A 200-pound black bear with a flair for home decorating denned this winter in the crawlspace beneath a family cabin at Georgetown Lake, west of Butte, Mont. Once dug in, the bear noticed the stairs and a trap door above it, reports the Billings Gazette, and proceeded to break open the door and wander into the cabin, only to discover all the little things that make hibernation more enjoyable -- "decorative pillows, comforters and blankets to keep warm." Family members who visited the cabin on New Year's Day realized the place had been ransacked, but were puzzled because nothing was missing except bedding, including designer sheets. When they peered down into the crawlspace, however, they saw "a pair of eyes staring back." Everyone, including the game warden, decided that the bear -- dubbed "Blue" by a thrilled 5-year-old -- could sleep right where it was until spring.
Poor Beijing, suffering as it does from horrendous storms of swirling pink dust that frequently darken the sky and cause residents to wheeze and cough. But Californians might temper their compassion with a bit of gratitude if they happened to catch a recent New York Times story about the surprising "upside" of China's air pollution. For in just a week or so, the high-altitude jet stream can blow Beijing's fierce dust clouds thousands of miles to California, and once there, the polluted clouds "seed" snowflakes that blanket the state's Sierra Nevada Range. "Snowflakes cannot fall out of a cloud unless there is a floating seed husk, or piece of pollen, speck of dust or other aerosol that they can cling to and grow around," explain researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California at San Diego. So the more dust in the air, researchers say, the more ice crystals, and those ice crystals grow into snowflakes as they drop from the sky. Because the mountains of Northern California have been suffering from dry winters, it's good news for the region that dust from China is bulking up the snowstorms that will eventually provide drinking water for 25 million people. Snowmelt from the mountains also provides up to 15 percent of the state's hydropower as well as water for wildlife, ranches and farming operations. Unfortunately, there's still a downside: Besides causing serious harm to the health of millions of people in China, the country's dust storms are also bad news for some Americans: "Research suggests that as much as one-third of the airborne lead in the San Francisco Bay Area wafted over from China."
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Once again, Hollywood has chosen mythmaking over reality in its portrayal of predators, in this case, Alaskan wolves, in a new movie called The Grey. According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the "man-versus-beast thriller" pits stranded oilfield roughnecks against extreme cold, hunger and a pack of starving wolves; when carnage erupts, "the wolves are usually the winners." This greatly annoys Gary Wiles, a wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, whose first reaction on hearing the plot was, "Oh, no!" As far-fetched as the movie is, he says, it deftly plays on the fear that wolves routinely target and attack humans. But in 60 years, only two human deaths have been attributed to wolves in North America -- home to 60,000 wolves. And not a single person has been harmed by wolves in the Northern Rockies since they were restored to the area in 1995. That suggests that if Hollywood were to shoot a real movie about wolf packs, which prefer to avoid people, the plot might prove excruciatingly boring. It could be spiced up, however, by showing somebody like Angelina Jolie walking an unleashed dog in the vicinity of a wolf pack. Wiles advises hikers to keep Fido leashed because wolves have killed at least 144 dogs in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming since 1987. Nearly all of the pets were running loose when attacked. Film director Joe Carnahan insists he never meant to demonize wolves as vicious killers; he told the Los Angeles Times that the animals were merely defending their turf from human intruders. But Wiles, who helped write Washington's recently adopted wolf management plan, which calls for a minimum of 15 breeding pairs in the state, plans to skip the flick: "Anything that makes wildlife look far worse than they really are, I avoid."
Watch out for Las Vegas cabbies, warns a headline in the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "Competition has Vegas cabbies taking prisoners for tips." The story is more nuanced, however, since only a handful of drivers seem to have locked their doors and given passengers ultimatums about payment. It is true that many drivers complain about too many cabs on the street vying for too few fares, and some say they can't make a minimum wage even over a 12-hour shift. In any case, driver representatives insist that hostage-taking is never condoned.
