Heard around the West

  • Billboard sponsored by Idaho Watersheds Project

    R. Hart Evans photo

Bears are so smart. In Mammoth Lakes, Calif., nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, some 30 black bears have chosen to become New Westerners by denning underneath hotels, restaurants and homes.

They've become so used to gourmet food, snug basements and the amenity of a no-hunting ordinance that the animals are now familiar figures in this resort town of 5,000. Residents have even named a few regulars: Yogi, Bertha and Ace. Yet the easy life has a downside. Some bruins have ballooned to mammoth proportions, with one bear estimated at 650 pounds, and because the bears are unpredictable, the town has had to hire a bear manager who will spring into action when the animals emerge from hibernation. Steven Searles got the job after a 450-pound bear wandered through an elementary school playground and a cub bit a resident on the rear end. Searles shows up where the bears hang out, wearing bulletproof gear and hauling an arsenal of pepper spray, noisemakers, and a gun that fires bean-bag bullets, AP reports. He also shouts "Bad bear! Bad bear!" as the animals lumber off. Though he gets smirked at by passers-by and police, he thinks loud disapproval helps. He tried a simpler approach at the Mammoth Travelodge: splashing human male urine on the ground. That bear never came back.

Cows, it must be admitted, lack judgment. In Olympia, Wash., 32 dairy cows ate themselves to death by gorging on grain after one of them - the smartest or dumbest, depending on your point of view - shook loose the pipe from an automatic feeding machine. Dairy farmers Bobby and Judy Oderman found the feeding frenzy in progress on a Sunday morning, AP reports, and by afternoon the milk cows had begun to collapse. "A cow will eat grain until it dies," said a veterinarian.

Beef cows are getting a bum rap in Idaho, the state's cattle ranchers say, and in large print no less. A half-dozen billboards throughout the state proclaim that cows are "the real welfare queens." One billboard illustrates its message with a cartoon of a gorged bovine lolling on the nation's public lands and fouling its streams. "Jon Marvel strikes again," one reader of the Idaho Falls Post Register tells us; it is Marvel's activist group, the Idaho Watersheds Project, that's paying for the roadside detraction. The Idaho Cattle Association has lobbied the outdoor advertising firm that took the account, but the company says it won't paper over the ads.

There's no getting around it. Pigs, whose high intelligence is celebrated in the book Charlotte's Web and the movie Babe, stink in large numbers. As corporate hog farms have moved west across the nation to escape regulation, rural communities have tried to organize against the inevitable odors and the giant lagoons of feces and urine that threaten water supplies. Thanks to their powerful owners, pigs on the eastern plains of Colorado are proving difficult to corral. A bill requiring some regulation of farms with 5,000 or more pigs recently failed to survive a committee vote, even though 60 ranchers and farmers had urged its passage for months. One supporter was a Colorado billionaire, Philip Anschutz, who was horrified when a pig factory run by National Hog Farms moved next door. Defeat of her bill led Sen. Joan Johnson to say, "They ought to just hold an initiative and banish them (the big pig farms) from the state," reports The Denver Post.

Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota is spending $390,000 to develop a rating system for pig smells. Chuck Shepherd reports that the university hired 35 "specialists' to sniff the nearly 200 chemical components of hog manure, then rank them for stench.

An animal-rights group says fish are suffering and it's time to do something about it. The culprit isn't whirling disease but anglers, says People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which also opposes hunting. PETA wants Glacier National Park to ban fishing because fish are "impaled, thrown, stepped on or mutilated," not to mention fried and grilled. The group will be hard put to convince Montanans: a recent survey of 400 households in the state found 97 percent approve of legal fishing.

April Foolers in several Western newspapers snuck in stories and ads trying to trick the unwary. The Billings Gazette told about another victim of El Niûo - pasty white snow snakes that have been "dying all across the eastern Montana prairie." Without snow, snake-lovers were said to lament, whitus wintrus snakus can't hide from hungry predators like foxes and hawks. The sad tale concluded, "We can only hope for a return to more normal winters and an end to El Niûo stories as well." In the bend-in-the-road western Colorado town of Crawford, pop. 350, the wife of a British rock singer and recent arrival needled some locals who think her new Mad Dog Cafe and other building projects are too much, too soon for the town. Pam (Mrs. Joe) Cocker took out a half-page ad in the Delta County Independent, ballyhooing her hog-wild ascent as a developer: "Pam Cocker to build twin, 24-story office/hotel towers ... "This is my little gift to Crawford," said Ms. Cocker." Alert readers were tipped off by the next-to-last sentence, which promised "a complete motorcycle repair facility in the lobby."

"Is this the end of nightlife in Aspen?" the Aspen Times inquired. Nightclubs are closing and no new hot spots opening. Blame high rents and few young people living in town. A serious matter, since "Aspen's "party town" reputation is on the line." That's not all that's happening in this former party-hearty resort. While no one in town was paying attention, one of Aspen's most historic homes was demolished April 9 "with the full blessing of the city's Historic Preservation Commission." The 110-year-old, no longer "authentic" Victorian was a shrine to the town's past, because former owners Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke helped turn the old mining town into a cultural mecca. Reporter Robert Ward said watching the house leveled by a huge yellow crane "in not much more than an hour" had a jarring effect on people. Aspen Mayor John Bennett lamented: "If you get too far into the architectural details, you begin to lose the forest for the trees. In this case, we let the most historic residence in Aspen get torn down."

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 or [email protected]

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