it colorfully laid blame on the trio of lobbyists.
“A group of men comes together in a parking lot to slap each other on the back and loudly proclaim victory,” the online post read. “They’re not athletes after a football game. They’re lobbyists working for the tobacco industry—and they’re amped up and giddy outside the Days Inn in Thermopolis, where moments before each had testified.”
CHEYENNE — Smokers in Wyoming would pay an additional $1 per pack and roughly $10 more per carton under a measure given a tentative green light by the Legislature’s revenue committee.
The article cryptically added: “They don’t realize Better Wyoming is standing there watching—not that they would care if they did.”
Better Wyoming, in that case, was Nate Martin, a 34-year-old Rock Springs native and the organization’s only full-time employee. During the last year, Martin has guided Better Wyoming from an obscure offshoot of the liberal political nonprofit Forward Wyoming into an increasingly prominent political voice known for its controversial online posts, adding an explicitly public face to the small cluster of privately-funded progressive groups in the state.
Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association, is no fan of Better Wyoming. He said that in addition to the insults, the organization has gotten facts about him wrong. But he said Better Wyoming’s approach to writing about the Legislature is unique, merging on-the-ground reporting with strong opinions — promoting liberal politics in a way the state has rarely seen.
“I can’t think of a conservative pseudo-news source in Wyoming,” he said. “But part of it is we’re so conservative we don’t need it.”
While colorful political opinions abound in online comments, social media rants and letters to the editor, Better Wyoming is tied to Wyoming’s mainstream left. It was created as the communications arm of Forward Wyoming, a left-leaning political group backed by Jackson philanthropist Liz Storer, who also funds the liberal political consulting firm ELLA WY.
Before Martin joined Better Wyoming ahead of last year’s legislative session, the group was best known for an interview that longtime Wyoming newspaper journalist and former Casper Star-Tribune employee Kerry Drake conducted with then-Rep. Gerald Gay, a Casper Republican. Gay would eventually gain national attention for his comments suggesting that the gender pay gap was due to women taking too many sick days and being undependable. But Better Wyoming itself didn’t attack Gay for his remarks, it simply posted the interview in question-and-answer form on its website.
A Casper lawmaker’s comments about women being undependable workers because they take long maternity leaves and too many sick days puts him at odds with some Republican colleagues in the Wyoming House – and could conflict with his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Martin said that when he started with Better Wyoming he and Drake started collaborating on the writing. That’s when Martin began shifting the organization’s voice toward its current cheekiness.
“Kerry would come at me with these pieces ... written out in a newspaperly manner,” Martin said. “Then we’d talk about what happened, which would be a lot more honest.”
Like Drake, Martin’s background is in journalism. Other than a brief stint at the Rock Springs Rocket-Miner early in his career, Martin has mostly written for magazines. Drake still works for the group half-time and also writes a weekly column for WyoFile, an online media outlet.
Martin said he never received clear direction about what tone to use in Better Wyoming’s coverage of the Legislature, but that his bosses knew what they were getting when they hired him. He said he’s better at criticizing what he and Drake see as foolish decisions by the Legislature than at using persuasion to shift lawmakers’ opinions.
“I’m not good at diplomacy,” Martin said over a lunch of Mexican food with Drake at Don Juan in downtown Casper earlier this year. “There are impressive lobbyists who are kind of shape shifters and can do the glad handing and the smiling and the laughing at people’s jokes. I just don’t have the temperament for that.”
In practice, this means Better Wyoming has come to produce of a stream of posts that mix analysis of legislative committee meetings with biting comments.
For example, Martin noted that none of the three Wyoming tobacco lobbyists he saw in Thermopolis “were nearly as handsome or dashing as Aaron Eckhart,” the actor who played a tobacco lobbyist in a 2005 film.
According to Better Wyoming’s posts, the Legislature’s revenue committee members are “like a group of mopey pre-teens“ who do “a crappy, half-hearted job.” Senate President Eli Bebout and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman are “remarkably shortsighted men.” And Bebout is a “tyrant” who “seems to have an ideological distaste for education.”
