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for people who care about the West

Kill bill; What’s sprouting from Hell’s backbone?; Mojave NIMBY

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


Don’t even think about asking Scott Sales, the Republican president of the Montana Senate, to join you on a friendly bike ride around Helena, the state capital. When a bill came up that would have increased road safety by establishing definite driving distances between vehicles and bicycles, Sales unloaded. Even if you honk at cyclists, he said, “They won’t move over (because) they think they own the highway.” Moreover, he added, bike riders are “rude,” “self-centered” and “have an “entitlement mentality,” so “quite frankly, I don’t want more of them in the state because there’s already too many of them as it is.” Dick Barrett, a Democratic senator from Missoula, took offense, saying he’d been a cyclist for 40 years, reported the Missoulian. But Sales’ attack helped kill the bill, which had passed the House, 62-37.

Snowfall was so heavy in the Sierra Nevada this winter that the grand total in parts of the Truckee-Tahoe area may surpass 58 feet, Allen Best notes in Mountain Town News. For the Squaw Valley resort, it was the snowiest in 45 years of record keeping. But the melting of all those big drifts, together with recent heavy rains, is causing mice, chipmunks and other critters to be flooded out of their dens and into new homes. As these new digs are often inhabited by humans, things can get crowded: “Mice can have upward of a dozen babies,” reports the Lake Tahoe News. “Then it’s pretty much an infestation.”

To hear most Utah legislators tell it, public lands and national monuments drain local economies and ought to be sold off or developed more profitably by the state. The owners of a thriving restaurant near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Boulder, Utah, population 180, couldn’t agree less. Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, who named Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm after a weird local geological feature, say business is booming. Four full-time farmers stock the kitchen with 23,000 pounds a year of local vegetables and fruits, and the annual payroll for 72 people is $700,000. “We pour so much into the tax rolls and yet they ignore us,” said Spalding at a state Capitol news conference organized by the Escalante Chamber of Commerce. “That’s painful.” Scott Berry, co-founder of the Boulder Mountain Lodge, told the Salt Lake Tribune that visitors come from all over the world to stay at his inn because they appreciate the spectacular scenery and relative solitude. “We see the (Grand Staircase-Escalante) monument as a call to start a new garden,” Berry said, “and after 20 years we are seeing those shoots come up.”

A camouflaged hunter near Mono Lake, California, thought he’d lure a coyote by lying flat on the grass and blowing a call that mimicked a wounded rabbit. Well, the ruse worked, but the predator lured was a mountain lion that leaped for the hunter’s head. The hunter, who was not identified, shot the big cat twice, killing it. Lions are a protected species, reports The Tribune, but wildlife officers decided he was justified in defending himself.

All the Marine Corps Air Ground Center at Twentynine Palms, California, wants to do is expand its training turf by 165 square miles. And the hitch? The California desert tortoises that call the place home. Unfortunately, if the U.S. Army’s previous attempt at relocating tortoises is any guide, it’s a dicey solution. After the Army moved 670 tortoises from the Barstow area to the western Mojave Desert in 2008, 90 of the animals were dead in less than a year, most eaten by coyotes. And not surprisingly, the tortoises, which are protected by federal and state endangered species acts, prefer their native turf, defined by “complex social networks linked by trails, arroyos and hibernation borrows,” says the Los Angeles Times. It is true that wherever the tortoises are these days, enemies abound, including dogs, solar developments and ATV and other traffic. But in the new home that Marines have chosen for the tortoises, the threat comes from voracious ravens, also a protected species. Ravens just love newly hatched tortoises — one biologist calls them “walking tortellini for ravens” — because the thin-skinned babies have no defense against the birds. But you can count on the Marines to hatch an arsenal to meet the challenge: realistic-looking “techno-tortoises,” which emit irritants derived from grape juice concentrate whenever a raven pecks one. If that fails to deter the birds, the Marines can also employ a “raven-repulsion green laser,” a hand-held laser rifle with a mounted scope. Its intense beam of laser light sweeps a half-mile of desert floor, causing ravens “to take to the air in a chaotic chorus.” Ravens, however, are anything but dumb. One of the 100 biologists hired by the Marines speculated that the birds will quickly learn that lasers come — and lasers go.

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.