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Since 2002 when the first human case was reported, West Nile virus has found its way throughout all corners of Wyoming, impacting multiple facets of agriculture, wildlife and human health. The physical and economic toll on the residents is not immaterial when you look at the Department of Health’s cumulative data for the state at badskeeter.org. In the past 12 years, over 700 Wyoming residents have contracted the virus with 17 of those cases being fatal. 

For some, contracting the virus is similar to getting the flu, with symptoms such as fever, headaches, fatigue and back pain. Nationally, it is estimated that 99 percent of the total reported cases are of this mild fever variety. The other one percent represents individuals that develop serious neurologic illnesses such as encephalitis or meningitis. These extreme cases of infection can lead to long-term health impacts or possibly death. 

By now, many Wyoming residents know someone who was exposed to the virus and had to deal with the physical impacts, especially in Fremont, Goshen, Campbell and Platte counties, which have the four highest reported cases in the state.

Impacts

The impacts from West Nile virus extend beyond physical health into economical. 

In 2002, Louisiana experienced 329 West Nile virus human cases with an estimated economic cost of $20 million dollars (Zohrabian A. West Nile virus economic impact, Louisiana, 2002 Emerg Infect Dis. 2004 Oct;10(10):1736-44). This cost was based on lost wages, health care costs and epidemic management costs. 

In 2005 researchers estimated an outbreak in Sacramento County, Calif. of 163 reported cases had an economic impact of $2.28 million dollars using a similar formula as Louisiana (Barber L. Economic Cost Analysis of West Nile Virus Outbreak, Sacramento County, California, USA, 2005. Emerg Infect Dis. 2010 Mar.). 

Comparing the entire state of Wyoming to Louisiana, or a single county in California, may seem disproportionate, but in 2013 Sacramento County, with a population of 1.355 million residents, only reported 10 West Nile virus human cases where Wyoming, with a population of 576,412, reported 40. 

Closer to home

When relating Wyoming’s reported West Nile virus incidents to the formula used in both Louisiana and Sacramento County, the state’s 12-year economic impact is $20,701,900, without considering the additional impacts to livestock and wildlife.

This figure could be exponentially higher if not for the West Nile virus management programs implemented throughout the state. The agencies managing these programs vary locally but include Weed and Pest Control Districts, municipal vector control programs and, in several cases, county health departments. 

A majority of these programs utilize Emergency Insect Management grants through the Wyoming Department of Agriculture for financial assistance. The Emergency Insect Management program has also played a key role in the state’s grasshopper management and the Black Hills pine beetle mitigation programs. 

In 2013, the program provided $1.3 million statewide to assist with West Nile virus programs. This was matched with $3.2 million of local funds.

Successes

Gauging the success of a vector control program is difficult due to an inability to accurately account for all individuals protected by the program. 

For Sacramento County during the 2005 epidemic, conditions allowed researchers to compare the cost of emergency aerial spraying to the cost of complacency and determined spraying was cost effective if they prevented a minimum of 15 cases of West Nile virus. 

In Wyoming, we gauge program success through monitoring protocols as required by the Emergency Insect Management grant. These protocols require participating programs to identify and monitor Culex tarsalis mosquito populations, the primary vector of West Nile virus in Wyoming, and compare trapping levels pre and post treatment. The protocols were developed by the University of Wyoming, and annually, they provide training on how to implement them. 

Although the protocols may not calculate a “cost-benefit” comparable to the Sacramento County study, they do provide an accurate picture of local program success. By using these protocols many vector management programs in the state have adapted their treatment timings to correlate with peak Culex tarsalis activity. 

Many of the local programs can demonstrate a 95 percent or better control of vector mosquito levels during peak seasonal activity.

Threat

It’s safe to say West Nile virus still poses a significant threat for Wyoming in 2014. This past year, along with many of our neighboring states, Wyoming experienced some of the highest per capita rates of West Nile virus neurological infections, according to data from cdc.gov/westnile/statsMaps/preliminaryMapsData/incidencestatedate.html, which leads many of us to believe, with enough moisture and hot days, this summer won’t be much different. 

With time, we may see a decrease in human incidents due to an immunity build-up or even the introduction of a human vaccine. Until then protecting yourself by wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and using DEET based repellents should be a common practice during the summer when mosquito activity is at its highest.

Think about the water we drink. Something so important to Wyoming’s everyday life needn’t be invisible, although oftentimes groundwater is exactly that. Hidden beneath our feet, we can’t see it diminish the way we can watch a stream dwindle in the late summer during drought. And because of that, groundwater is often taken for granted. Many of our towns and cities use at least some groundwater as their primary water supply, and the majority of all drinking water supplied in the state of Wyoming comes from wells. So, while we can’t see it, we’d better not ignore it. Whether it’s a water quality or an availability issue, a groundwater problem can affect lots of people quickly.

