A gray wolf in the Teanaway pack in central Washington.WDFW
The number of wolves in Washington state rose strongly last year, according to an annual report from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife released Friday. The rate of increase was more than double what Oregon reported earlier in the week for its wolf population in 2020.
The gray wolf population in Washington state increased by 22% in the past year, raising the minimum number of wolves documented by state and tribal biologists to 178 in 29 packs — up from 145 wolves and 26 packs at the end of 2019. A combination of in-migration from neighboring states and Canada plus births within existing packs probably accounted for the increase, biologists told the state Fish and Wildlife Commission during a briefing Friday.
“Washington wolf recovery continues to make solid progress,” said WDFW Director Kelly Susewind. “For the first time the North Cascades wolf recovery area has met the local recovery objective — four successful breeding pairs — during 2020.”
The majority of the state’s wolves are still concentrated in northeastern Washington. Under state rules set a decade ago, the gray wolf is not considered recovered until the species also recolonizes the South Cascades and Olympic Peninsula region.
Biologists can’t predict when packs might fully disperse throughout their historic range statewide, said WDFW wolf specialist Ben Maletzke.
“As more packs establish in the North Cascades, it’ll be far easier for wolves to make that jump south and get into the South Cascades,” Maletzke said Friday. “I just don’t know the timeframe and how long it will take.”CREDIT WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE
Given the uncertain timeline to full recovery, it is also unclear when policymakers in Olympia might accede to persistent requests from ranchers and sportsmen to be able to hunt wolves, as is the case in Idaho.
Forty-six of the wolves counted in the latest wolf census were reported by the Colville Confederated Tribes on their north-central Washington reservation. A few years ago, the tribe authorized wolf hunting by its members. Tribal hunters killed eight wolves in 2020, according to the WDFW annual report.
States took over full responsibility for gray wolf management at the beginning of this year when the outgoing Trump administration declared the species recovered from endangered status in the lower 48 states. Several lawsuits have challenged the federal delisting, but in the meantime states and tribes are calling the shots literally and figuratively.
During 2020, seven Washington packs were blamed for attacks on sheep or cattle. WDFW killed three wolves in the Wedge pack last year, the entire known pack, because of repeated livestock depredations by those animals.
Fur trapping, hunting and predator control bounties extirpated wolves from Washington state around the 1930s. Wolves returned on their own from Idaho and British Columbia beginning in 2008.
The Washington population update was released a day after Oregon unveiled its new tally of the wolf population in the state. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said it directly counted 173 wolves this past winter, an increase of almost 10% from the year before.
While the population of Oregon wolves increased, they occupied similar ranges to prior years. The number of Oregon counties with wolves stayed the same at 12 and the number of wolf packs also held steady at 22 in 2020.
The wolf population in neighboring Idaho is much higher — around 1,500 according to Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates. The Republican-controlled Idaho Legislature this week laid the groundwork for an aggressive cull of Idaho’s wolves.
Legislation passed by the Idaho Senate on Wednesday and now moving speedily through the state House would increase funding for private contractors to cut the wolf population from about 1,500 to as few as 150. It also allows the use of night vision equipment to help kill wolves as well as hunting from snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, among other changes.
Backers said there are too many wolves and they are attacking cattle and sheep, costing ranchers hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also said they are reducing elk and deer populations and taking away opportunities for hunters.
The proposed reduction in wolf numbers is so dramatic — as much as 90% — that it may invite federal intervention. It is already provoking an outcry from environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and Idaho Conservation League.
On Friday, Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission member Fred Koontz called Idaho’s actions especially “troubling” given how much wolves wander back and forth across state lines.
“While we can celebrate what is going on in Washington, long term population persistence of wolves in Washington is totally linked to what is happening in British Columbia, Idaho, Montana and Oregon,” Koontz said.
