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Rescuers search for two Montana men who got lost while snowmobiling in Park County.

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Gordon leads governors group calling for repeal of Biden executive order
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Gov. Mark Gordon led the Republican Governors Association in sending a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday, urging him to withdraw his executive order pausing new federal leases for oil and gas development — a move many state leaders say will devastate Wyoming’s economy.

The letter, which was co-signed by Republican governors in 16 other states, called the Jan. 27 decision and lack of consultation with affected states by the Biden administration “alarming,” saying it showed a “disregard for the citizens we serve” by threatening jobs in energy-producing states and potentially increasing consumer costs by an estimated $1.7 billion, according to the letter.

“To meet consumer demand and stabilize our electric grid, we depend on energy produced on private land and public land — we need both,” the letter reads. “Simply put, the Order jeopardizes our national security interests and strips away the opportunity for Americans to be energy independent.”

Gordon’s letter is the latest in a string of communications by top state officials lamenting the effects of the executive order on the state’s economy, which remains heavily reliant on oil and gas activities on federal land. Superintendent of Public Education Jillian Balow recently appeared on national TV to decry the potential effects on the state’s education system, which receives millions in taxes paid by the state’s energy industry.

According to a letter Balow and four other state superintendents wrote to Biden last week, the oil and natural gas industry contributed $740 million in funding for the state’s K-12 education system in 2019, along with $28 million for Wyoming’s higher education system.

Other officials — including the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Brian Nesvik — have written opinion pieces to point out perceived shortcomings in the moratorium.

The implications for Wyoming could be profound. More than 90% of all natural gas and 51% of oil produced in Wyoming comes from federal lands. According to a recent University of Wyoming study, the state — 48% of which consists of federal land — stands to lose approximately $304 million in revenues from a federal leasing ban.

Other groups, such as the Powder River Basin Resource Council, contend the effects will be muted and have been supportive of a review and restructuring of how the country manages its federal lands. According to the organization, nearly half of the 22.1 million actively leased acres in Wyoming are currently sitting idle, meaning the financial effect on Wyoming will likely be negligible in the short term.

“We applaud the new administration for their immediate action to pause and review oil and gas leasing programs on federal lands and minerals,” the organization said in a statement last month. “This is a necessary and long overdue action to stop the looting of public resources as fossil fuel developers accumulate excess leases at today’s bargain basement prices. Thousands of acres of federal subsurface resources are already leased and undeveloped, so this pause in breakneck leasing will neither harm producers with economic resources nor slow our energy economy.”

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Wyoming pair involved in shootout with law enforcement in Nebraska
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LINCOLN, Neb. — The woman killed in a shootout with Nebraska law enforcement Saturday morning has been identified as 30-year-old Hailey Stainbrook of Casper, according to Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner.

The man with her, 26-year-old Christian Alexander of Evansville, remained in a Lincoln hospital Monday in grave condition.

Wagner said law enforcement learned the Chevy Trailblazer they were in had been stolen Thursday morning after it was left warming up in a hotel parking lot in Cheyenne. He said a 38-caliber revolver was in it when it was stolen.

The sheriff said they are still trying to determine if it was the same firearm used in the shootout with law enforcement at around 9:30 a.m. Saturday under the Interstate 80 overpass at the 56th Street exit.

The incident began with a report of a robbery at a northwest Lincoln hotel at 8:39 a.m. Saturday. The victim had met the pair the night before and the pair displayed a gun to rob him of his wallet, Wagner said.

At 9:16 a.m., the man learned that his credit card was being used at a gas station in north Lincoln.

Soon after, a Nebraska State Patrol trooper saw the Chevy Trailblazer and suspects — a man and a woman — described by the victim and attempted to stop them in the 5500 block of Superior Street.

While being pursued, the passenger, Alexander, allegedly began firing shots at the trooper.

Another trooper and a Lincoln Police Department officer joined the pursuit, which ended at about 9:30 a.m. when one of the officers crashed into the Trailblazer underneath the I-80 overpass on 56th Street. The man continued to shoot at officers, and officers returned fire, Wagner said.

He said Stainbrook, who was wanted on a warrant out of Virginia on a drug charge, then picked up a gun, refused officers’ orders to drop it and was shot. Wagner said it is unclear whether she fired any shots.

The male suspect was taken to a hospital with life-threatening injuries. The woman also was taken to a hospital but later died.

A trooper sustained non-life-threatening injuries when his vehicle collided with the Trailblazer. He was treated at a hospital and later released.

All of the officers involved in the incident have been placed on administrative leave, per the departments’ policies.

Wagner said officers from both the State Patrol and Lincoln police fired shots, but he didn’t say how many shots were fired or if it was a trooper or the Lincoln officer who shot the suspects.

The State Patrol and Lincoln police requested that the sheriff’s office conduct the investigation.

US tops 500,000 virus deaths
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The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. topped 500,000 Monday, a staggering number that all but matches the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

The U.S. recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.

