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State Briefs


January 23, 2020

Yellowstone visitation down in 2019

CODY (WNE) — While visitation to Yellowstone National Park still exceeded 4 million in 2019 that was the lowest number of attendees since 2014.

The final total for last year was 4,020,287 compared to 2018’s 4,114,999. That was a 2.3 percent decline.

In 2014, attendance was 3,513,486, then there was a huge jump in 2015 when the total surpassed four million for the first time. That year’s record was 4,097,710 and visitation has not dipped below four million since.

The one-year record of 4,257,177 was established in 2016 during the celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary.

In 2017, when attendance was 4,116,525, the eclipse of the sun brought extra people to Wyoming and Yellowstone.

The number of people entering Yellowstone through the East Gate from Cody also was lower in 2019, with 6473 checking in during October compared to 6280 in 2018, a year of heavy construction at Fishing Bridge. In 2015, for the same month it was 11,609 in 2015.

The East Gate typically closes during the first week in November and has no entry for vehicles in December, so October is the last full month of the year when people regularly travel through.

“It’s hard to speculate why numbers are slightly down,” a Park Service spokesman said of the overall 2019 total. “But there were weather related road closures in February, September and October. Some roads were closed for ten days in October. This may have contributed to the decrease.”

Guernsey police chief steps down, says she was forced out

GUERNSEY (WNE) — Guernsey Police Chief Terri VanDam has resigned the position that she held since January 2019.

In a letter dated Jan. 15, VanDam stated she was resigning involuntarily and by “force” from Mayor Nicholas Paustian and members of the town council.

She stated her reasons for the resignation, which included retaliation against her for being a whistleblower, unethical acts and conduct by town employees and corruption of public officials.

She added that she has no reprimands in her position. 

“I have an accomplishment list that speaks for itself and shows the tenacity and passion that I put into my work,” she stated.

Just two weeks ago, VanDam reported to council members that the department’s call volume declined in 2019 compared to the previous year.

In the letter, she accused the town of failing to protect its employees and violating federal harassment laws.

She stated that the town “has created a hostile work environment for all workers and has repeatedly retaliated against employees.”

“I have dedicated five years of my life in this career field in Guernsey to promote positive changes that would allow for our youth to grow up in a community that is drug free and crime resistant,” she stated in the letter. “Those changes are still going to happen whether I am in an official position of not.”

Attempts to contact Paustian for comment were not immediately successful.

Exxon plans carbon capture project near Kemmerer

PINEDALE (WNE) — ExxonMobil Corporation filed an application on Jan. 13 with the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council to construct and operate the LaBarge Carbon Capture Project approximately 33 miles northeast of Kemmerer beginning in August. 

The company plans to build a fully operational carbon-capture, sales and disposal project adding equipment at the Shute Creek Gas Plant in Lincoln County, and at the CO2 Sales Facility in Sweetwater County, constructing a CO2 disposal well in Lincoln County and building a 9-mile CO2 pipeline in Lincoln County. 

The Shute Creek Gas Plant and CO2 Sales Facility are on ExxonMobil property and the CO2 disposal well and pipeline will be located on Bureau of Land Management property. Construction is anticipated to begin the third quarter of 2020 and be completed by the end of 2022. Construction manpower is anticipated to peak at an estimated 388 workers in August and September 2021. 

A hearing regarding the application is scheduled for April 9 in Kemmerer. 

Monthly average employment for construction jobs is expected to peak at 388. The project, once completed, is expected to have 11 permanent full-time jobs. 

The application states the primary local economic benefits with the new business activity are increased employee compensation, purchases made by the new business and taxes paid to local governments. 

The project is expected to generate $18 million in new taxes from 2024 to 2048 for Lincoln County and $9.78 million for Sweetwater County.

Ucross wins grant for Native American residencies

SHERIDAN (WNE) — Ucross, an artist residency program and creative laboratory for the arts, recently announced that it has been awarded $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Art’s Art Works program to support residencies for Native American visual artists and writers.

The grant award, which was funded through the NEA’s Artist Communities program, will allow Ucross to expand its successful fellowships for Native American visual artists, now in its third year, to include Native American writers.

“As governor and a former board member of the Ucross Foundation, I’d like to congratulate Ucross for securing this funding from the NEA,” Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said. “It’s well-deserved recognition. I’ve heard over and over from artists whose masterpieces were inspired by their time at Ucross and its historic Wyoming ranch, which has become a leading artist-in-residence program in the country — Ucross is a special place.”

“We are honored to be awarded this grant,” Ucross President Sharon Dynak said. “We’re especially proud of our work to expand residency opportunities for Native American artists and writers. NEA’s support is a boost of confidence in this initiative, as well as recognition from the NEA that our residency program is exceptional.”

Specifically, the grant funding will support three residencies for Native American writers and/or visual artists in 2020. Each resident will receive uninterrupted time, living accommodations and studio space on the 20,000-acre Ucross ranch. In addition, each artist will receive a stipend.

Man convicted in one of Wyoming’s largest meth seizures

CHEYENNE (WNE) — A man who was arrested and charged with dealing methamphetamine in Laramie County was found guilty Friday after a five-day jury trial in the Casper federal courthouse.

Arnold Devonne Butler was charged federally with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $10 million fine. He was also later charged in a superseding indictment in a conspiracy with intent to distribute illegal narcotics.

Based on collaborative investigative efforts dating back to May 2019, Butler was later additionally charged when a search warrant was executed in California that found nearly 100 pounds of methamphetamine and other narcotics.

DEA Resident Agent in Charge David Tyree of the Cheyenne Resident Office said he believes this to be one of the largest methamphetamine seizures in Wyoming. 

According to court documents:

On May 14, 2019, a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer was traveling eastbound on Interstate 80 in Laramie County. During his patrol, he noticed a truck without a U.S. Department of Transportation number posted on it.

In addition, the car that was strapped to the flatbed of the truck had straps that were loose and fraying. 

A drug detection K9 was later called to the scene and alerted officers that it detected narcotics. When officers searched the vehicle, they found 41 packages of suspected methamphetamine, two packages of suspected heroin, two packages of suspected cocaine and one package of an unknown substance. This totaled more than 50 pounds of narcotics that were seized.

Murder trial set for man charged in child’s death

ROCK SPRINGS (WNE) — The first-degree murder trial for Christopher James Nielsen has been set for June 1, 2020.

A first-degree murder charge was filed against Nielsen after a five-year-old Green River boy died Nov. 28, 2019, from injuries allegedly received while in his care. Nielsen pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Third District Court on Jan. 10.

The case was bound over to district court when Nielsen waived his right to a preliminary hearing in Sweetwater County Circuit Court in an order dated Dec. 27, 2019.

His bond is set at $1 million, and Nielsen remains in custody at the Sweetwater County Detention Center. An order modifying bond conditions states that Nielsen may have contact with his minor daughter by telephone, video or written correspondence. No physical contact is allowed with his daughter, and Nielsen cannot have any form of contact with any other minor children.

Nielsen was originally arrested Nov. 14, 2019, for alleged aggravated child abuse after the five-year-old boy he had been babysitting was flown to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City with life-threatening injuries. Those charges were dropped and first-degree charges filed after the boy died.

Nielsen had lived in Sweetwater County for a week before the boy was hospitalized. He was staying with Vanessa Kidner, the mother of the boy who died, and her fiance, Stacy Willeitner, in exchange for babysitting Kidner’s two children.


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