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Many of us harbor a sneaking suspicion that Westerners aren't quite real to D.C. Beltway officials, particularly to the Easterners in their employ. The habitat of these politically engaged men and women so close to power is usually a crowded room where they toil from morning to night, and so the poor wretches rarely get to visit the rural places they help make policy for. This geographical disconnect -- perhaps a mite overstated -- might just explain the news that some Senate staffers, mostly working under Republicans, spent delicious hours while on the job playing "a morbid version of a jellybean-counting contest," as Grist.org put it, that asked them "to guess the number of acres that will burn each year." The contest -- now halted -- began back in 2003, and was open to those who covered energy and natural resource issues, as well as to appropriations staff, because "you never want to leave them out -- you might need a rider from hell someday." In one especially morbid twist, players also guessed how many firefighting planes would crash, including fixed-wing and heavy-slurry aircraft, as well as how many planes would become unusable or grounded and, for how many weeks. The 2011 winner of the contest was Chuck Kleeschulte, a staffer on the Senate energy committee, who once worked for Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a longtime critic of the Forest Service's firefighting policy. Kleeschulte's prize: his choice of a Wizard hat, the When Pigs Fly hat, or the mechanical Holly-Jolly Christmas hat. The contest's joking tone hardly matched some official speeches about Western wildfires, Grist notes. At a hearing last year, Sen. Murkowski, who also employs contest organizer Frank Gladics, said, "You worry about what is happening within any given fire season, but to those who have lost property, those who have been threatened, we are very concerned."
Could satisfying "bucket list" desires become ridiculous? A 55-year-old man from Butte enticed a patrol car to follow him and then gunned his SUV over 100 miles per hour on an interstate toward the town of Rocker, Mont., reports the Billings Gazette. John C. Hughes, who had apparently not been drinking, told police he "just always wanted" to experience a police chase. That apparently includes the consequences: Hughes was charged with reckless driving while eluding police.
COLORADO AND THE WEST
Wouldn't it be grand if you could live in a house that never racked up a single electric bill? Some homeowners have pursued that goal by retrofitting their homes with solar or wind power, though it's not easy to achieve the wondrous state of "net-zero" -- defined as any building that produces at least as much energy as it consumes. But now, you can choose such a house right off the shelf, so to speak, from some local developers, reports the Denver Post. Though they're not cheap, they're not out of bounds for families with a couple of incomes. Denver-based New Town Builders, for instance, offers a $424,000 model with rooftop solar panels, guaranteed to "generate enough extra power to offset utility costs." There is one hitch, however: Mortgage underwriters "typically do not take into account energy-saving features that boost purchase prices," and New Town says the solar panels add $26,900 to the cost of its net-zero houses. Help might be on the way from Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who has introduced a bill directing federal mortgage-loan agencies to consider the expected reductions in energy costs when calculating loan costs. His bill, called SAVE, for Sensible Accounting to Value Energy Act, awaits a hearing in the Senate Banking Committee. While it may take time for buyers to seek out net-zero homes, John Bringenberg of SunTalk, a company that installs solar panels, predicts that in a decade, every house will have some solar component: "A house isn't going to just sit there in the sun; it will generate electricity."
UTAH AND THE WEST
More good green news comes from a city that was smart enough back in the mid-'90s to start planning a more sustainable future, reports Governing magazine. In a community effort called "Envision Utah," Salt Lake City residents planned 40 and even 50 years ahead. Goals included reducing sprawl and driving time, cutting down on air pollution and retaining the precious open space near the mountains. They concentrated on planning for "higher-density developments around mass-transit stops" -- creating places where cars could be abandoned in favor of walking or taking light-rail trains or streetcars to work, stores and school. If that vision holds, the Greater Wasatch area -- a narrow, 120-mile strip where about 80 percent of Utah's population lives -- will "conserve 23 square miles of open space, reduce traffic congestion by 18 percent, and increase (mass) transit use by 12 percent," predicts the federal Housing and Urban Development agency.
