Snowmobilers rescued from Southeast Idaho backcountry

Two snowmobilers were retrieved from a snowy and dangerous situation Monday evening.

Franklin County Sheriff’s Office was notified at 5:40 p.m. Monday that two snowmobilers were missing and that they were stuck somewhere near Copenhagen Basin, which is between Preston and Montpelier in Southeast Idaho.

The Franklin County Search and Rescue unit was activated, as was the Bear Lake County Search and Rescue. It was unclear whether the exact location of the snowmobilers was in Franklin County or Bear Lake County.

Air Idaho Rescue out of Soda Springs was also called. With the coordinates given, they were able to fly in and pick up one of the separated snowmobilers.

“The other was stuck in a harder-to-get-to location, but the Franklin County Search and Rescue unit was able to make their way to the other one and get him out safely also,” Franklin County Sheriff Dave Fryar said.

Earlier in the day, avalanche warnings had been issued by the Utah Avalanche Center because of the heavy wet snow that had piled up from the weekend storm onto layers of light, dry snow.

“Avalanche danger was very high and caution was used to not cause any problems with that,” Fryar said.

Snowmobiler riders Bradley Reese of Smithfield, Utah, and Landon Carter, of Preston, were returned safely.

Avalanche danger is still considerable, according to the UAC. Avalanches in the higher elevations can be triggered from a distance, states a UAC forecast.

A free snowmobile-based avalanche awareness presentation and companion rescue clinic has been set for Friday at the Robinson Building in Preston at 6 p.m.

A field class will follow Saturday at 9 a.m. at Copenhagen Basin parking lot.

Crow hunting

To me, crows are the smartest birds in the world. As a kid, I never could outsmart them. I had a hand call but didn’t really know what I was doing. Years later, I finally learned the system. Like I said, crows are smart. But if you learn to call properly, you can smoke them.

With all of the recent crow problems in Nampa, I thought this might be a timely article. In fact, you may have seen me lately standing in front of the local grocery store holding the sign “WILL SHOOT CROWS FOR AMMO.”

Here’s how I like to hunt crows. Hide behind a super thick clump of cedars. You don’t want them to be able to see you until they’re within 20 yards or less. If they see you, they’re going to scatter.

You want to only have an opening above you. Being this well concealed makes it tough to always get a shot but if you’re exposed, they spook. So in the perfect set-up you’ll only have a hole above you. If you don’t have a perfect set-up, at least sit back in the shadows.

It’s best to be in a short clump of trees. If the trees are too tall, when they fly in skimming over the trees, they’ll almost be out of range even if they’re straight over the top of you.

You’ll also want to be camouflaged. Especially your hands and face. I wear a net over my face and at least some green army gloves. They can see your bare face if it’s not hidden and your hands are the source of most of your movement.

Like I said, I’ve used a hand call a lot, but an electronic call is by far the best. With a hand call, there’s only one of you; my electronic call sounds like there’s a whole Army of them swarming something.

I place the call about 20 yards from me in a clump of brush. I like to start off with a hawk whistle or an owl hooting. Then go to a crow/owl/hawk fight and then into your crows calling. Many times, they’ll be cawing when they come in, but a lot of times they’ll come in silently.

I also like to use a MOJO Crow decoy with the spinner wings. It comes with a 3- or 4-foot stake but it’s better to hang it up higher, so they see it better. It has a hook on it so you can tie up on a branch.

As long as they don’t see you and you don’t miss them, they’ll keep coming in. And if you happen to wound one, they’ll really come in.

So where should you set up? I don’t want to state the obvious but wherever you’re seeing crows. Find some good brush, set up and call. If you park and hear some off in the distance, you’re more than likely to have them zip right over.

So how far should you move between set-ups? I had one 50-acre spot and I did two or three set-ups on it. You can get on the north side of the place and point your speakers north and then go to the south side and point your speakers south to cover new turf.

What do you use for a gun and shells? I like my Mossberg 12-gauge semi-automatic. Crows aren’t exceptionally hard to kill and your shots will be semi close so I used Aquila low-base 6-shot.

I favor electronic calls, but how many times have you had a malfunction? Or your batteries died? So I carry a Quaker Boy hand call as a backup. Plus, it’s easy to throw one in your pocket if you’re out doing some kind of other hunting in case you run across some crows.