Now that the heinous legislation SB 1211 allowing the slaughter of 90 percent of Idaho’s 1,500 wolves has become law effective July 1, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is seeking public comment on regulations to align with SB 1211 and allow wolves to be killed with traps, snares, dogs, and in dens along with pups.What we are witnessing is a return to an old form of brutal wolf hatred and it is clear that Idaho is on a warpath to eradicate wolves by any means. We must speak out against this hatred. Even if you don’t live in Idaho, you can still speak up. This action will take less than a minute and the deadline is June 13, so please take action NOW! Tell Idaho Fish and Game You Stand with Wolves!1. Go to this ID Fish and Game page and scroll to the bottom.a. Indicate whether you are a residentb. Select NO for the second question.c. Complete the contact information (all fields are required).2. Email the Director of Idaho Fish and Game, Ed Schriever, and the Commission, using the talking points below and copying the following emails:firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, MagicValley.Commissioner@idfg.idaho.gov, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. Sign our Petition and share this action alert and infographic with friends and family and on social media!Talking points to craft your message (and please personalize):If you are from or currently live in Idaho, state your town. If you don’t have connections to Idaho, explain why you will not spend your tourism dollars in a state like Idaho that wantonly slaughters wildlife.These currently proposed regulations, including night hunting with spotlights and thermal imaging and no motorized vehicle restrictions and no weapons restrictions on private land, violate fair chase and any sense of ethical hunting principles.Using dogs to hunt wolves is unsporting, state-sanctioned dogfighting and endangers domestic dogs. Hunting wolves over bait increases the chances of conflict, disease transmission and also violates fair chase.The expanded use of trapping and snaring endangers other imperiled species, including Canada lynx and grizzly bears.The state’s elk numbers are at all-time highs and in no danger from wolves. The elk population has been experiencing what ID Fish and Game calls the “second golden era of elk hunting” for the last six years or more and, as of last March 2020, was estimated to be at least 120,000.Wolves cause less than 1% of cattle deaths and any depredation can be effectively managed with non-lethal methods.Killing wolves at this rate will only support decisions to relist them with Endangered Species Act protections.Wolves alive and thriving bring value to Idaho in many forms, including ecosystem services and tourism dollars.The majority of Idahoans and Americans support wolf recovery at levels where wolves can fulfill their ecological functions. Almost no one supports wasting tax dollars to recover wolves, just to exterminate them again.
BOISE, Idaho — A conservation group is asking the U.S. government to cut off millions of dollars to Idaho that is used to improve wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities because of legislation that could lead to 90% of the state’s wolves being killed.
The Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter Monday to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, saying states may be deemed ineligible to receive federal wildlife restoration money if states approve legislation contrary to that goal.
Idaho received about $18 million last year in that funding, which comes from a tax on sporting firearms and ammunition. States can use it to pay 75% of the cost for projects including acquiring habitat, wildlife research and hunter education programs.
The conservation group’s request is a reflection of the long-simmering tension between ranchers and those seeking to protect wolves in the American West. About 1,500 wolves are in Idaho, with disagreement over whether that is too many or not enough because the predators are known to attack cattle, sheep and wildlife. Ranchers say they lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to those attacks.
The Idaho legislation, backed by the agriculture industry, allows the state to hire private contractors to kill wolves and opens up ways the predators can be hunted.
Those methods include hunting, trapping and snaring an unlimited number of wolves on a single hunting tag and allowing hunters to chase down wolves on snowmobiles and ATVs. The measure also allows the killing of newborn pups and nursing mothers on private land.
“We won’t stand idly by while federal taxpayers are forced to fund Idaho’s wolf-slaughter program,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Idaho is entrusted with protecting its wildlife for all Americans, and its failure to do so should be met with serious repercussions, including the loss of federal funding.”
Idaho lawmakers have approved the legislation. Republican Gov. Brad Little, whose family has a long history with sheep ranching in Idaho, hasn’t said whether he’ll sign the measure.
Last week, nearly 30 former state, federal and tribal wildlife managers sent a letter to Little asking him to veto it, saying the methods for killing wolves would violate longstanding wildlife management practices and sportsmen ethics.
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission also opposes the bill because it removes wildlife management decisions from the commission and its experts and gives them to politicians.
Supporters say the changes could help reduce the wolf population from about 1,500 to 150, alleviating attacks on cattle and sheep. The Idaho Cattle Association said it supports the measure because it allows the free-market system to play a role in killing wolves.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game, using remote cameras and other methods, reported in February that the wolf population has been holding at about 1,500 the past two years.
About 500 wolves have been killed in the state in each of the last two years by hunters, trappers and wolf-control measures carried out by state and federal authorities.
