Judge blocks drilling plans, citing bird habitat
CHEYENNE — A judge has halted plans for oil and gas drilling on vast areas of Wyoming and Montana, citing concerns about a sagebrush-dwelling bird.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management didn’t adequately consider how the drilling would affect the greater sage grouse, nor an option to defer drilling in the bird’s prime habitat, Idaho U.S. District Judge Ronald E. Bush ruled on June 8.
Bush ordered more study of potential effects on the bird before drilling may proceed.
The drilling would occur on over 600 square miles of federal land scattered across the energy-rich states. The Bureau of Land Management auctioned off hundreds of leases in sage grouse habitat in four sales in 2017.
Sage grouse are a chicken-sized, primarily ground-dwelling bird whose numbers have fallen significantly from the millions that inhabited the U.S. West in frontier times. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that the bird deserved special protection but said in 2015 that conservation efforts led by Wyoming made that unnecessary.
The environmental group that sued over the leases, Western Watersheds Project, praised Bush’s ruling.
BLM spokesman Brad Purdy declined to comment, citing agency policy not to discuss ongoing litigation. The agency’s allies in the case included the Western Energy Alliance industry group and the state of Wyoming, where Republican Gov. Mark Gordon was weighing whether to appeal.
The ruling comes amid a federal oil and gas leasing moratorium imposed by President Joe Biden’s administration while it studies the effects on climate change.
University should ditch ‘Dixie’ name, panel says
SALT LAKE CITY — A committee created to consider a name change for a university in Utah voted on June 7 to choose a replacement that does not include Dixie — a regional term many consider offensive because of its association with the Deep South and slavery.
Dixie State University, which is located in St. George, Utah, has been studying the impact of changing its name for nearly a year following a national outcry against racial injustice after the death of George Floyd. While several hurdles remain, the committee’s decision makes it likely that whatever name is ultimately recommended to the legislature will not include the controversial term that has spurred months of protest and debate.
The University Board of Trustees formed a committee in March to review options for the institution’s name under a process outlined in a bill Gov. Spencer Cox signed earlier this year. The committee collected feedback from a public survey, as well as students, university employees and community members before voting to ditch the Dixie name.
The committee planned to reconvene to discuss specific names that performed well in focus groups and then choose one to recommend to the university’s Board of Trustees. The name will then go to the Utah Board of Higher Education, which has until Nov. 1 to vote on whether to recommend the name to a legislative committee.
The moniker’s deep ties to local history fueled a backlash at the GOP-dominated legislature. Lawmakers passed a watered-down version of the bill that would require the name to be reconsidered next year but allow the option of keeping it.
Dixie State had faced scrutiny in the past over its name but resisted changing it. The area was nicknamed Dixie, a reference to Southern states, when settlers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many of them from the South, tried to make it a cotton-growing mecca in the 1800s.
Supporters say the name is important to the area’s heritage and is separate from the history of slavery.
State offers largest single vaccination prize in US
SANTA FE — New Mexico is betting big that cash can persuade people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, offering the largest single cash prize among the growing number of states staging lotteries to promote inoculations.
Vaccinated residents who register on New Mexico’s “Vax 2 the Max” portal can win prizes from a pool totaling $10 million that includes a $5 million grand prize, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced on May 31.
At least 55% of eligible residents in the state are fully vaccinated, but the Department of Health wants to reach 70% and close in on possible herd immunity.
Colorado, Ohio and California are also offering lotteries that have shown some success in boosting vaccination rates. California previously offered the largest single prize of $1.5 million from a total lottery pool of $116 million.
The prize money offered by New Mexico would go far in the state that’s one of the poorest in the country, ranking 48th in per capita income of around $45,800, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Lujan Grisham said the lottery program is funded by federal pandemic relief money.
New Mexico officials will draw prizes of $250,000 in each of four different regions of the state, as well as smaller prizes ranging from lottery “scratcher” tickets to in-state vacation packages and museum tickets. The $5 million prize drawing will be held in August.
Underground mine vehicle accident kills 2
NYE — Two workers for the only palladium and platinum mining operation in the U.S. have died in an underground accident at a Montana mine, company officials said.
The employees were in a utility vehicle called a side-by-side that crashed into an underground locomotive on June 9, said Heather McDowell, a vice president with the South Africa-based Sibanye-Stillwater, which owns the Stillwater Mining Co.
The cause of the accident at the mine near the community of Nye, north of Yellowstone National Park, is under investigation. Mine officials said they are working with safety regulators.
The workers’ identities were not made public.
In a statement, company officials said, “We value safety above all else. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by this tragic event.”
Stillwater Mining Co. has 2,335 employees and contractors, according to its website. Just over 1,200 of them work at the mine in Nye, McDowell said.
Its other palladium and platinum mine is near the small Montana city of Big Timber, and the company has a refining complex in the nearby town of Columbus.
Bear found stuck on power pole in southern part of state
WILLCOX — A bear in Arizona emerged unscathed from quite the power trip when it became stuck on a utility pole.
Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, a utility company based in the southern Arizona city of Willcox, was notified on the morning of June 7 that a bear was tangled in power pole wires on the outskirts of town.
Werner Neubauer, a company lineman, said they immediately disabled the power so the animal would not get electrocuted. Neubauer then went up in a bucket lift and used an 8-foot fiberglass stick to try to nudge the bear to go down. He even tried talking to it.
After grabbing and biting the stick at times, the bear eventually climbed down and ran off into the desert.
According to Neubauer, there were no injuries, and the power outage, which affected residential customers, only lasted about 15 minutes.
When told the reason for the outage, he said several customers were understanding.
This is the second time in a month that a bear has been spotted in a southern Arizona city.