It seems like every time right at daylight when I’m calling varmints, crows come in. I never shoot them because I don’t want to booger up my setup, but obviously calling with a varmint call at daylight works.

So if you want to enjoy a little shooting in the off season and at the same time help the wildlife environment, grab your shotgun and go blast a few crows. They are not good neighbors. They’re death on ground birds (quail, chukars, grouse etc.). They eat their eggs.

And for the life of me I can’t figure out why Idaho protects ravens. There sure isn’t a shortage of them and they’re really bad neighbors! If we’re so worried about sage-grouse, why don’t we manage ravens? Go down in the Owyhees and look around. There’s a raven every 100 yards. It’s a miracle that one sage-grouse nest even survives.

Tom Claycomb lives in Idaho and has outdoors columns in newspapers in Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Louisiana. He also writes for various outdoors magazines and teaches outdoors seminars at stores like Cabela’s, Sportsman’s Warehouse and Bass Pro Shop.

ITD does not recommend Targhee Pass wildlife crossings, to host public meeting

After completing a Targhee Pass Environmental Assessment, the Idaho Transportation Department is proposing animal detection systems along the U.S. Highway 20 corridor near the Montana border to reduce the number of vehicle/animal collisions.

ITD has not recommended building wildlife crossings, a proposed solution that failed by a wide margin in a November advisory ballot measure.

ITD will host a public meeting Jan. 17 where Fremont County residents can ask questions and make comments regarding the Targhee Pass Environmental Assessment and the department’s recommendation.

The study evaluates the risks, benefits, opportunities and costs of the reconstruction of Targhee Pass, a stretch of Highway 20 from Ashton to the Montana state line which was targeted for updates in 2016 by the Federal Highway Administration.

The highway reconstruction is meant to “improve roadway structural integrity, traffic flow, and safety of the Targhee Pass segment of U.S. 20 (milepost 402.1 to 406.3),” the study said.

The Targhee Pass Environmental Assessment, released last month, proposes road improvements and five alternative improvements, one of which is a “no-build” alternative. The other four options propose a unique approach to dealing with wildlife crossing the highway.

The road improvements include:

  • An additional travel lane in the uphill direction from state Highway 87 to the Montana state line
  • Shoulder widening from 5 feet to 8 feet
  • Hill cut to improve stopping sight distance
  • Left- and right-turn lanes into Big Horn Hills Estates entrances
  • Tree clearing to reduce shade
  • Road subsurface reconstruction and drainage improvements

The first alternative is a “no-build” option, meaning ITD would make only maintenance improvements to Targhee Pass.

“ITD would replace and repair the existing pavement, but no improvements would be made to the road base, drainage, road geometry, turn lanes, shoulder width, or number of travel lanes,” the study said.

Alternatives 2 through 5 — which would each include the aforementioned road improvements — propose an additional wildlife design element to reduce vehicle/wildlife collisions.

Alternative 2 proposes wildlife crossings and a fence.

Alternative 3 proposes an animal detection system.

Alternative 4 proposes wildlife fencing on both sides of the road, one wildlife crossing structure and “wildlife crosswalks,” a break in the fence where animals will be led, through electrified mats, to cross the highway. Each crosswalk would come with an animal detection system so that drivers could know when an animal is crossing.

Alternative 5 does not include any permanently installed wildlife elements but rather consists of “operational measures such as variable message signs to alert drivers of potential wildlife presence on the highway,” the study says.

ITD is in favor of Alternative 3, to install an animal detection system along the highway, in addition to the road improvements. The animal detection system, about a dozen solar-powered signs, mounted on 14- to 16-foot poles, would alert drivers to the presence of animals on the highway. Alternative 3 does not include crossing structures or wildlife fencing.

“ITD looked at a number of possible alternatives to improve roadway structural integrity, traffic flow and safety of the Targhee Pass segment of U.S. 20, and identified Alternative 3 as the preferred alternative,” said ITD project manager Derek Noyes in an ITD news release.

If Alternative 3 is enacted, it will put to bed an ongoing debate in Fremont County about wildlife crossings. The issue has divided Fremont County residents throughout the last year, culminating in a November advisory ballot vote. Residents voted strongly in opposition to building crossings and a fence, which would allow animals to cross the highway safely but would come at a hefty cost.