Idaho’s wolf conservation and management plan calls for at least 150 wolves and 15 packs. Supporters of the measure say the state can increase the killing of wolves to reach that level.
According to the plan, if Idaho’s wolf population fell to 100, there is a possibility the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could resume management of the predators in the state.
This week, Idaho governor Brad Little is expected to sign into law a bill that calls for the extermination of 90 percent of the state’s 1,500-strong wolf population. Proponents say wolves are ruining the livelihoods of ranchers and hunters. Opponents say the wolves are necessary to a healthy ecosystem.
“They’re destroying ranchers,” said Republican senator Mark Harris, one of the bill’s sponsors, during a debate in the Idaho statehouse. “They’re destroying wildlife. This is a needed bill.”
“The politicians behind this bill lack science, ethics, and fact,” Amaroq Weiss, senior West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Outside.
After being eradicated earlier in the 20th century, wolves were reintroduced to Idaho in 1995. Initially protected by the federal government under the Endangered Species Act, the state legislature worked to establish political control over management of the species. The Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was passed in 2002, creating a blueprint for the state’s Fish and Game department to take over management of the species upon delisting from the ESA, which took place across the northern Rocky Mountains in 2011.
That original plan, written by the legislature, not Fish and Game, called for a minimum population level of 15 packs. Given that wolf packs in this part of the world average about ten members, that roughs out to a population of about 150 wolves. That number was determined by the legislature to be the population size that would allow the species to remain sustainable in the state—without creating conflict with ranchers and hunters. Wildlife biologists, in contrast, argue that wolves must return to the entire portion of their historic range that’s currently able to support the species before their population can be considered sustainable.
This new bill, SB 1211, calls for Idaho’s wolf population to be reduced from its current estimated size of 1,556 back to that politically determined level of 150 wolves. To achieve that, it devotes $590,000 to hire contractors to exterminate the animals and removes any limits on the number of wolves hunters may harvest, while freeing them to use any method currently legal in the state, including trapping, the use of night vision equipment, shooting from vehicles, and baiting.
Here are the reasons the bill’s proponents argue such extraordinary action is necessary—and how they compare to science.
The Claim: Wolves Kill Livestock
“A cow taken by a wolf is similar to a thief stealing an item from a production line in a factory,” Cameron Mulrony, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, told The Guardian.
And in the debate at the statehouse, Idaho’s Senator Harris called wolf livestock depredation a “disaster.”
The Reality:The Number of Kills by Wolves Is Exceptionally Small
In 2018 there were 113 confirmed wolf kills of cows and sheep. In 2019 that number was 156, and in 2020 it was 84. That gives us a three-year average of 113 wolf kills per year in the state. There are currently 2.73 million head of cows and sheep in Idaho. That means confirmed wolf-caused losses amount to 0.00428 percent of the state’s livestock.
According to a study published in 2003 and widely cited by the agriculture industry, variables like terrain can sometimes make it hard to find dead livestock, so the true number of wolf-related losses may be up to eight times greater than the official tally. Assuming that worst-case scenario applies universally, wolf kills may account for as much as 0.02 percent of the state’s livestock.
“We need proper management to keep Idaho ranchers in business,” wrote Cameron Mulroney, vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, in an opinion piece published by the Idaho Statesman. He goes on to call for taxpayer-funded wolf culling and increased wolf hunting opportunities for members of the public.
The Reality: Healthy Packs Prefer Natural Prey
“Multiple state-sponsored studies have concluded that large-scale wolf removal through public hunting or significant lethal control does not substantially reduce livestock losses to wolves in areas of recurring conflict,” Zoë Hanley, a representative of Defenders of Wildlife, wrote in a letter to Idaho lawmakers.
Many biologists believe that, because wolves function in packs, destabilizing and weakening those packs by killing members of them forces the wolfs to seek easier prey. “The odds of livestock depredations increased four percent for sheep and five to six percent for cattle with increased wolf control,” said a study that tracked livestock depredations across Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming between 1987 and 2012.
The study does confirm that culling wolves to the point of removing them from an ecosystem can be demonstrated to reduce depredation.
The Claim: Wolves Decrease Hunting Opportunities
Wolves are “destroying wildlife,” said Senator Harris in the debate. Hunters complain that they must compete with wolves for their natural prey, elk and deer, and that wolves push those animals out of traditional hunting areas, while reducing their outright numbers.