President Joe Biden held a sunset moment of silence and a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House and ordered American flags lowered at federal buildings for the next five days.

“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur.”

Monday’s grim milestone, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, comes as states redouble efforts to get the coronavirus vaccine into arms after last week’s winter weather closed clinics, slowed vaccine deliveries and forced tens of thousands of people to miss their shots.

Despite the rollout of vaccines since mid-December, a closely watched model from the University of Washington projects more than 589,000 dead by June 1.

The U.S. toll is by far the highest reported in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally, though the true numbers are thought to be significantly higher, in part because many cases were overlooked, especially early in the outbreak.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. were in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 deaths. The toll hit 200,000 in September and 300,000 in December, then took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and another month to climb from 400,000 to 500,000.

Average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in the past few weeks. Virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

But experts warn that dangerous variants could cause the trend to reverse itself. And some experts say not enough Americans have been inoculated yet for the vaccine to be making much of a difference.

Instead, the drop-off in deaths and cases has been attributed to the passing of the holidays; the cold and bleak days of midwinter, when many people stay home; and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.

Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who has treated scores of COVID-19 patients, said he never thought the U.S. deaths would be so high.

“I was one of those early ones that thought this may be something that may hit us for a couple months ... I definitely thought we would be done with it before we got into the fall. And I definitely didn’t see it heading off into 2021,” Stanton said.

Kristy Sourk, an intensive-care nurse at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, said she is encouraged by the declining caseload and progress in vaccinating people, but “I know we are so far from over.”

People “are still dying, and families are still isolated from their loved ones who are unable to be with them so that is still pretty heart-wrenching,” she said.

Snow, ice and weather-related power outages closed some vaccination sites and held up shipments across a large swath of the nation, including in the Deep South.

As a result, the seven-day rolling average of administered first doses fell by 20 percent between Feb. 14 and Feb. 21, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House said that about a third of the roughly 6 million vaccine doses delayed by bad weather were delivered over the weekend, with the rest expected to be delivered by mid-week, several days earlier than originally expected. White House coronavirus response coordinator Andy Slavitt on Monday attributed the improved timeline to an “all-out, round-the-clock” effort over the weekend that included employees at one vaccine distributor working night shifts to pack vaccines.

In Louisiana, state health officials said some doses from last week’s shipments were delivered over the weekend and were expected to continue arriving through Wednesday. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week’s supply arrived Monday. And in Nashville, Tennessee, health officials were able to vaccinate more than 2,300 senior citizens and teachers over the weekend after days of treacherous weather.

“We’ll be asking the vaccine providers to do a lot,” said Louisiana’s top public health adviser, Dr. Joe Kanter, who expects it to take a week or two to catch up on vaccinations after a storm coated roads with ice and left many areas without running water.

Some hospitals, clinics, community sites and pharmacies that are in Louisiana’s vaccination network will get double allocations of doses this week — just as Gov. John Bel Edwards starts offering shots to teachers, daycare workers, pregnant women and people age 55 to 64 with certain preexisting conditions.

New York City officials expected to catch up on vaccinations after being forced to delay scheduling tens of thousands of appointments last week, the mayor said Monday.

“That means we’ve basically lost a full week in our vaccination efforts,” DeBlasio said.

More than 44 million Americans have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and about 1.6 million per day received either first or second dose over the past seven days, according to the CDC.

The nation’s supply could expand significantly if health regulators approve a single-shot COVID-19 vaccine developed by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

The company said it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses by the end of March if it gets the green light, and would have capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June.

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Perpetrator in racist UW Zoom incident located in Maryland, others used VPNs, investigation finds
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An investigation into racist interruptions during a virtual Black History Month event last week at the University of Wyoming has found that one of the perpetrators was using a Maryland internet provider, a university official said Monday.

During a film discussion panel hosted by the UW Black Studies Center on Feb. 15, panelists were interrupted by pornographic images and videos appearing on the screen. A voice also could be heard saying the N-word and other racial slurs.

University spokesperson Chad Baldwin said Monday that the other four perpetrators were using virtual private networks, or VPNs, which made them appear to be calling in from outside the United States. The one attacker who did not use a VPN was traced to a Maryland residential broadband connection, according to a university statement Monday.

Baldwin also said that as of now, investigators suspect the attack, or “Zoom-bombing,” came from outside the university and is connected to recent others like it across the U.S.

“This has happened at dozens of other universities in recent months,” Baldwin said. “Our security analysts for our IT department feel strongly this was a coordinated effort by people from elsewhere. And that they’re doing this all across the country.”

In the last several months, similar racist attacks have hit the Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, Rider University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Seattle University, Gonzaga University and the University of Southern California, many during Black History Month events.

The university police and IT department are working with the FBI to investigate the incident. In the meantime, administrators are working to make sure an attack like this one doesn’t happen again, looking into more secure options for Zoom and virtual event hosting that don’t require a link to be published openly.

In a statement Monday, UW Chief Diversity Officer Emily Monago said that a subcommittee of the university’s Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion held a listening session last week attended by about 50 members of the community.

