WESTERN WILDFIRES-FEDERAL SPENDING
As fires rage, feds cut funding on prevention
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - The federal government is spending less and less on preventing wildfires even as the nation endures increasingly destructive blazes.
The Obama administration is proposing a 31% cut to the main program that clears brush and overgrown trees to prevent forest fires. That program is already funded at lower levels than 11 years ago. Automatic budget cuts that kicked in in March have made the gap worse. As a result, the Forest Service treated 1 million fewer acres this year than last and expects to treat far fewer next year.
Federal fire officials say the problem is that an increasing chunk of their budget is eaten up simply trying to put out the giant blazes. 8 of the nine worst fire years in U.S. history have been recorded since 2000.
BISON RELOCATION-SUPREME COURT
Montana court says bison transfer legal
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The Montana Supreme Court has reversed a lower court ruling that blocked transfers of Yellowstone National Park bison as part of a government-sponsored conservation initiative.
Wednesday's ruling could revive stalled efforts to return the burly animals to parts of their range where they were wiped out decades ago.
Ranchers and property rights advocates had sued the state after Montana wildlife officials moved more than 60 bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation last year. They said the move was illegal under state law.
But six justices on the state's high court sided with the state and conservation groups that argued the law did not apply bison moved to tribal lands.
That could allow the relocations to resume, including the transfer of dozens of the animals to the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Panel moves Cloud Peak coal lease forward
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Federal and state officials have given initial approval to a Wyoming company's application to lease 198 million tons of coal adjacent to a southeastern Montana mine.
Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Beverly Gorney said a five-member government panel voted unanimously Wednesday for the agency to begin processing the application from Cloud Peak Energy.
Environmental groups wanted the application delayed. They pointed to recent concerns raised by federal investigators that the government could be losing tens of millions of dollars by undervaluing coal from public lands.
The BLM has pledged improvements to the leasing program. Agency officials say it will be four to five years before a value is given to the coal leases sought by Cloud Peak. The leases are next to the Spring Creek Mine along the Montana-Wyoming border.
Panel delays decision that could gut pension fix
HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A mistake in the Legislature's proposed pension fix for public employees could undo plans to balance the system in less than 30 years.
A proposed Public Employees Retirement Board rule would activate a trigger in the fix that terminates increased contributions envisioned as a major way to help fix the system.
The retirement board said Tuesday it will meet next week about plans to have actuaries analyze the impact of cutting inflationary increases for retirees - also a part of the pension fix. It is expected to show the system would balance in 30 years, and that the contribution increases are no longer needed.
But lawmakers argue those increases were supposed to stay in place - especially since the courts could also strike the inflationary increases as unconstitutional.
Gov. appoints District Court judge
HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Gov. Steve Bullock has appointed Rosebud County Attorney Michael Hayworth as judge for the 16th Judicial District, which covers seven counties in eastern Montana.
Hayworth has been the county attorney since 2000 and received his Juris Doctor from Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana in 1995. He graduated from Colstrip High School and Miles Community College.
Hayworth was appointed Wednesday to fill the post vacated by the February death of District Judge Gary Day of Miles City.
The judgeship will be on the 2014 ballot and the successful candidate will serve the remainder of Day's term, which expires in January 2019.
Rocky Boy health director indicted for theft
HELENA, Mont. (AP) - An official on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation is charged with stealing tribal money to visit her husband while he was in prison for theft of tribal money.
An indictment unsealed late Tuesday says that Rocky Boy's Health Board Clinic director Fawn Tadios is charged with stealing more than $50,000 in federal and tribal money.
Prosecutors say Tadios used travel money and a tribal credit card to visit her husband in a federal prison in South Dakota. Former chairman Raymond "Jake" Parker Jr. was sentenced in 2011 for charging $59,000 to a tribal credit card for personal use.
Earlier this month, Tadios received a restraining order against recently deposed tribal chairman Ken Blatt St. Mark, who argued in that case that Tadios was part of a corruption problem on the reservation.