Jerald Raymond, District 35A State Representative, who opposed the wildlife crossings, said recommending Alternative 3, the animal detection system, was the right decision for ITD.

“It has the support of the citizens up there and I think it will accomplish what they want it to,” he said.

Raymond opposed wildlife crossings because of the cost.

“The biggest cost I think came from long-term maintenance of the fences,” he said. “I didn’t think it was in the best interest of the state, financially, to support that.”

Jean Bjerke, a volunteer with Island Park Safe Wildlife Passage, a group that supported wildlife crossings, said the animal detection system will be less effective than a wildlife crossing.

“I believe they made the wrong choice,” Bjerke said. “(ITD) did not follow their stated need, which included as key elements, of course, safety for drivers and animal benefit. Research shows that animals detection systems are less effective than animal crossings.”

Bjerke said, despite ITD’s recommendation, she will continue to advocate for animal crossings on Highway 20.

“I hope we can plant some seeds for future people to act on,” she said. “I hope there will be many people who will speak up in (ITD’s) public comment and say ‘We think you made the wrong decision.’”

The ITD urges the public to review the findings in the environmental assessment and it seeks stakeholder feedback on the document at the public hearing or any time between now and Feb. 1.

To read the study online, visit or, to read a printed copy, go to Island Park City Offices, Fremont County Planning & Zoning Office, the Fremont District Library (Island Park Branch), or the ITD District 6 office in Rigby.

The hearing will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Island Park EMS Building, 4124 County Circle Road.

For residents who cannot attend the meeting, comments can be submitted via phone at 208-220-5937, via email at or via mail at Idaho Transportation Department District 6 (Attn: Public Information Specialist) P.O. Box 97, Rigby, ID, 83442.

Red Dot Sights

When we teach marksmanship with rifles, we always stress focusing on the front sight and placing one’s cheek in exactly the same place on the stock each time we shoot. It’s not that we don’t use the rear sight, we do, but our focus is always on the front sight with our cheek in exactly the same place on the stock. If we focus on the front sight from exactly the same cheek position that we taught ourselves to use when aligning the front and rear sights, the rear sight becomes a reference point more than something we consciously look at when shooting, at least at short distances from 25 to 100 yards.

People who are good at point shooting with a pistol use a similar focus on the front sight that Massad Ayoob — a well-known and highly respected police marksmanship instructor introduced in his excellent book “StressFire” — calls “point index shooting.” When I taught the state-mandated concealed carry course in Texas, I introduced my students to point index shooting, but simply called it index shooting because I didn’t want my students to confuse the principle with the many different ideas about point shooting.

However, what if there were a sighting system that took point index shooting to the next level and only used a 1X, 20 to 30 mm window with a single two MOA red, or green, circular dot that the shooter placed on the target and fired.

Our military asked the same question, and a company called EOTech produced the one the military now uses. There are now quite a few companies that manufacture what has become generally known as Red Dot Sights.

These sights are of varying quality depending on price, but if you are willing to put down $130 to $600 for one, you can get a very accurate sight that has elevation and windage adjustments that requires both eyes to stay open for peripheral vision, that will place your shot accurately out to 100 yards. You can also get a telescopic optic that fits in front of the Red Dot sight for shots at greater distances.

Unlike front and rear sights that you are familiar with, eye relief is not an issue, and the angle you are looking through the sight is not an issue. If you can see the red or green dot, just place it on the target and shoot. You will hit the target.

The original Red Dot Sights were designed for the AR-15 and military M-16 rifles to be fast on target sights. They are now also used by coyote hunters and pest control shooters as well as target shooters.

I really like Red Dot Sights, but don’t want to pay much over $200 to put one on my new AR-15. That means that the original EOTech sight is way over my budget. I just want a really good Red Dot sight with a 2-MOA dot, that fits in my budget of $ 200 or a little less.

So what can one get for $200 when shopping for a Red Dot Sight? A pretty darn good sight with a excellent lifetime warranty if one really looks at what is available and takes advantage of sales that pop up on Amazon, Midway, and other internet sales companies. Some features you should look for are: 2-MOA red or green dot, unlimited eye relief, 8 daytime illumination settings, elevation adjustment of -/+ 40 MOA, windage adjustment of -/+ 40 MOA, water proof to 1meter immersion, and fog proof, 1913 Picatinny low mount and 1.41 riser mount, and motion-activated illumination of sight.