Back in 1957, our lawmakers showed great foresight in adopting groundwater laws that give useful tools to this agency – the State Engineer’s Office – and our appropriators, or water users. Whether it be our groundwater laws in general, Control Area laws, found in Wyoming Statute (W.S.) 41-3-912, et seq, or our “one source of supply” statute, found at W.S. 41-3-916, pretty strong authority is in place to protect senior water rights and the groundwater resource from overdevelopment to the point of damage.

Under the “one source” statute, there are tools in place to protect senior surface water users if they are impacted or injured by junior priority wells when the aquifer and the stream are connected. 

For example, shallow alluvial wells can drain water from a nearby stream or intercept water that was on its way to feed the nearby stream. Our lawmakers acknowledged that in such instances, if not regulated in priority, the junior wells could in fact dry up a creek and “injure” the senior surface water users. And, in virtually every instance, groundwater rights are later in time, or junior, compared to our surface water rights.

The “one source of supply” statute went along largely unused until facts in a couple parts of the state recently needed it. 

Mind you, the fact that this statute has been on the books since 1957 without significant use doesn’t mean the state hasn’t experienced conflicts between groundwater and surface water users. We have. 

In the Horse Creek Basin near LaGrange, users of groundwater and users of surface water have had disagreements that resulted in litigation back in the 1970s. We have had groundwater development in the Bates Creek drainage that was suspected of being hydraulically connected to Bates Creek proper, but regulation of the two as the same source of supply didn’t commence until after a final hydrogeologic study in 2006.

And finally, the depletive effects of shallow groundwater use along the Lower North Platte River near Torrington had to be recognized in the 2001 Modified North Platte Decree. 

In all these cases, it was simply a combination of local tension, the real or imminent threat of suit and the obtaining of sound hydrogeologic analysis that brought new management tools to the table. Where you have tractable issues presented for years or decades, there comes a time when fair water management under our priority system demands the use of these statutory tools. And, in both the Horse Creek and Bates Creek cases, opportunity for an appropriator-devised solution was provided. 

As is often the case, mediated or negotiated solutions among appropriators with different points of view can be tough to obtain. It was only after those opportunities appeared to be exhausted that further regulation occurred or orders were entered.

Our groundwater control area laws have not endured excessive use either. Our groundwater control areas weren’t designated as such until the early 1980s, and even today, we only have three of them. One is in the eastern two-thirds of Laramie County, another is around Wheatland and the third is in extreme northeast Goshen County. Such a designation has not stopped permitting of new large wells in these areas, but that permitting has slowed considerably. And, it has not stopped water level declines from worsening, at least in places. Groundwater is still actively used in all these areas, and one could say that the existence of the control areas has, in a way, at least kept the water flowing.

At present, we are in the midst of a groundwater study in Laramie County designed to evaluate what might be done to control, arrest or recover the drawdowns in the High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer system. 

In places, these drawdowns have continued for decades, despite the existence of a Control Area established in 1981. Wells go dry during summer, and some groundwater rights have been abandoned, made more palatable by the availability of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Agriculture Water Enhancement Program and funding. We continue to see demand for light industrial groundwater use, and the recent Niobrara oil play sought groundwater both under new permits and under temporary agreements with existing wells.

Rural domestic use – think subdivisions – also continues to grow. All in a county where the central and eastern part have no real reliable source of water other than – you guessed it – groundwater. 

In the face of growth, how do we manage this precious resource for a sustainable future supply?

These questions and problems are not new to Wyoming or the West. 

If you look around, you’ll see much written about groundwater management in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, the Snake Plain Aquifer in Idaho, the Edwards Aquifer issues in Texas, the mining of the aquifer beneath Albuquerque, N.M. and many more. In all those cases, studies of aquifer over use, or conjunctive use along with surface water and how to deal with it are critical whether the ultimate answer comes from the regulated community or their version of the “state engineer.” We learned a lot from those places. 

Until the Bates Creek decisions beginning in 2007 and the Horse Creek order from 2013, Wyoming had been able to get along without significant resources or regulation related to these topics. But, at some point in the process, we simply had to quit whistling past the graveyard and address our situations head-on. Absent decisions from either the water users or this office, all these cases would be back in court. So one has to ask the question, do we want to solve the problem administratively or judicially? It’s not Wyoming’s fault. It’s just our turn.