MISSING MONTANA TEACHER-TRIAL
MT prosecutor opposes attempt to rule out death
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - An eastern Montana prosecutor says he opposes attempts to declare 1 of the suspects in the killing of a Sidney teacher ineligible for the death penalty.
Richland County Attorney Mike Weber said Wednesday he also opposes a request by defense attorneys to relocate the January trial of defendant Michal Keith Spell. He declined to elaborate.
Spell and co-defendant Lester Van Waters Jr., both of Colorado, are charged in the 2012 killing of Sherry Arnold.
Spell's attorneys have asked the court to rule out a potential death sentence because he is mentally disabled.
They want the trial moved to Bozeman on the grounds that jurors in Richland County would be biased by the widespread news coverage the case has received and because Arnold was so well known in the community.
Hot Springs woman denies kidnapping charge
POLSON, Mont. (AP) - A Hot Springs woman has denied a charge that she kidnapped her 2-year-old niece.
KERR-AM reports 34-year-old Jamie Finley entered her plea Wednesday in District Court in Polson.
Prosecutors allege Finley took her niece from a Polson home on May 18, prompting a statewide Amber Alert. Finley was located with the child the next day.
Finley has said she removed the child to protect her. Family members say Finley was concerned the girl's mother was going to take the child to Butte to live with the mother's boyfriend. Family members allege he abuses the mother and the girl.
District Judge C.B. McNeil set Finley's trial for Sept. 16.
Man sentenced for 2003 rape in Missoula
MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - An Arizona man has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for the 2003 rape of a Missoula woman.
The Missoulian reports District Judge Dusty Deschamps sentenced 46-year-old Kenneth Edward Whatley on Wednesday to 30 years in prison with 20 suspended. He ordered Whatley to register as a Level II sex offender.
Prosecutors said Whatley broke into the woman's home in December 2003 and raped her. Court records say DNA on a baseball cap the suspect left behind was matched to Whatley in 2010. Whatley had a criminal record in Arizona.
He pleaded guilty in April to sexual intercourse without consent.
PSC chairman fighting cancer
HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Public Service Commission chairman Bill Gallagher of Helena says he's been diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer.
The 53-year-old Republican says it was discovered last week and he will be going to Seattle this week for possible surgery.
Gallagher told Lee Newspapers of Montana that he is a good candidate for surgery because of an early diagnosis. He hopes to beat the disease and run for re-election in 2014 in PSC District 5.
Gallagher was chosen by fellow Republican commissioners to be chairman in January. He ran unsuccessfully last year for lieutenant governor as the running mate of Ken Miller.
ASH GROVE-POLLUTION PENALTY
EPA levies $2.5M penalty against US cement maker
BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The Environmental Protection Agency levied a $2.5 million penalty against a cement maker and required the company to invest $30 million in pollution controls at plants in nine states alleged to have violated the federal Clean Air Act.
Ash Grove Cement Co.'s penalty was announced Wednesday by the EPA and Department of Justice in a deal where the Kansas-based company also will spend $750,000 to mitigate effects of past emissions.
The EPA said this will reduce thousands of tons of harmful pollutants from plants in Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Texas.
Ash Grove disputes it violated federal pollution laws, but says it agreed to the deal as costs rose.
The EPA says this pact will reduce pollution that can hurt human health and cause acid rain.
94th Reno Rodeo opens Thursday; West's richest
RENO, Nev. (AP) - An up & coming young buck who's trading his basketball shoes for cowboy boots and the defending world champion bull rider are among the headliners this week at the 94th Reno Rodeo.
Three months ago, 18-year-old T.J. McCauley was competing as an all-conference basketball player at Spanish Springs High School.
Now, the young phenom who's been chasing calves on horseback as an amateur since he was 13 will be roping alongside the best team ropers in the world.
Bob Feist, the founder of the Invitational Team Roping Classic that bears his name, tells the Reno-Gazette-Journal that McCauley is a natural talent.
World champion Cody Teel of Texas is among those chasing the $50,000 purse in the Xtreme Bulls competition that kicks off the richest rodeo in the West's 10-day run tonight.
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