“The old place where you took your Dad or your dad takes your son, you can’t go there anymore because the elk are gone,” wrote Benn Brocksome, executive director of the Idaho Sportsman’s Alliance, in an opinion piece. “There’s one or two deer where there used to be hundreds, they’ve really pushed the elk and deer populations around, and really diminished the populations in different areas.”
The Reality: Wolves Create Healthy Ecosystems
Despite all those pesky wolves, elk populations in Idaho are actually at or above management objectives. The outright number of elk in the state currently stands at 120,000, just 5,000 fewer than the all-time high of 125,000. That’s also 8,000 more elk than were counted in 1995, the year wolves were reintroduced to Idaho.
As of 2019, the population of bulls (male elk) was above management objectives in 41 of Idaho’s 78 elk-hunting zones. According to Idaho Fish and Game, 2019 saw the 14th-highest elk harvest of all time in the state. In fact, the biggest problem elk populations in Idaho face is a lack of hunters prepared to hunt tough terrain. “One of the challenges we face in managing elk populations is getting enough hunters to hunt hard for and harvest antlerless elk in areas where we are working to bring elk herds back to the population objectives in the statewide elk plan,” Rick Ward, the department’s deer and elk program coordinator, said in a statement.
Mule deer aren’t fairing quite as well. “The three-year stretch of winters spanning from 2016 to 2019 was tough on many of Idaho’s mule deer herds, largely due to poor-to-average fawn survival,” according to Idaho Fish and Game. Still, 24,809 mule deer were harvested during the 2020 hunting season, with 28 percent of hunters finding success.Below average, but far from the lowest.
It doesn’t appear that wolves decreased populations of ungulates, and the predators may even play an important role in protecting them: chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a contagious neurological disease that degrades brain tissue in deer and elk over time, leading to emaciation and eventually death. CWD has not yet reached Idaho, but it has been found just over the border in southwest Montana and in Wyoming. There is currently no known cure and no effective tool for preventing its spread.
At least that’s what researchers thought until they began a research project into CWD’s spread in Yellowstone National Park. There, preliminary results suggested that wolves may be effective at slowing its spread by killing infected animals. Wolves cannot be infected by the disease.
“Wolves wouldn’t be a magic cure everywhere,” Ellen Brandell, the Penn State University researcher leading the project, told The New York Times. “But in places where it was just starting and you have an active predator guild, they could keep it at bay and it might never get a foothold.”
Gary J. Wolfe, a wildlife biologist and the former president and CEO of hunting advocacy group the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, agrees. “While I don’t think any of us large carnivore proponents are saying that wolf predation will prevent CWD, or totally eliminate it from infected herds, it is ecologically irresponsible to not consider the very real possibility that wolves can slow the spread of CWD and reduce its prevalence in infected herds,” he said in a statement released by the Sierra Club. “We should consider wolves to be ‘CWD border guards,’ adjust wolf hunting seasons accordingly, and let wolves do their job of helping to cull infirm animals from the herds.”
SB 1211 isn’t going to save livestock and won’t help hunters, but ultimately it may pose one major problem for anti-wolf Idahoans: if it causes the state’s wolf population to fall below ten packs, the bill could eventually lead to the state losing the ability to manage wolves within its borders. The 2002 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, written by Idaho’s own legislature, calls for wolf management to revert to U.S. Fish and Wildlife control if the state’s population falls below ten packs.
“In the unlikely event the population falls below ten packs … wolf management will revert to the same provisions that were in effect to recover the wolf population prior to delisting,” according to Idaho’s management plan. That’s the Endangered Species Act.