One of the best warranty’s on a red dot sight for budget minded buyers comes with a 4-MOA Red Dot Sight if you don’t insist on a smaller 2-MOA dot. Others can be powered by a single CR 2032 battery or a single AAA if you would like to use batteries that are inexpensive and readily available.

My suggestion is to start by looking up EOTech on the internet and viewing the features or specs sheets of the EOTechs so you know what is offered. Then look up the less expensive sights by Sig Saur, leupold, Vortex, True Glow, Aimpoint, Bushnell, Holosun, Sightmark and others to compare features or spec sheets to determine what is most important to you. I think you will be surprised at the quality of many of the less expensive models between $130 and $20.

I think I have my selection down to three, but every now and then there is some kind of special deal on a Red Dot Sight that I have to learn more about. I’m hoping to make a decision in the next few weeks, which could stretch into April, but hopefully not next Christmas.

I need to thank Don Cluff, the manager of the Pocatello Sportsmen’s Warehouse, and the guys at the gun counter for letting me take a picture of two of their Red Dot Sights. They have always been very accommodating when I have asked to take pictures of items I don’t own myself.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He can be contacted at

National Park Service to tap visitor fees for shutdown operations

The National Park Service will tap visitor fees to pay for basic visitor services at some parks as the government shutdown extends into its third week.

P. Daniel Smith, acting director of the National Park Service, said in a statement Sunday that parks can now access visitor fees in order to “provide immediate assistance and services to highly visited parks during the lapse in appropriations.” The available funds would include entrance, camping and parking fees collected from visitors that are usually reserved for other projects.

“We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services,” Smith said.

The statement said the agency would begin using the funds in the coming days to clean up trash, maintain restrooms and bring on additional law enforcement rangers at parks across the country. Top officials at individual parks will submit cost estimates to the director’s office for review before they can bring more employees on, according to a memo outlining the agency’s shutdown plan, first obtained by the Washington Post.

It’s unclear what that will mean for Yellowstone National Park. Jody Lyle, a Yellowstone spokeswoman, said in an email that officials are “reviewing the updated contingency plan and are determining the appropriate next steps for Yellowstone.”

Many national parks have remained at least partially open during the shutdown, and people across the country have raised concerns about overflowing trashcans, dirty bathrooms and people damaging fragile areas. In Yellowstone, the road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City is open to cars and private companies running snowmobile and snowcoach tours into the park’s interior — though nobody’s around to collect entrance fees. Volunteers and tour guides have taken it upon themselves to clean some places and ensure outhouses have toilet paper.

Fees are collected at 115 of the park service’s 418 parks. About 80 percent of the fees collected stay within a park, while the other 20 percent is directed to parks that don’t collect fees. In fiscal year 2017, about a quarter of Yellowstone’s budget — $17.1 million — consisted of park fees.

Federal law says the money should be used for maintenance, habitat restoration, enhancing visitor experience and a few other items separate from the park’s day-to-day operations. Many critics of the agency’s Sunday announcement worry that diverting that money will rob those other projects of money and harm the agency’s financial stability.

“If they use that money to deal with normal operations, then that money is no longer available to address let’s say the (maintenance) backlog,” said Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association. “ … We don’t know what the implications will be.”

But some praise the plan, saying it would provide for important services while the shutdown rolls on. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Berhardt on Saturday urging him to find a way to provide some services, such as trash collection or bathroom maintenance. On Sunday, Daines released a statement praising the department’s announcement about the fee money shuffling, saying he was glad the Interior department “will fund these critical programs while the government is shut down, supporting Montana’s gateway communities and protecting our national parks.”

The idea is also backed by the Property and Environment Research Center, a Bozeman think tank that prides itself on practicing “free-market environmentalism.” Shawn Regan, a fellow at PERC, said in an email that using those funds is “eminently sensible.”

“With the government shutdown entering its third week, the National Park Service is right to search for creative ways to get our nation’s most popular parks back up and running,” Regan said.

Using the money to fund some park operations during a shutdown would be a first. Steve Iobst, former deputy superintendent of Yellowstone, spent more than 40 years with the park service, retiring in 2016. He said the idea had never come up during the various shutdowns he worked through — he guessed he went through nine.