Thanks to the 23-to-30-foot-high fence across the Nogales border with Mexico, the Tucson Weekly finds that marijuana smugglers and U.S. Border Patrol have begun playing a vigorous "game" that resembles a blend of monkey-in-the-middle and football. "There are quarterbacks in Mexico and receivers in the U.S.," said Lt. Gerardo Castillo of the Santa Cruz County Metro Task Force. "We try to intercept, obviously."
Money may not buy you happiness, but burning it might help keep you from freezing to death. A snowshoer who became lost in a blizzard on Mount Rainier told The Seattle Times that he survived by digging a snow tunnel and then burning everything he could find, from socks and Band-Aids to his toothbrush "and lastly, $1 and $5 bills from his wallet." Yong Chun Kim, 66, an experienced mountaineer, said he became separated from the group he was leading after slipping and then sliding down the mountain. Though he radioed the group that he was OK, he became disoriented in the rough terrain. For two days, Kim, a cancer survivor, kept himself going by praying, eating a little and dreaming of his wife and a warm sauna. He also moved around vigorously and took cover in several deep holes around trees. He tried to keep walking, he recalled, but "the snow was so deep, I couldn't breathe." He found that dollar bills burned the best, though he worried that "in a national park, you're not supposed to have a fire ... but I want to stay alive." It took rescuers nine hours to bring Kim down safely to a visitors' center at 5,400 feet. Afterward, he was in such good shape that he skipped a hospital checkup and went right home to his family.
What's risqué in Fargo, N.D.? Flirting. A new ad on the state tourism website featured two young men in a downtown bar smiling out the window at three wholesome young women, one of whom is shyly waving "hi." This is just "sickening," said one critic, though maybe it was the caption he was referring to: "Drinks, dinner, decisions. Arrive a guest. Leave a legend." Another person wondered exactly what you needed to do in order to "leave a legend." Dozens of complaints later, the ad vanished. "It really just takes one or two (negative comments) and then people jump on the bandwagon," said Sara Otte Coleman, director of the state's tourism division. Though a mite cheesy, she said, the ad was merely supposed to convey a sense of fun.
The owners of Montana Snowbowl near Missoula really, really don't like criticism. So after a skier complained, they refused to sell him a season ski pass, or even daily tickets at a reduced rate during the pre-season. Jim Sylvester says that he put a comment in a handy suggestion box at the ski area, noting that a concluding run that funnels skiers seemed too congested and rough. When nothing happened, Sylvester, who is a former president of the Missoula Ski Education Foundation, called the Lolo National Forest office to find out the name of Snowbowl's insurance carrier so he could warn it about what he considered the "unsafe skiing conditions," reports the Missoulian. Nobody got back to him, but the run was groomed, and Sylvester thought no more about the matter for some months, until he sought to buy a season ski pass. He was refused twice -- Snowbowl owners called him "disruptive" -- and was also told that he should apologize. A season pass holder at Snowbowl for 31 years, Sylvester refused to make nice: "Do I have to apologize for complaining?" Accusing Snowbowl owner Brad Morris of discrimination, Sylvester now wants the Forest Service to rule that the ski resort, which is almost all on public land, violated the terms of its special use permit. Uncomfortably caught in the middle, the Forest Service allows that it is in "fact-gathering mode right now."
The Arizona Republic recently collected some of its favorite quotes from state politicians. It wasn't easy to choose, but we've winnowed the daily paper's choices down to just two. Not surprisingly, they have to do with the Arizona Legislature's well-known love of guns: "I pack," said Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, proudly announcing that she routinely carried her .38 Special handgun onto the floor of the Senate. To which Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, replied, "The only thing protecting me from someone in the gallery with a gun is Klein." n
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THE WEST AND CHINA
It's no secret that many Germans adore the Old West, but who knew that prosperous second-home buyers in China would also succumb to "cowhide, antler chandeliers, saddle blankets, lodgepole chairs, wagon wheels, Navajo rugs, iron light fixtures, wildlife-scene fireplace screens, wooden snowshoes, leather throw pillows, horseshoes, Charles Russell prints and plaid curtains"? According to the Jackson Hole News&Guide, interior designer Allison Smith found this out while working for the wonderfully named Beijing Resplendency Great Exploit Real Estate Co. LTD. She came up with a Western theme for each of 850 houses in "Jackson Hole," the name of the new, second-home development in China's Hebei Province. "They absolutely fell in love with the idea of anything cowboy and Indian," says the Portland, Ore.-based Smith. She also created micro-themes for each house, including Billy the Kid, Stagecoach Station and Big Bear. Now, Smith boasts that the Western-style homes have nearly tripled in value since being built, as Chinese buyers respond to the Westerner's sense of emancipation, whimsy and fun. What's more, she says, "You should see them when they get a toy gun to play with."
