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Kurt Wilson, Missoulian  

A mountain goat wanders Glacier National Park’s Highline Trail near Logan Pass in Montana. Mountain goats in the Tetons have the potential to cause serious health problems for the area's bighorn sheep.

Personal income grows in Wyoming thanks to oil industry that now faces uncertainty

A small contraction in mining activity in early summer dented the otherwise broad growth in Wyomingites’ personal income during the third quarter of the year, according to state economists.

Personal income is the entire income individuals take in, from their wages or salaries to their unemployment or social security benefits. In Wyoming, personal income rose by 3.3 percent in late summer, or $284 million greater than the second quarter, according to federal counts from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The growth trend extended across the Rockies, from 5.3 percent growth in the personal income of Coloradoans to 3.1 percent in Montana.


Though economic activity in Wyoming has been spurred over the last few years by an improving outlook in the oil and gas fields, the mining sector’s contribution to personal income was one of the few areas with a loss compared to the second quarter of the year.

Jim Robinson, principal economist for the state’s Economic Analysis Division, said estimates of oil and gas jobs for April, May and June had been revised down in retrospect, likely due to a slight contraction in mining activity at that time. That drop bled into personal income later in the year.

Personal income in the mining sector fell by $42 million. Personal income in the farming sector also fell by $43 million. The biggest contributor to Wyoming’s personal income increase came from the construction industry, with a $45 million bump compared to the second quarter.


Wyoming’s overall population, and workforce, has been declining since the downturn in the state’s key industries of oil, gas and coal. The population fell again this year, but the bleed of people out of the state has retreated. Nearly 8,000 more people left Wyoming than moved in between 2016 and 2017. From the middle of last year to mid-2018 the net loss shrank, with about 3,000 more people leaving than arriving.

“People tend to move to areas where the economy is vibrant, which is particularly true for Wyoming,” said Wenlin Liu, chief economist with the Economic Analysis Division, in a statement from mid-December when the population numbers were released. Liu noted that the oil and gas industry had improved efficiency during the economic downturn, which had likely subdued the demand for returning workers as things improved.

The positive growth in neighboring states like Colorado had also likely tempted workers to jobs across the border. Wyoming was the only state in the Rockies with population loss over the last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In addition, payroll jobs in state and local government, and the retail trade industry in 2018 were still lower than the previous year,” Liu said of Wyoming. “The state’s overall labor market featured moderate job growth and continued decline in the labor force.”


Wyoming’s economic health is directly tied to its mineral industries, which contributed about 52 percent of its direct revenue in 2017. When fossil fuel industries are booming, that direct revenue percentage swells.

The current improvements in wages, jobs, revenue and falling unemployment are all tied to improvements in the price of crude beginning in 2017.

The steady price of oil held until about October of this year. The price has fallen by 40 percent since then, steadying around $50 in a Christmas turnaround due to fears that the market was overreacting and the news of a meeting with members of the OPEC cartel to address the decline.

Continued depression of the price could slow the investment excitement that’s spurred development and planned development in Wyoming’s oil and gas sector, while too much timidity from the sector due to uncertain prices could cause a spike in price later on.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A turkey crosses 11th Street to join the rest of its flock pecking at birdseed in the front yard of a home Wednesday afternoon in central Casper. A morning snowfall returned a touch of winter to the city. 

Trump makes first visit to US troops in harm's way

AL-ASAD AIRBASE, Iraq — In an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, President Donald Trump staunchly defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from neighboring Syria despite a drumbeat of criticism from military officials and allies who don't think the job fighting Islamic State militants there is over.

Trump, making his first presidential visit to troops in a troubled region, said it's because the U.S. military had all but eliminated IS-controlled territory in both Iraq and Syria that he decided to withdraw 2,000 forces from Syria. He said the decision to leave Syria showed America's renewed stature on the world stage and his quest to put "America first."

"We're no longer the suckers, folks," Trump told U.S. servicemen and women at al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, about 100 miles west of Baghdad. "We're respected again as a nation."

The decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria, however, stunned national security advisers and U.S. allies and prompted the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was not on the trip, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic extremist group. The militant group, also known as ISIS, has lost nearly all its territory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.

Iraq declared IS defeated within its borders in December 2017, but Trump's trip was shrouded in secrecy, which has been standard practice for presidents flying into conflict areas.

Air Force One, lights out and window shutters drawn, flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad in darkness Wednesday evening. George W. Bush made four trips to Iraq as president and President Barack Obama made one.

During his three-plus hours on the ground, Trump did not meet with any Iraqi officials, but spoke on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. He stopped at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on his way back, for a second unannounced visit to troops and military leaders.

Trump's Iraq visit appeared to have inflamed sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. The two major blocs in the Iraqi parliament both condemned the visit, likening it to a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

The airbase where Trump spoke is about 155 mile from Hajin, a Syrian town near the Iraqi border where Kurdish fighters are still battling IS extremists. Trump has said IS militants have been eradicated, but the latest estimate is that IS still holds about 60 square miles of territory in that region of Syria, although fighters also fled the area and are in hiding in other pockets of the country.

Mattis was supposed to continue leading the Pentagon until late February but Trump moved up his exit and announced that Patrick Shanahan, deputy defense secretary, would take the job on Jan. 1 and he was in "no rush" to nominate a new defense chief.

"Everybody and his uncle wants that position," Trump told reporters traveling with him in Iraq. "And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt, just so I won't be criticized."

Critics said the U.S. exit from Syria, the latest in Trump's increasingly isolationist-style foreign policy, would provide an opening for IS to regroup, give Iran a green light to expand its influence in the region and leave U.S.-backed Kurdish forces vulnerable to attacks from Turkey.