Wyoming Republican Party Secretary Charles Curley declined to respond to Better Wyoming’s claim that he is an “arch-conservative nut job.”
“I can make some really snarky remarks but I think their language stands on its own,” Curley said.
Drake and Martin hold Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, in special contempt. Hicks earned the group’s “Worst of Wyoming” award following last year’s legislative session.
“He seized every opportunity to act like a total [expletive],” Martin wrote in a post that also said “arrogance and ignorance ... seethes from this man’s pores.”
Hicks said he was disappointed that Better Wyoming relied on personal insults rather than debating substantive policy.
“All it is, is partisan opinion pieces from radical left-wing liberals,” Hicks said. “The real sad thing is they can’t stake out a position, they have to attack the messenger ... Are they really ‘Better Wyoming’ or do they just hate conservatives?”
Better Wyoming’s insults and colorful language are sprinkled within otherwise straightforward pieces of political analysis, assessing the state’s budget deficit and critiquing tax reform and education funding proposals. The group sometimes links to contact information for lawmakers and encourages readers to get in touch, and Martin said the organization’s goal is increased levels of civic engagement — providing tools for concerned residents who don’t understand exactly what the Legislature does. Martin and Drake plan to attend the legislative session starting in February, posting daily updates and perhaps doing a weekly video segment.
And while Better Wyoming’s website calls itself a “hub for progressive politics,” Martin is adamant that it is not a partisan organization. Instead, he sees it as a source of honest reporting on the Legislature’s activities that can push back against the predominant conservative narrative in the state. The policies that the organization has backed during the summer and fall are inline with positions that both the handful of Democrats and much larger number of moderate Republicans in the Legislature often support. Martin points to maintaining education funding and examining ways to diversify Wyoming’s tax base as two key areas of focus with broad agreement in Wyoming.
If many of the organization’s arguments are not tied to a rigid ideology, the personal attacks can also be fleeting. While Better Wyoming has bashed Harshman over his opposition to raising taxes, it also praised him in several articles for being what Martin and Drake saw as a voice of reason on education funding. Revenue committee co-chair Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, has come in for blistering criticism over his “asinine comments,” but has also been praised for comments about taxation.
There’s also not much love lost between Martin and the Wyoming Democratic Party. He said that while the party has some useful institutional infrastructure and supports many of the same positions as Better Wyoming, its battered brand means it is not a very effective advocate.
“I’m told they exist somewhere,” Martin joked. “Chris Rothfuss keeps showing up.”
Better Wyoming’s approach has come under fire from critics who not only say that its posts are often mean spirited or juvenile, but that they’re simply ineffective.
“Those that make things nasty and take that approach tend to have a very short shelf life,” said Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association. “You don’t have to burn many bridges for there to be no bridges left.”
Moser argued that business at the Legislature is just too personal, the state’s political community too small, for bomb throwing to work.
Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, agreed. Pelkey said scorched earth tactics are particularly ill-advised for Wyoming progressives because collaborating with the conservatives who dominate state politics is generally a necessity.
“We’re Democrats in Wyoming,” Pelkey said. “You have to work with people to get anything done here.”
Martin acknowledged that the acid dripping from some Better Wyoming posts may have become a distraction.
“Someone mentioned to me that we should stop calling people names,” Martin said. “That’s probably a good kind of line to draw.”
Still, he didn’t back down on the substance of past attacks. Martin said the value of so-called civil discourse is usually touted by those in power to deflect criticism. But if using a sharp tone is going to empower critics to write off Better Wyoming, Martin said that strategically it might be wise to scale back the personal insults.
In any case, Martin emphasized that he has no interest in directly swaying the lawmakers or lobbyists Better Wyoming writes about. He said that is why the group has not taken to publishing policy papers or testifying before the Legislature, like more traditional organizations such as the Equality State Policy Center on the left or the Wyoming Liberty Group on the right.
Wyoming Democratic Party chairman Joe Barbuto, who attended high school with Martin, said Better Wyoming plays an important role in state politics by focusing attention on a few key issues being handled by the Legislature.