ARIZONA AND THE BORDER
A monthly paper called Connection covers the southern Arizona border towns of Amado, Arivapa and Tubac, where columnist Laurinda Oswald chronicles the never-ending drama of what she calls the "Wild Wets." It makes for compelling reading. As she notes, the presence of the U.S. Border Patrol is inescapable even 50 miles from Mexico. Whether it's day or night, drivers on many north-south roads routinely find themselves stopped at roadblocks. This can be unnerving for tourists, especially if they can't simply answer "yes" to the question: "Are you a U.S. citizen?" It's also frustrating for Americans who live and work in the area, what with drug-sniffing dogs being walked by every car. Recently, Oswald, who lives in Amado, got singled out by one canine and was forced to sit by twiddling her thumbs while her car was thoroughly probed inside and out and even X-rayed. Blame it all on an earlier encounter with two dead javelinas; after Oswald was forced to drive her low-clearance Prius over one of the not-yet flattened animals, it inadvertently picked up a musky smell that later drew the olfactory attention of the fascinated "dog on duty." The whole lengthy exercise, she said, led her to realize that "trained dogs are still just dogs." Meanwhile, the Obama administration has announced that because the number of crossers from Mexico has dropped significantly, the 1,200 National Guard troops at the border will be cut to fewer than 300, reports The Associated Press, a savings of some $60 million. Helicopters and airplanes equipped with high-tech radar will replace humans, said David Aguilar, deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, who explained: "We are basically going from boots on the ground to boots in the air." Since our border vigilance expanded under presidents Bush and Obama, we have spent about $1.35 billion on thousands of security guards, miles of new metal fencing that blocks wildlife better than it blocks determined and desperate people, and surveillance towers so sophisticated that they've never actually worked.
Bob Ream, chairman of the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, was driving to north-central Montana just before sunrise to hunt deer, when a deer jumped in front of his car and made the trip unnecessary. The deer was a goner, "but only its hindquarter was damaged," reports the Independent Record, "so Ream tagged it." Even though his job involves setting hunting regulations, Ream apparently didn't know that tagging a roadkill is illegal. After he told a game warden what he'd done, the animal was confiscated and Ream was issued a warning. That wasn't even the worst part: The deer also totaled his Subaru.
Larimore Nicholl in Colorado Springs thinks readers of that town's weekly, The Independent, desperately need "laws for a good life," so he hasn't been shy about sending his suggestions to the editor for everyone to ponder, if not follow. Some examples: "Never believe the ultra-rich give a damn about you, or care about creating a job for you," "Don't get born again, just grow up!" and "If someone asks you to go to war to fight 'the enemy,' tell them: 'You go ahead, I'm staying behind to protect the children.' " He also advises: "If you work your tush off, you have a chance of a satisfying life; if you don't, you have no chance."
Cowboys might have castrated lambs with their teeth back in the Old West days, but this is not a good idea now, says the Centers for Disease Control, in case you were wondering. As well as being messy, bloody and unpleasant for all concerned, especially the animal, using your teeth to bite off animal testicles can lead to campylobacteriosis, a disease that causes diarrhea, cramps, fever, nausea and vomiting. The subject came up because last June, two men who were working on a ranch castrating lambs decided to do it the old-fashioned way. Both cowboys got sick, and one man ended up in the hospital, reports the CDC in a dispassionate bulletin to Wyoming officials describing its extensive medical investigation. Bloggers had a field day, including Maryn McKenna, who writes "The Further Adventures of Germ Girl" for Wired. She translated the government's advice to the state this way: "CDC (says): Do not castrate lambs with your teeth. (Related: Do not be a testosterone-fueled idiot.)"