"I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds," said Trump, who wore an olive green bomber style jacket as he was welcomed by chants of "USA! USA!" and speakers blaring Lee Greenwood's song, "God Bless the USA."

"We'll be watching ISIS very closely," said Trump, who was joined by first lady Melania Trump.

Trump also said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 U.S. forces in Iraq. That's down from about 170,000 in 2007 at the height of the surge of U.S. forces to combat sectarian violence unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.

Trump spoke on the phone with the prime minister, but the White House said security concerns and the short notice of the trip prevented the president from meeting him.

The prime minister's office said "differences in points of view over the arrangements" prevented the two from meeting but they discussed security issues and Trump's order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria over the phone. Abdul-Mahdi's office also did not say whether he had accepted an invitation to the White House. But Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on the flight back that the Iraqi leader had agreed to come.

Trump said that after U.S. troops in Syria return home, Iraq could still be used to stage attacks on IS militants.

"We can use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria," he said. "If we see something happening with ISIS that we don't like, we can hit them so fast and so hard" that they "really won't know what the hell happened."

Trump said it's time to leave Syria because the U.S. should not be involved in nation-building, and that other wealthy nations should shoulder the cost of rebuilding Syria. He also said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to battle "any remnants of ISIS" in Syria, which shares a border with Turkey.

Teton County lawmaker looks to remove citizenship requirement for Hathaway Scholarships

As people continue to leave the state, Wyoming finds itself at a crossroads, left to wonder how it can grow its economy as its best and brightest leave for jobs and opportunities in other states.

Two Democratic senators think they have an answer to solve part of that problem and plan on introducing a bill that, if passed, will open up a whole new population of high school graduates to the state’s Hathaway Scholarship Program.

If passed, the Hathaway Eligibility Act would repeal a provision of the Wyoming Constitution which excludes certain noncitizens from eligibility for the state’s Hathaway Scholarship, which is currently unavailable to non-U.S. citizens. By striking the citizenship requirement, Sen. Mike Gierau, the bill’s chief sponsor, said he believes he can offer sufficient incentive to Wyoming high schoolers whose immigration status might be “hazy” but who have a desire to live, work and obtain an education in Wyoming.

Students applying for the Hathaway Scholarship would still have to fulfill the other requirements of the program, including attending school in Wyoming and maintaining a certain level of academic achievement. By simply repealing the citizenship requirement, Gierau said, Wyoming would open the door to residents who may have attended school in Wyoming their entire lives and achieved good grades but would be unable to access scholarships that would allow them to attend school in their home state.

“We as a legislature — and the state in general — always wring our hands about our best and brightest leaving the state; sometimes they leave us straight out of high school, and sometimes they go to UW and leave,” said Gierau, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs.

“So what do we do about it? How I look at it is we have another group of people who, sometimes through no fault of their own, might have an immigration status that is somewhat cloudy. They could go kindergarten through 12th grade and make great grades. Yet, they can’t get a Hathaway Scholarship because of that first question: ‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’ Sometimes, that’s a little complicated.”

“Kids can go years through our system and nobody asks them that question,” he added. “They just want to get an education.”

This will be the second attempt to pass the bill for Gierau, who last introduced the bill in 2017. Despite passing out of the Education Committee by a 5-4 vote, the bill did not get to the floor for debate and was narrowly shot down in the Rules Committee for inclusion as an amendment to a larger Hathaway Scholarship bill.

“My hope this year is I get it out of the committee and onto the floor so I can make the case,” he said. “This is about economics. This is about the very thing we talk about all the time: how we can get our kids to stay here. Well, I’ve got a group of kids who are dying to stay here and dying to get an education. So how about it?”

Immigration and economics

While Gierau acknowledges some may misconstrue the intentions of his bill, he asserts that his bill is purely motivated by one thing: economics.

While the immigrant population in Wyoming is small — making up less than 4 percent of the state’s population, according to figures from the American Immigration Council — it provides an important role in the state’s workforce. In Gierau’s home of Teton County, immigrants directly or indirectly contribute nearly $366 million to the local economy, according to a 2009 study by the University of Wyoming, and make up 6 percent of the local workforce despite only making up approximately 4.5 percent of the local population.

Within that population is opportunity, Gierau said. For first-generation immigrant families in particular, their children are more likely to stay close to home. With a little more than a quarter of the state’s immigration population lacking documentation, according to AIC estimates, the lack of access to a Hathaway Scholarship could mean dozens of students who want to pursue higher education in Wyoming cannot, which Gierau said is a missed chance for the state to retain potential talent.

“In our country’s history, who are the kids who stayed home? Usually the families of first-generation immigrants,” said Gierau. “We worry about losing kids, but here is a set of kids who are most likely to stay here. I’m not saying we give them any more, I’m saying we don’t give them any less. We need to give them the opportunity to get that education and stay here.”

Currently, numerous students are denied that opportunity every year due to their immigration status, said Travis Helm, an immigration attorney in Laramie and a former Democratic candidate for Congress. He said that between five and 20 times a year, he’ll run into stories of students who could be walking across the stage for graduation and hear they’ve earned a Hathaway Scholarship, only to have it investigated and rescinded on their first day of class.

“These students are invested in Wyoming, and Wyoming has invested in them by giving them an education here,” Helm said. “… We’re losing population every year, and we’re losing young people we’ve already invested in. We need to hold onto that investment, not discard it so recklessly and angrily.”

Gierau, similarly, sees his legislation from the standpoint of dollars and cents — and a potential tenet of the state’s economic development efforts.

“If we believe in (Gov. Matt Mead’s economic development plan) and we believe in those principles, we need a workforce,” he said. “Right now, we’re having a tough time attracting them. But there’s a group of kids here I think could be the spark. They just need a hand — not a handout.”