“It certainly plays a role in the policy discussions going on in the state right now,” Barbuto said.
Martin hopes to funnel some of the passion that Wyomingites put into national issues like health care reform and channel that toward the Legislature, where it’s possible to reach elected officials on their cell phones and a swing of just a few hundred votes can flip a seat.
“It didn’t make sense for us to to be the watchdog of the Legislature but then turn around and ask the Legislature to do something for us,” Martin said. “Success for us is when people turn around and communicate with their elected representatives.”
The Troopers Drum & Bugle Corps was started in 1957 by a general contractor with $4,000 of borrowed cash.
The group was mostly high school kids who performed for the first time publicly in 1958 in Riverton — it was a repertoire of “Riders in the Sky, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Cool Water and April Love/Tammy.”
Some 60 years later, director Fred Morris will welcome a corps of primarily college students from throughout the country when all-day rehearsals begin just after Memorial Day. Among those is second-year Katie Gruner of Casper, a 2017 Natrona County High School graduate and current freshman at the University of Wyoming. She is the daughter of two Trooper alums who met while marching in the corps.
Changes this year include beginning the competitive season in California, rather than the Midwest where the Troopers have begun for seven or eight years.
And instead of holding all-day intensive rehearsals in Indiana, the corps will now be closer to their roots, hopefully at the University of Wyoming if final details can be negotiated.
The show this anniversary season is “The New Road West,” and chronicles a journey from New York to the West, including following portions of the Mormon and Oregon trails.
Music will include “Black Parade,” by My Chemical Romance; Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” and “Climb Every Mountain,” the arrangement used by Jamie Foxx and Barbra Streisand, which Morris describes as “haunting.”
Morris said the change in tour schedule from the Midwest to the West will offer several advantages.
“It’s a different exposure,” he said. “A lot of the corps that are in that 13- to 17-place range, where we have been, are out there, and so we’ve got to set a precedent from day one in that group that says, ‘We’re not just in this range, we’re at the top.’”
Drum corps compete every night of the season for positioning that will ultimately result in placing at the quarterfinals and semifinals of World Championship Finals, held in August in Indianapolis. The top 12 from semifinals reach the finals, a feat the Troopers haven’t managed since 2009.
Although there will be competitive advantages to beginning in the West, Morris chuckled when asked if it’s cheaper.
“Nope,” he said. “Gas is higher, food is more expensive, and we have to buy all of our fruits and vegetables in California instead of taking them with us.”
The Troopers will make their way home to Casper from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah, arriving back in the early morning July 12.
Here they will host a Summer Music Camp with students of Vibes Music & Performing Arts. The annual Troopers Hall of Fame induction ceremony will begin at 4:30 p.m. at Fort Caspar, and at 6:30 p.m., the 2018 corps will perform, along with all alumni who have been invited to return from the 59 previous years.
“We have 200 interested in coming at this point,” Morris said. “Now I need to figure out how to find horns and drums for them all to use.”
Fort Caspar is an iconic setting for the Troopers, whose uniforms are mindful of the 11th Ohio Cavalry, which was stationed at the outpost in the 1830s. With the backdrop of the log cabin buildings and gentle, rolling green hills, the horns and drums seem perfectly at home at Fort Caspar.
Inside the Fort Caspar Museum, visitors can see a stunning display of Troopers history in an exhibit that will remain through the fall of 2018.
“Troopers: Celebrating 60 Years of the Troopers Drum & Bugle Corps,” features a large collection of instruments, color guard props, uniforms, photographs and memorabilia obtained from the Troopers organization and from past members.
Morris is already petitioning the weather gods for some assistance on Friday the 13th of July. Last year’s Drums Along the Rockies-Casper Edition was washed out by a late afternoon severe thunderstorm.
“Yeah, even though it’s Friday the 13th, we’re praying for luck,” he said. “Our fans were so disappointed last year. We really hope we can give them a show.”
Other corps competing in Casper will be the Oregon Crusaders from Portland, Seattle Cascades and the Mandarins from Sacramento, California.