Although the Scottsdale Gun Club has yet to start selling Christmas cards showing baby Jesus cradling a machine gun in the manger, or the Magi bringing gifts of frankincense, myrrh and crates full of extra ammo, the club did offer its members a unique photo op: posing with Santa Claus while holding military-style rifles. Choices of accoutrement included an $80,000 machine gun or tripod-mounted rifle AR-15, complete with an attached grenade launcher, reports The Associated Press. The gun club's military take on the holidays inspired the blog The Westerner to suggest slightly reworded Christmas carols, such as: "Silencer Night," "I saw Mommy Shooting Santa Claus," "Joy to the Winchester," "Rudolph, the Rifle-Totin' Reindeer," and that old favorite, "Jingle Shells, Jingle Shells." Readers were invited to submit their own rewrites to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An embarrassment of riches brought together two families of grizzly bears in Grand Teton National Park: delicious piles of guts discarded by hunters, plus numerous carcasses of elk and the carcass of a bison. Unfortunately, the late-November reunion -- like many others this holiday season -- did not always go harmoniously, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide. The two heads of the families -- the larger, dubbed 399 by researchers, and 610, her daughter from 2006 -- tussled several times over the spoils, rolling "in the snow during one brawl," said photographer Tom Mangelsen, who kept a close watch on the action as it unfolded. He said the sows' cubs, five in number, tried to join in, and one of 399's cubs was "a real scrapper," not just charging at the other cubs but also chasing its grandmother. "The scene made for amazing wildlife viewing," Mangelsen said, but if the two grizzly sows had not been related, he speculated, "it would be a fight-to-the-death sort of thing."
We won't go into the Freudian implications of hunters who covet wall decorations fashioned from the enormous antlers of the deer or elk they "hunted" on a fenced game ranch, but in Texas, where everything is supposed to be bigger than life, the desire for giant racks has gotten entirely out of hand. Smugglers have been hauling in bucks with huge antlers to breed with the state's "delicate native deer," reports the Wall Street Journal. The result: deer with racks that can span four feet and are "often festooned with dozens of thick knobs and nubbins," reminiscent of Dr. Seuss' creations. Federal agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently nabbed one of the smugglers -- Billy Powell, 77, who was sentenced to up to six months of home confinement, $1.5 million in penalties and the forfeiture of 1,300 vials of frozen deer semen, said to be worth close to $1 million.
An avocado thief in Vista, Calif., with a history of violations, didn't get jail time, but the unemployed tow-truck driver received a rather unusual punishment. Capital Press reports that Barron Stein must avoid avocado groves without permission "and can't possess more than 10 at a time." More than 10 avocados, we assume, not actual groves.
Jessica Robinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting recently spent some time with two sheepherders from Peru, whose work in the 6,000-foot-high mountains above McCall, Idaho, could be summed up this way: Sheep are their entire lives, because the herders are "on call up to 24 hours per day, seven days per week, in all weather." Because they also bed down among the animals, Ruben Camayo Santiago and Nequar Pocomucha Huaroc deter almost all predators far more successfully than radio-activated alarms or noisy cracker shots fired from rifles. Not that it's easy: After one horrific night a while back, the herders have come up with a nickname for wolves; they call them "las terroristas" -- the terrorists. "They can kill 40, 50, 60 sheep, but not eat them, just kill, kill, kill. ... And after a wolf has killed, he runs away and howls. Like he wants to say, 'Ruben! I've now killed 40 sheep! Gracias!' I prefer the bears. The bears say, 'I'll just eat one, thanks.' " But a night like that one is now rare; the men say they're keeping their herd of 2,000 sheep safe through "caminas, caminas, caminas" -- always walking to new pastures.