Heard around the West

  • illustration of outhouse


Imagination is a wonderful thing. Conjure up this scenario: It is a hot summer day at Yellowstone National Park, and hundreds of tourists await an eruption of the Old Faithful geyser. Everyone checks watches, wondering about a delay. What is Old Faithful if not relatively faithful? What no one knows is that beneath the heaving ground, the park's finicky 50-year-old sewer system has finally called it quits, its encrusted pipes sealed shut by decades of chemical accumulations. Then, as Tim Hudson, a scientist with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality bluntly puts it, "There's nothing stopping the treated liquid from working into the geyser's groundwater and erupting before a throng of visitors."

Whoosh! goes Old Faithful. Yikes! yell the fleeing visitors. It could happen. The sewage plant, which treats some 750,000 gallons of sewage a day during the busy summer, has already failed twice, in 1995 and 1996. "General plant decay" caused the more recent collapse, reports the Billings Gazette. Wyoming Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin, among others, wants Congress to spring for the $5 million needed to build a new sewer plant.

Meanwhile, in California, "the sheen is back," crows the chief economist for Los Angeles County. But what do jobs and opportunity also bring? Population growth that by the year 2025 will add nearly 18 million people - something like accommodating the current population of the entire state of New York. The great mystery, reports the Los Angeles Times, is how the state will cope with more of what exists today: crowded schools, thronged freeways, a bursting prison system, and insufficient water.

But California is nothing if not ingenious; its state officials are already helping some fish lay their eggs. Endangered king salmon in the Sacramento River evolved laying their eggs in river gravel deposited during high winter flows. Shasta Dam stopped that natural deposi-tion cold, and the salmon began to go extinct. California's solution is creating habitat by dump truck: 24,000 tons of gravel have been trucked to the river, reports Econews of Arcata, Calif.

Our willingness to ape natural processes after we've done something that screws them up is demonstrated again at Oregon's Winema National Forest. There the problem is similar to California's salmon - trashed nests - but this time the culprit is salvage logging, which eliminated the sick and dying trees woodpeckers need to survive. When the loggers left, forest managers were hard put to find homes for the "cavity excavators." Then came one of the Forest Service's can-do solutions: For just $20,600, AP reports, biologists will deliberately start 1,500 trees on the road to death by injecting them with heart-rot fungus. The disease will kill the trees, allowing woodpeckers to finally drill themselves a home. But wait: Will the Forest Service then call back the loggers to salvage the trees and start the cycle again?

In all of the West, there's one animal that resists our sophisticated attacks. It's the wily coyote of Indian legend and rancher nightmare. Federal agents have poisoned, shot and electrocuted what some Indians call God's dog, but it always comes roaring back, its range has tripled over the last 30 years, reports the Los Angeles Times. In fact, coyotes now populate every state but Hawaii. So while the federal agency once known as Animal Damage Control can boast that it killed 82,261 coyotes last year, the sheep industry reported $35 million in losses to the animals. And in coastal Oregon and Northern California, residents find themselves "locked in nightly combat" with the urban-colonizing animals. The latest solution from federal agents of the newly renamed "Wildlife Services': more killings, this time with poison collars worn by sheep. But the poison proposed for the collars is a variant of Compound 1080, a material banned in 1972 because it also killed eagles and other animals that ate carcasses.

Sheep, that favorite snack of coyotes, have never been celebrated for their high IQs. Yet, as a press release called the SheepSheet informs us, we underestimate what woolies can do as a gang. Examples: Sheep can be seen as "four-footed weed-whackers' willing to eat tangled brush and prevent wildfires; their wool is dandy for sopping up oil spills and works well as insulation for a house; they chow down on alien invaders such as leafy spurge and Russian thistle; and they mow lawns so efficiently dandelions disappear before they go to seed. Whew. For more information call the American Sheep Industry Association, at 303/771-3500.

But let's admit it: Sheep, as the movie Babe revealed, are such dim bulbs in the brain department that an earnest pig can boss them around. The real brains on the range are dogs bred to herd. These agile beasts sport eyes so penetrating even humans flinch from their stare. Heard around the West was told recently about a border collie who found herself not on a ranch but in Washington, D.C., where her owners decided to host a cocktail party. She was still a puppy, but a friendly one, greeting guests by nosing their knees or nipping slightly at their heels. In 45 minutes, one party-goer tells us, all 75 guests were huddled in a corner of the room, and in the middle sat the border collie, looking pleased.

Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumpersticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428. Betsy Marston can be e-mailed at: [email protected]

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