2021: Pandemic politics, wildlife woes and Cheney’s challenge

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Gov. Mark Gordon wears a mask as he climbs the stairs in the Capitol building Tuesday before giving his State of the State Address. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

By WyoFile Staff, WyoFile

WyoFile’s stories of the year include a world-famous grizzly, a special legislative session and a political race that has the nation’s attention.

Wyoming began the messy business of climbing out of the pandemic in 2021, a process that involved political skirmishes over masks and vaccines, the hashing out of how to spend millions in federal aid and the complicated personal decisions inherent in work, school and civic engagement.

Against this backdrop, the engines of industry, wildlife management and economic development revved back up. Lawmakers grappled with energy transitions and the future of Wyoming’s revenue structure. Schools became ground zero for a fresh wave of culture wars. A new presidential administration ushered in sweeping changes to federal land-use policies and public-health mandates — and Wyoming residents remained divided on whether those will benefit or harm the state.

A congressional race widely portrayed as a showdown between former President Donald Trump and his most consistent and vocal GOP critic, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, intensified. Wyoming’s climate showed alarming new patterns. And a world-famous Wyoming grizzly bear once again made the headlines.

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The Laramie Fire Department covers the primary response for the city and rural areas of Albany County. Volunteers in the rural areas are essential, but members say it’s difficult to retain those with more advanced training. (Photo: Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

WyoFile reported it all, and much more. We covered the complex balancing act of Colorado River Basin water in the face of drought and rising demand, embarked on a deep investigation into whistleblower concerns at the Wyoming National Guard, examined explosive allegations of fraud related to the Wyoming Catholic College, looked into the precarious position of ambulance service in rural Wyoming, reported on alleged political espionage in state politics, broke the story when Patagonia dumped Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and were on the ground to cover a massive wild horse roundup.

Here are our stories of the year.

1. Pandemic politics.

In Wyoming, the vaccination rollout started strong, but fizzled as the uptake rate lagged, leaving the state one of the least vaccinated in the country. Things turned political, with bitter public fights over masks, safety protocols in schools and vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, the Delta variant contributed to another surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Pandemic politics came to a head with a special legislative session this fall, which legislative leadership convened — despite some objection — to resist anticipated federal test and vaccination rules. The session that lined up 21 measures ultimately ended with a lone bill.

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In school board meeting rooms, fights erupted over public safety, and COVID-fueled disruption marked much of the fall semester. And the virus was just one source of school fireworks: critical race theory, the politics of LGBTQ pride and the content of public-library books became hot-button issues.

2. Cheney v. Trump

In January, Wyoming’s U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney was one of a handful of Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6. insurrection in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Liz Cheney during a House Republican Leadership press conference in April 2021. (Screenshot)

The backlash from her party was swift. Cheney was censured, stripped of her leadership post and many in the GOP, including Trump, vowed to have her voted out of office. Primary challengers lined up.

Today, the eyes of the nation are watching the effort to oust Cheney in the 2022 primary election. Record fundraising, Trump’s endorsement of Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman and complications of a divided party have kept those eyes rapt.

3. Wyoming’s nuclear option

Officials made waves in June when they announced Wyoming will be home to the first of a new generation of nuclear power plants to be developed via a diverse public-private partnership that includes Bill Gates.

While advocates touted it as an economic boon to the state, many remain skeptical about the feasibility and track record of the technology. Ultimately, TerraPower selected Kemmerer as its site.

4. A changing climate threatens Wyoming’s way of life

Record-breaking heat and significant drought struck many parts of Wyoming in 2021. Observations of a changing climate range from warmer stream temperatures threatening fish health, to a longer wildfire season across the West and ranchers facing increasingly unpredictable conditions.

Crook County rancher Thayne Gray on the family’s Warbonnet Ranch outside Moorcroft on Sept. 23, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

These anecdotal observations align with more than 100 years of Wyoming-specific data, according to a UW climate scientist. WyoFile examined the implications for Wyoming’s way of life.

