Two weeks in the West

"People will go to any length to have these things in their possession. It’s big antlers and big egos."

— Jim Kropp, chief of wildlife law enforcement in Montana, on a wave of trophy game poaching that’s alarmed officials and angered licensed hunters in Montana, Nevada and other Western states.



Mobsters or federal employees — what’s the difference? The Supreme Court will take up that question this spring, when it decides if government workers can be sued individually under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute created in 1970 to break up the Mafia. More than a year ago, a California judge tossed out a RICO lawsuit that a developer had filed against three Forest Service employees. Now, renegade Wyoming rancher Frank Robbins wants to use the statute to sue six employees of the Bureau of Land Management, claiming that they attempted to "extort" a right-of-way across his property. Last January, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Robbins’ right to use RICO. If not overturned, that ruling "puts public employees at risk of losing financial security for doing their jobs," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

We’ll be rowin’ the Owens again. After missing at least 13 court-mandated deadlines to do so, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has finally restored stream flows in the lower Owens River. Ninety-three years ago, in an event that would inspire the film Chinatown, L.A. water chief William Mulholland turned water out of the Owens River, which flows out of the eastern Sierra, drying up the river and sending its water to L.A. On Dec. 6, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa diverted water from the L.A. Aqueduct back into the Owens River bed, where it will flow for some 62 miles … before being pumped out of the river, back into the Los Angeles Aqueduct and onward to L.A.

Trail of tainted meatballs. Timothy B. Sundles, a 48-year-old ammunition manufacturer who lives in Montana, tried to kill wolves by leaving poisoned meatballs in Salmon National Forest in 2004, according to federal prosecutors. It’s not clear whether Sundles is also the wacko who left poison-laced hot dogs around trailheads in northwest Wyoming in 2004. No one knows whether any wolves died, but the bait killed at least seven dogs, as well as coyotes, foxes and magpies. Wildlife agents targeted Sundles because he’d published a Web site article titled "How to Successfully Poison Wolves." He signed a plea agreement Nov. 29, copping to a misdemeanor charge of trying to kill a protected species, and avoiding the maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $25,000 fine. When he’s sentenced on March 1 in federal court in Pocatello, prosecutors will ask that Sundles spend 30 days in jail, be banned from public lands for two years, and pay veterinary bills of $128.90 for treatment of the dogs.

Full frontal ban. Five generations of grassroots activists, including ranchers and members of the Blackfeet Tribe, have pushed for preservation of Montana’s spectacular Rocky Mountain Front, with its rich elk and grizzly bear habitat. A notable climax came Dec. 9, when the U.S. Senate — working late before the holiday break — passed a tax- relief-cornucopia bill that greatly reduces the potential for oil drilling and mining on a 100-mile stretch of the Front. The House passed the bill the day before, and President Bush is expected to sign it. Along with banning new federal leases for such development, the bill encourages oil companies to retire their existing leases on 106,000 federal acres, by offering tax breaks if they sell or donate the leases to nonprofit groups or the government. Among the milestones in the long struggle, Montana agencies established the Front’s first wildlife preserve in 1913, and Gloria Flora, then-supervisor of Lewis and Clark National Forest, declared a temporary moratorium on new leases in 1997. The December victory, says The Wilderness Society’s Chris Mehl, "was only possible because (Front advocates) today are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before." —J.P., M.J., R.R.


Losing my religion


25: Percent of the nation’s "megachurches" (Protestant churches with attendance of at least 2,000) located in the West in 2005

178: Number of megachurches in California (most in the nation)

0: Number of megachurches in Wyoming

$7.2 billion: Combined yearly income of U.S. megachurches 829 Number of religious adherents out of every 1,000 people in Utah (second in the nation)

349: Number of religious adherents out of every 1,000 people in Oregon (lowest in the nation)

5: Number of Western states in the bottom 10 of that list (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Oregon)

48: Percent of people in the West who said that religion had a "very important" role in their lives (lowest among the nation’s regions)

83: Percent of people in the West who believe there is a God (lowest in the nation)

62.4: Percent of Utahns who were Mormon in 2004 — an 8 percent decrease from 1989

2030: Year that Mormons will no longer be a majority in Utah if that trend continues

Sources: Hartford Institute of Religion Research, Association of Religion Data Archives, Gallup, 2006, Salt Lake Tribune, 2005.


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