“It’s baffling to me,” Iobst said.

This shutdown is different because many parks are open, which wasn’t the case during the ones Iobst worked. Still, Iobst said fee money is viewed as separate from the park’s appropriated budget, and that it’s not supposed to pay for routine operations. Instead, it’s often used in multi-year spending plans, earmarked for certain maintenance or research projects. Recently, he said, much of it has been directed at the agency’s $11.6 billion deferred maintenance backlog.

“You’re dipping into a fund that is already pretty much committed for one-year or multi-year programs,” Iobst said.

For now, volunteers and private companies are trying to help out in Yellowstone. Groups of volunteers swept through the northern portion of the park on Saturday and Sunday, picking up trash and cleaning up bathrooms.

Meanwhile, Xanterra and 13 other companies are paying for plowing and grooming. Rick Hoeninghausen, Xanterra’s director of sales and marketing, said that costs about $7,500 a day, about half of which is paid by Xanterra. He wasn’t sure how long they could sustain that.

“Everybody wants the shutdown to end soon,” he said. “This isn’t something we’re hoping to have to do indefinitely.”

Fishing derby set for Jan. 26 at American Falls Reservoir

POCATELLO — A fishing derby running 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 26 at Sportsman’s Park on the west side of American Falls Reservoir near Aberdeen features a $500 first-place prize for the largest trout and a $250 first-place prize for the largest perch.

The derby is sponsored by the Portneuf Unit of the American Fisheries Society, a student-run organization at Idaho State University. The derby is a fundraiser for the group.

There is a $35 per person entry fee. Online registration is available at Participants should email or call 208-520-3902 if they are planning to participate to ensure their registration is received and accepted.

Mail-in registration is accepted, but must be received by the chapter by Jan. 21 Call before using mail-in registration to ensure spots are available. Online registration is preferred. Registration will be accepted the day of the event, but will be capped at 100 entrants. Registration is first-come, first-served.

In the trout category, there will also be a $250 cash prize for second and a $150 cash prize for third. Second place in the perch category is $100, and third place is free entry into next year’s derby.

Volunteers clean restrooms, take out trash in Yellowstone amid government shutdown

As the sun rose over the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, Linda Carney bent over a toilet, windshield scraper in hand.

“It’s the plumber’s daughter in me,” she joked, having used the scraper to remove frozen human waste from the side of the toilet.

Carney was one of about 10 Gardiner community members who decided to take matters into their own hands and clean up rest stops and remove garbage from Yellowstone on Saturday, two weeks into the partial federal government shutdown. National parks across the country have been left with no one to care for facilities despite many still being open to visitors.

Mike Skelton, owner of Yellowstone Wonders, a company that offers tours of the park, said he and others noticed trash was starting to pile up while doing tours recently. So he and a few other Gardiner and Emigrant residents gathered a group to hit the northern part of the park, between Gardiner and the Pebble Creek area in the northeastern part of the park.

“We’re locals and we love this park, so we don’t want it to look like trash,” Gardiner resident Paula Rainbolt said.

Volunteers cleaned rest areas from Tower Junction to Pebble Creek. They were set to go from Tower Junction to Gardiner on Sunday, eating pizza courtesy of K-Bar Pizza afterward. Conoco also donated gas cards to volunteers, and Yellowstone Forever donated some garbage bags. Many volunteers also paid for supplies out of pocket.

Trash around Yellowstone hadn’t piled up as much as they expected, volunteers said, though many bathrooms weren’t a pretty sight. One bathroom at the Hitching Post stop had human excrement all over the floor and a broken toilet seat. The other had puke and blood splattered all over the toilet and floor.

Despite the unpleasant nature of the work, Kelly Kirk said volunteers were happy to do it.

“People’s livelihoods depend on this — we’re all tied to the park,” she said. “And any excuse to get into the park, right?”

Volunteers brushed snow off entrances, cleaned toilets, replaced toilet paper and switched out garbage bags, and they’ll likely do it again most weekends, if the shutdown continues.

“I don’t know what happens if the (outhouses) fill up,” she said.