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5. Bear conflicts

Some of the state’s most famous bears — as well as other less-known ursines — made news this year as conflicts mounted with people and livestock.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners used this photograph to illustrate the dangerous mix of bears, people and high-speed traffic on Togwotee Pass. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents and associates hazed world-famous grizzly 399, and her four yearling cubs, five times after she raided beehives and livestock feed in Jackson Hole. Near Togwotee Pass, meanwhile, the feds hazed another bear, known as Felicia, to mitigate an issue many believed was caused more by problem people than a problem bear. Grizzly conflicts also played a central role in grazing debates.

6. CWD and the future of feedgrounds

Fearful that Chronic Wasting Disease will ravage elk on winter feedgrounds, Wyoming Game and Fish Department launched a statewide initiative aimed at untangling a knotty management question: How to avoid disease transmission without starving the wapiti population or hurting human stakeholders.

Wildlife managers hope the Wyoming public can help it generate “new ideas for management” of Wyoming’s 22 elk feedgrounds.

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John Fandek guides his horse team while feeding about 1,000 elk at the Black Butte Feedground in the Upper Green River Basin on Feb. 28, 2021. (Photo: Angus M. Thuermer, Jr/WyoFile)

In the face of fatal, incurable CWD, Game and Fish may not continue business as usual, officials said. But a new paradigm also threatens a long tradition in some parts of Wyoming, where elk feeding is considered an essential step in protecting wintering cattle. The Wyoming Legislature even stepped in, stripping the wildlife agency of its power to close feedgrounds. 

7. The bumpy transition from fossil fuels

The blows to the coal industry — and their implications for the state’s revenue structure — continue, but Wyoming’s transition away from a fossil-fuel-reliant economy has been a bit bumpy so far.

Though some communities, like Gillette, look to events, sports and carbon technology to offset diminishing fossil fuels industries, the state was left out of a federal coal assistance program that offered aid to coal communities. Gov. Mark Gordon was “furious” about the omission, though communities had raised concerns about lack of help from the state early in the process.

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Students and residents work on projects at the Gillette College Center for Innovation and Fabrications, also known as Area 59, on Sept. 21, 2020. (Photo: Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

As many prepare to move away from coal, some are considering a new option for coal mine reclamation bonding that could reduce risk for the state in the event of insolvency.

8. The state’s budget rollercoaster

Wyoming’s budget rollercoaster continued in 2021 with a wild swing from deficit projections during the 2020 pandemic shock to a more forgiving revenue forecast.

Though the state’s revenue outlook improved by $845 million on rebounding markets for coal, oil and natural gas, state revenue forecasters warn that continuing to rely on volatile fossil fuel markets will likely bring more fluctuations.

Another factor in Wyoming’s favor is federal stimulus money, which allowed lawmakers during the 2021 legislative session to defer the task of finding a long-term revenue solution.

This fall, Gov. Gordon opened a call for ideas on how to spend more than $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act — a measure all three Wyoming Congressional delegates opposed — and recently presented a proposal to invest half in state initiatives and put the other half in savings.

9. New administration ushers in sweeping changes

On Jan. 27, President Joe Biden ordered a pause in Department of the Interior oil and gas leasing. A flurry of lawsuits followed. Depending on whom you asked, the move either represented an attempt to strangle Wyoming industry, or an opportunity for the state to prioritize critical wildlife habitat while transitioning away from fossil fuels.

By August, the number of rotary rigs drilling for oil and gas in Wyoming had tripled since Biden announced the pause.

But a new Interior Department report on the resumption of sweeping federal oil and gas leasing reforms indicates a suite of changes on the horizon that will hold high stakes for Wyoming — including higher royalty rates, more stringent bonding requirements, a reprioritization of multiple-use and conservation on public lands and more input from public stakeholders, including tribes.

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10. The clash of recreation versus conservation

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the growing popularity of outdoor recreation, and crowds flocked to Wyoming’s public lands.

Bob Oakleaf, retired nongame wildlife supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, peers through a spotting scope at a peregrine falcon eyrie in Sinks Canyon State Park. A via ferrata is proposed for the cliff. (Photo: Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Though land managers say they welcome all to experience the outdoors, the crush of visitation has resulted in conflicts and underscored the tricky balance of protecting the resource as user numbers balloon. These issues played out at an iconic climbing destination, in a state park where falcons nest and in national parks, where visitation in the millions has managers mulling policy changes.

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.