Dealing with these tough issues is something about which Wyoming should be proud. And dealing with thorny topics has never been something of which we in Wyoming have been afraid. While the processes can be painful as we’re going through them, the statutes at least promote fairness along with respect for our time-honored priority system. 

The business of sharing a scarce resource – especially using the relatively newer science behind managing groundwater by itself or in conjunction with surface water – can bring out the rough-hewn cowboy in anybody. 

As a new way of looking at water management, there, of course, are skeptics too. Believe me, I hear from them! It will be an interesting ride as we move into the future, improving the science, our data and our collective ability to divide the water, but I am convinced we’re better off for the effort. It’s the road we’re on, and it’s the right one.

Thanks to the Wyoming Livestock Roundup for the opportunity to share an update on what has been going on in Washington, D.C. and what I’ve been working on for the folks in Wyoming. The common sense that seems so readily available to us in Wyoming is glaringly absent in Washington, D.C., especially as we try and address such pressing issues. If you have ideas for how to bring some Wyoming common sense to Washington, let me know. You can share your ideas with me through email, Facebook, Twitter or calling any one of my offices. 

Shutdown and debt

The shutdown of the federal government was unnecessary. Our state as a whole was affected, and it could have, and should have, been avoided. What we’ve seen over the past five years is this reliance on governing by crisis and punting the tough decisions down the road just a few months. America deserves better. Wyoming expects better.

When the House and Senate voted to reopen the government, they authorized the president to spend another $1 trillion we have to borrow from other countries without addressing the $17 trillion elephant in the room – our national debt. The debt isn’t as tangible to folks as a government shutdown, but the shutdown is only a symptom. I sit up nights worrying about our nation’s debt and how it will affect Wyoming children, my children and grandchildren. It took more than 200 years for our debt per person to reach about $30,000. Since 2009, it’s gone up to more than $50,000 per person. That is frightening. 

I have three bills I’m working on right now to address this. 

First is my Penny Plan, which would cut one percent from total federal spending for two years, resulting in a balanced budget. 

Second is a biannual budgeting plan that would force Congress to budget for two years and dig into the details of how we are spending money. 

Third is a bill with Senator Portman (R-Ohio) that would prevent government shutdowns in the future by ending the culture of short-term fixes. Our bill would impose one percent cuts to any of the 12 appropriation bills not passed by the Sept. 30 deadline. This would offer lawmakers incentive to not wait until the last minute. Additionally, for every 90 days Congress doesn’t pass the spending bill, another one percent is cut.

Farm bill

Agriculture is the bedrock of many Wyoming communities and plays a vital role in supporting our nation’s rural economies. We need an agricultural policy in place that allows our farmers and ranchers to plan for the future. 

The Farm Bill is currently in conference committee, where the differences between the House and Senate bills are being negotiated. There is a lot of work to do, but I hope both the House and Senate can produce a fiscally responsible, market-oriented Farm Bill. 

Unfortunately, I could not support the Farm Bill that the Senate passed earlier this year. It didn’t go far enough in eliminating target prices for certain agriculture products and didn’t eliminate the waste in the food stamp program. When the Senate negotiated this bill last year, we were able to end all direct subsidies to farmers and move toward a more efficient federal crop insurance program. These are important changes that our agriculture policy needs and I hope we are able to see them in a final bill. I’m also hopeful that it will include measures that focus on brucellosis eradication and promote competitive markets for U.S. agricultural products. 

These are just some of the policies I’ve been fighting for on behalf of the Wyoming agriculture community and will continue to work towards sensible solutions that reflect your input and our values.

Livestock disaster

Many of our friends and neighbors in the livestock industry suffered devastating losses during the recent blizzard that hit parts of Wyoming and western South Dakota. These losses remind us of the continued need to ensure agricultural producers have options when it comes to managing risk to their operations. 

Livestock producers are at particular risk because there are still relatively few affordable options available for ranchers to purchase insurance for natural hazards like blizzards or losses resulting from wildfire. That is why I have continued my bipartisan efforts to get a permanent livestock disaster assistance program included in the Farm Bill. 

It’s time the federal government budgets for disasters just as families have to budget for emergencies. In the past, Congress has relied on ad hoc disaster bills, which get charged directly to our deficit.

Regulation

Federal agencies cannot regulate what Congress has refused to legislate. However, this hasn’t kept the EPA from trying to stretch the Clean Water Act to regulate Wyoming waters nor has it prevented efforts by this administration to use the Clean Air Act to push its climate change agenda. 