Government Shutdown, Yellowstone Bathrooms

A volunteer goes to start cleaning the bathrooms at the Tower Junction pull out on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Yellowstone National Park. In light of the government shutdown, a group of Montana residents have taken on the responsibility of keeping the park clean.

Mugging the deer: Fish and Game surveys eastern Idaho fawns

The helicopter hovered low over the hills southeast of Kelly Mountain, snow billowing up from the ground, and deer bounded down the slope to flee the noisy monster.

Idaho Fish and Game research biologist Mark Hurley spoke into his radio to a couple of dozen Idaho Department of Fish and Game employees, biologists and volunteers.

“OK, everyone down, here he comes,” he said, referring to the helicopter.

Everyone hunkered down behind bushes or laid low on the ground like infantry avoiding detection. On the slope above, four deer charged past the people hiding and headlong into a quarter-mile long net. After the deer fell to the ground, tangled in netting, people burst from their cover and grabbed the deer. Blindfolds were pulled over the animals’ heads and people held the deer still with their weight like a wrestler working for a pin.

The fawns were measured, weighed, ear-tagged and collared with a GPS satellite tracking unit and freed within minutes. Does and bucks were released without collars.

By early Wednesday evening, Fish and Game had collared 30 fawns as part of its annual winter mortality study to determine health and population of eastern Idaho’s mule deer herds. The capture will be repeated in several areas across the state, finishing up sometime in late February.

“Seeing how many fawns don’t make it through the winter, that helps us with our population study to know our success rate of how many were (added) to the population for the upcoming year,” said James Brower regional communications manager with Fish and Game.

Brower said working on the capture line is a perk for some employees and volunteers who spend most of their time working in an office.

“Normally I’m doing administrative work, so this is a treat to get outside and work with the deer,” said Melissa Abegglen, a Fish and Game employee from the Egin area. Melissa Abegglen brought along her mother, Luanne Abegglen, who gamefully pounced on a deer to hold it fast.

“This is my first time,” Luanne Abegglen said. “It’s a hoot.”

Everyone wore cold-weather garb as temperatures hovered in the single digits. Snow was ankle deep, but some drifts could be knee deep.

Brower said the helicopter used to herd deer is flown by a pilot with special low-flying certification.

“(Fish and Game biologists) know all the pilots really well,” he said. “Which is helpful because you know that you can trust them. They have to have a pretty specific skill type. Not many folks are certified to do that type of flying.”

Brower said when the chopper is in the air it costs about $1,000 an hour. Hurley said despite the cost, it is more efficient than any other method. Fish and Game population biologist Paul Atwood flew with the pilot. The pilot took directions from Atwood on different areas to herd deer while also trying to avoid the bucks if possible.

“You don’t want bucks coming into the net because they’re dangerous, basically, and that’s not what we’re after,” Brower said. “They’ll also try and spread out where they’re grabbing them from so they’re not getting them from the same spot. That gives us a better general idea of the population in an area.”

The GPS collars give biologist an idea on where the fawns are traveling and when and if they die.

“If the fawn dies, regardless of what killed it — long winter, harsh winter, nutrition, predator of some sort — as soon as that fawn tips over, if it does, we send a technician in there, we try to get there within 24 hours,” Brower said. “They’ll hike to wherever the collar is and they’ll determine the cause of death. Seeing how many fawns don’t make it through the winter, that helps us with our population to know our success rate of how many were recruited into the population for the upcoming year.”

Brower said the biologists participating in the study are able to follow the GPS signals on a computer at their desk.

People who helped with grabbing and holding the deer are called “muggers.” Some of the fawns bellowed like goats in distress as if they had been mugged, but bounded away obviously relieved when released.

The muggers, biologists and technicians appeared to be having fun.

“I think everyone was pretty happy,” Brower said the next day. “I think most of the people walked away with a smile on their face — tired but happy. It’s not something everyone gets to do every day.”

Deer mugging with Idaho Fish and Game

Members of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game spent Wednesday collaring deer. The agency uses a helicopter to herd fawns into nets. Volunteers and biologists then measure, weigh, tag, and collar them.

Garbage, feces take toll on national parks amid shutdown

WASHINGTON (AP) — Human feces, overflowing garbage, illegal off-roading and other damaging behavior in fragile areas were beginning to overwhelm some of the West’s iconic national parks, as a partial government shutdown left the areas open to visitors but with little staff on duty.