“Many of those participants and others expressed that the university’s initial statement about the racist attack was not strong enough; noted the concerns about safety for students of color and minority groups; said there’s not enough awareness about resources and efforts underway to address our problems; and made it clear that the university must do more,” Monago said in the statement. “People cannot thrive when they do not feel safe. I acknowledge that BIPOC, LGBTQ+, international, intersectional and other vulnerable social identities do not feel safe at all times in Laramie or Wyoming.”

Monago said that though the attackers are not believed to be affiliated with UW, the incident highlights the need to take action against racism at the university. If the investigation finds the attackers are connected to the school, she said in the statement, they will be held accountable.

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Lawmakers advance legislation facilitating new rental assistance programs
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The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee advanced legislation Monday that, if passed later this spring, would help facilitate an additional $200 million in rental relief to Wyoming residents facing economic hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation, which passed the committee unanimously, would allow the Department of Family Services to partner with groups including the Wyoming Business Council, the Wyoming Community Development Authority and municipal governments to distribute money to renters and landlords unable to cover the costs of rent, mortgages and utility bills due to COVID-19’s economic impact.

Wyoming received the largest per capita share of funding of any state in the country, according to document from the U.S. Department of Treasury released last month.

The relief program is being established as a continuation of a $25 billion eviction and rental assistance program that Congress passed in December. It would allow the release of relief funds to various groups that have worked to keep Wyoming residents from losing their homes.

For example, Laramie Interfaith was able to fund just half of the $408,000 in rental and utility assistance requests it received throughout 2020. The stress has been even greater in 2021. So far this year, the organization has funded $18,000 out of an estimated $54,000 in requests.

“Our capacity, both fiscal and physical, limited our operations,” the group wrote in a report.

The legislation has developed quickly. Earlier this month, Gov. Mark Gordon signed an executive order to begin preparations to distribute the money, stating it was “imperative that the state immediately prepare for large-scale administration of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program” to keep vulnerable Wyoming families in their homes after a federal eviction moratorium expires March 31. The executive order remains in effect until the Wyoming Legislature passes its own bill to administer the program.

And that money is much needed. According to a briefing sheet provided Monday to lawmakers, requests to Wyoming’s 211 program for rental assistance last year increased nearly threefold over 2019 alongside a 95% increase in utility assistance requests. The spike in demand has further increased in 2021. Sheridan Health Center and Community Connections alone reported a 270% increase in requests for housing and rental assistance over the last year, according to written testimony, while the Campbell County Salvation Army experienced an increase of approximately 800%.

And not all of the assistance is going to people without jobs. In Teton County, where rents are extremely high, approximately 77% of all requests for rental assistance came from people who still had jobs but had seen their hours and wages cut significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not just the unemployed in the state. It’s the people who are employed but, because of the economic impact of COVID, are struggling with rent,” Emily Soli, a policy advisor for Gordon’s office, told committee members.

Landlords and utility companies themselves are highly stressed as well. According to one statewide survey of 72 landlords shared by the governor’s office, landlords are owed an average of $6,800 in past-due rent across the state, while Rocky Mountain Power reported being short approximately $1.5 million in anticipated revenues from past-due bills since April.

Some customers, Rocky Mountain Power lobbyist Rick Kaysen said, owe the company thousands of dollars in unpaid fees. He said the company would be willing to connect cost-burdened customers to the public funding in an effort to recuperate those lost payments.

Additional provisions

The bill would also give authority to the governor’s office to complete projects funded under the terms of a COVID-19 relief package approved by the Legislature last year that otherwise would have expired at the end of last year.

As of Feb. 16, Wyoming had spent just over $1 billion of the $1.25 billion of that federal money, with tens of millions of dollars in funds remaining that were either set to be appropriated or had been allocated but not assigned to any specific account.

That money included $39.6 million in additional dollars for the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund (which will be appropriated this week, Gordon policy adviser Renny MacKay told lawmakers Monday), $2.2 million for mental health services, and $7.7 million in funding for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

“There were some projects that were caught in this limbo of not being able to be completed by the end of 2020,” MacKay said in an interview. “The way the session law was created, we could not continue to pay those because when the time was past, we created a lot of rules to run those programs. What this bill does, essentially, is allow us to wrap up everything that was approved before the end of 2020 and get those dollars paid out.”

More money coming

Wyoming also stands to gain hundreds of millions of dollars under a new $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package likely to be voted on by Congress later this week, which as written includes an additional $350 billion in state, local and tribal aid.

Though that package will still need to go through the U.S. Senate, Mackay said Wyoming is now projected to receive roughly $736 million under that package. Local governments would also receive an additional allocation on top of that, totaling approximately $113.2 million at the county level and somewhere between $72 million and $85 million to municipalities, according to Wyoming County Commissioners Association Director Jeremiah Rieman. What that final appropriation will actually look like, however, remains hazy.

“The municipality side of this equation is much more complicated,” he said.