The Wyoming delegation remains vigilant over this administration’s attempts to regulate agriculture and drive up the cost of business for our farmers and ranchers. We have encouraged Wyoming stakeholders to comment on proposed rules, introduced resolutions of disapproval to strike down problematic federal regulations and proposed legislation to eliminate redundant regulation.

Senator Mike Enzi can be reached online at enzi.senate.gov. He also has offices located in Washington, D.C., Casper, Cheyenne, Cody, Gillette and Jackson. Feel free to contact Senator Enzi at any time with concerns.

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to address more than 300 attendees at a Today’s Ag dinner in Laramie sponsored by a number of local, Albany County and statewide agriculture, livestock, business and commerce organizations, as well as the Laramie Area Chamber of Commerce.

Being among agriculture folks is like coming home. I grew up on a ranch in southeast Wyoming. At an early age, I learned to appreciate how even the most subtle change in land, water and weather could affect whether our family experienced a lean year, a fat year or a year that was just good enough to get by, again. 

Like all ranch kids, I learned an appreciation for domestic animals and an ethic for their care early in life. By their example, my parents instilled in their children a respect for the sheep and cattle that formed the basis of our family’s livelihood.  

My understanding of the value of livestock began to develop into a true appreciation of wildlife, enhanced by my wonderment and amazement at wild things in wild places. I explored the edges of the ranch, delighting in the discovery of a badger or the occasional trout in the irrigation canal. Like many Wyoming ranch kids, I tried to keep as “pets” most of the species I could find some manner of capturing. Fortunately, they always escaped or returned to the wild at opportune times. 

But I was most happy when I pursued activities that combined family, a good horse and wildlife. Hunting trips with my dad and brothers didn’t always result in a harvest but always resulted in some awe-inspiring wildlife moment. I’m grateful that my father passed along his deep understanding of the importance of wildlife to my brothers and me. These formative moments, combined with an inner nature of curiosity regarding the natural world, inspired me to pursue a career in wildlife.

In nearly 30 years with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), I’ve had numerous opportunities to build strong working relationships with our partners in agriculture. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed many times over how a single positive interaction with a landowner can have ripple-effect benefits to both wildlife in the region and countless hunters and anglers. 

Throughout the seasons, the WGFD recognizes the importance of strong relationships with our partners in agriculture. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, it’s clear that what’s good for wildlife is good for agriculture and vice versa. Neither agriculture nor wildlife management can happen in isolation. Both are improved by constant communication, cooperation and coordination by interested parties. Private landowners are essential participants, along with scientists, hunters, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts, in coming to decisions regarding wildlife management strategies and practices. When livestock producers invite the WGFD to collaborate on issues related to habitat and wildlife forage on their lands, we can find mutually satisfactory solutions that support both successful agricultural operations and wildlife populations.

In July, the WGFD recognized landowners from across the state for their efforts to preserve habitat, conserve wildlife, provide access for sportsmen and sportswomen and to cooperate on research benefiting wildlife. They received Landowner of the Year recognition at a banquet that Wyoming Game and Fish Commission President Michael Healy and I had the honor of addressing.

Each of the landowners we recognized had made a singular contribution to our mission of conserving wildlife and serving people. The scale of what we have accomplished together is astounding. We’ve initiated comprehensive research on the state’s largest moose herd that simply would not have been possible without cooperation from private landowners. We’ve made improvements to the land around streams and rivers to minimize erosion and enable forage and shelter for wildlife. We’ve collaborated on fencing solutions, keeping wildlife out of crops and minimizing fence-related injuries to deer and pronghorn. We’ve provided for healthy fish populations and safeguarded a key fishery supporting Colorado River cutthroat, one of Wyoming’s native trout species. 

In the Cody area, landowners who cooperated with the WGFD provided hunters access to nearly 94,000 acres of land. Those hunters not only filled their freezers, but they also contributed to bringing elk numbers in line with herd management objectives and provided more than 350 brucellosis samples, a critical tool in monitoring the disease’s prevalence and a key area where livestock growers and wildlife managers share a common objective.

Although your individual interactions with WGFD personnel may be seasonal to discuss wildlife management activities, provide suggestions regarding season setting, facilitate access, discuss habitat improvement, work with a hunter to retrieve a wounded animal or work together to mitigate wildlife damage, we appreciate our partnership with you year-round. None of the progress we’ve made in partnership is a one-time event. Rather, it’s our ongoing work together to manage wildlife that proves successful.

Through strong relationships, none of us bears the entire burden. When an individual landowner, rancher or WGFD employee makes a commitment to make conditions just a little bit better for a particular species, the benefits compound.

Talbott is director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. This is the first of quarterly columns in which he’ll discuss areas of mutual interest to the department and livestock producers.