“It’s a free-for-all,” Dakota Snider, 24, who lives and works in Yosemite Valley, said by telephone Monday, as Yosemite National Park officials announced closings of some minimally supervised campgrounds and public areas within the park that are overwhelmed.

“It’s so heartbreaking. There is more trash and human waste and disregard for the rules than I’ve seen in my four years living here,” Snider said.

The partial federal government shutdown, now into its 13th day, has forced furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal government employees. This has left many parks without most of the rangers and others who staff campgrounds and otherwise keep parks running.

Unlike shutdowns in some previous administrations, the Trump administration was leaving parks open to visitors despite the staff furloughs, said John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

“We’re afraid that we’re going to start seeing significant damage to the natural resources in parks and potentially to historic and other cultural artifacts,” Garder said. “We’re concerned there’ll be impacts to visitors’ safety.”

“It’s really a nightmare scenario,” Garder said.

Under the park service’s shutdown plan, authorities have to close any area where garbage or other problems become threats to health and safety or to wildlife, spokesman Jeremy Barnum said in an email Monday.

“At the superintendent’s discretion, parks may close grounds/areas with sensitive natural, cultural, historic, or archaeological resources vulnerable to destruction, looting or other damage that cannot be adequately protected by the excepted law enforcement staff that remain on duty,” Barnum said.

In the southern Sierra Nevada in Central California, some areas of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks were closed Monday evening. In Sequoia, home to immense and ancient giant sequoias, General Highway was closed because overflowing trash bins were spreading litter and posed a threat to wildlife and the icy, jammed roadway was seeing up to three-hour delays, according to the National Park Service.

Also closed was the Grant Tree Trail, a popular hiking spot, because the government shutdown halted maintenance and left the path dangerously slick from ice and snow, with at least one injury reported, the park service said.

Campers at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California’s deserts were reporting squabbles as different families laid claims to sites, with no rangers on hand to adjudicate, said Ethan Feltges, who operates the Coyote Corner gift shop outside Joshua Tree.

Feltges and other business owners around Joshua Tree had stepped into the gap as much as possible, hauling trailers into the park to empty overflowing trash bins and sweeping and stocking restrooms that were still open, Feltges said.

Feltges himself had set up a portable toilet at his store to help the visitors still streaming in and out of the park. He was spending his days standing outside his store, offering tips about the park in place of the rangers who normally would be present.

“The whole community has come together,” Feltges said, also by phone. “Everyone loves the park. And there’s a lot of businesses that actually need the park.”

Some visitors have strung Christmas lights in the twisting Joshua trees, many of which are hundreds of years old, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Most visitors were being respectful of the desert wilderness and park facilities, Joshua Tree’s superintendent, David Smith, said in a statement.

But some are seizing on the shortage of park staffers to off-road illegally and otherwise damage the park, as well as relieving themselves in the open, a park statement said. Joshua Tree said it would begin closing some campgrounds for all but day use.

At Yosemite, Snider, the local resident, said crowds of visitors were driving into the park to take advantage of free admission, with only a few park rangers working and a limited number of restrooms open.

Visitors were allowing their dogs to run off-leash in an area rich with bears and other wildlife, and scattering bags of garbage along the roads, Snider said.

“You’re looking at Yosemite Falls and in front of you is plastic bottles and trash bags,” he said.

Officials at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado said Monday they were closing restrooms and locking up trash bins in many locations.

In Yellowstone National Park, private companies have picked up some of the maintenance normally done by federal workers. The contractors that operate park tours by snowmobile, buses and vans are grooming trails, hauling trash and replacing toilet paper at pit toilets and restrooms along their routes.

Nearly all roads inside Yellowstone are normally closed for winter, meaning most visitors at this time of the year access park attractions like Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone through guides. Those guides are splitting the cost of grooming the trails used by their vehicles to keep their operations going, said Travis Watt, general manager of See Yellowstone Alpen Guides based in West Yellowstone, Montana.

The tour companies can likely keep this system going through the entire winter season if they need to, Watt said.

“It’s definitely not our preference — the park service does a good job doing their thing and we hate to see them out of work,” Watt said. “But it’s something we can handle.”

Gecker reported from San Francisco. Matt Volz contributed from Helena, Montana.