Today the Idaho Legislature passed SB 1211—a heinous bill that would allow the slaughter of 90 percent of Idaho’s 1,500 wolves by any means: traps, snares, aerial shooting, running over with snowmobiles—and even wildlife killing contests. There will be no bag or tag purchase limits or seasonal respite from trapping. The bill seizes wildlife management authority from the Idaho Fish and Game Commission and supports the hiring of contract killers with an additional $190,000 from the Idaho Wolf Control Fund, which already receives $400,000 to kill wolves. Read this Guardian article to see international coverage of the issue.Our last chance to stop this all-out war against wolves in Idaho is to urge Governor Brad Little to veto this bill. Even if you don’t live in Idaho, you can still speak up. Idaho needs to know the world is watching! Urge Governor Little to veto SB 1211 TODAY!Here’s how you can help:Call Governor Little at 208-334-2100 now and follow up with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org urging him to veto SB 1211, using the talking points below.Share this action alert and infographic with friends and family and on social media! Talking points to craft your message (please personalize):If you are from or currently live in Idaho, state your town. If you don’t have connections to Idaho, explain why you will not spend your tourism dollars in a state like Idaho that wantonly slaughters wildlife.Over 76% of Idahoans believe wildlife belongs to all citizens and that management decisions should be made without political influence by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission – whose members oppose this bill 5-2.Taking authority away from the Commission and the agency biologists that inform them is not science-based management and sets a dangerous precedent for the management of other wildlife.Wolves cause less than 1% of cattle deaths and any depredation can be properly managed without this bill.Killing wolves at this rate will only support decisions to relist them with Endangered Species Act protections.Wolves alive and thriving bring value to Idaho in many forms, including ecosystem services and tourism dollars.The majority of Idahoans and Americans support wolf recovery at levels where wolves can fulfill their ecological functions. Almost no one supports wasting tax dollars to recover wolves, just to exterminate them again.
I’ll keep this short and to the point. I applaud all of our county commissioners and the other letter writers who wrote enlightened and reasonable letters in the Feb. 19 Express. Trapping is inhumane. Period. The proponent organizations with benevolent-sounding names are complicit in the cruelty of trapping, as is Fish and Game, which claims that even sign posting is too burdensome. Are they kidding?
Blaine County especially objects to trapping, as evidenced by the unanimous opinions of our county commissioners who represent us. Trapping might be justified in the Alaskan bush where there are no groceries or clothing stores, but not in a civilized state and county where one can buy anything they need locally or online. I also expect that our tourist economy will suffer when visitors don’t want to spend their money in a place that allows such immoral activity that is a clear danger to recreationalists and their kids and dogs. This is the 2020s, not the 1800s.
NAMPA, Idaho (CBS2) — A female duck from Lake Lowell is in recovery after she was found with a blow dart through her face on Jan. 24.
Lake Lowell Animal Rescue was called about a month ago about a report of a duck swimming around with a blow dart in its face.
After trying to catch the duck for weeks, the rescue was able to catch the female duck with the help of a BSU grad student’s net gun.
Matthew Gillikin, a BSU grad student, said he built the net gun for a senior capstone project. The goal of the project was to either do something to help the community or help solve a problem.
“Matthew has helped build us a net gun and we were able to take that out and use it to catch her,” Melissa Blackmer, Lake Lowell Animal Rescue Director said.
The duck was taken in and treated by Dr. Karlee Hondo-Rust, a veterinarian at Treasure Valley Veterinary Hospital.
“The dart actually entered just below her eye, so had it been a few millimeters back she would have lost her eye,” Dr. Hondo-Rust said.Lake Lowell female duck found with blow dart through her face (Lake Lowell Animal Rescue)
Dr. Hondo- Rust said the duck is doing well and responding to the pain medicine and antibiotics. She is hopeful that they can release her in a few weeks.
Blackmer said, unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. Over the years, there have been reports around the valley about birds and cats being blow darted like this, but not all of them were as lucky as this duck.
“I do think there is someone or more than one person going around doing this and it’s incredibly unfortunate and very very cruel. It’s a recurring thing, so every few years or so we will get a run of ducks or geese come in because they have been blow darted and haven’t succumbed to their injuries,” Blackmer said.
Blackmer said she wants to raise awareness about animal cruelty in the valley, and the importance of reporting animal cruelty cases.
“We just want to raise awareness about some of the animal cruelty that happens because I think a lot of times people don’t realize what can happen to your pet who is outside or in this case, ducks or roosters, or other animals,” Blackmer said.
Wildlife Gray wolf #DefendCarnivores, #EndTheWarOnWildlife, #EndangeredSpeciesAct, #StopExtinction
BOISE—As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that the removal of wolves from Endangered Species Act protection nation-wide is “very imminent,” new data from Idaho show the ugly face of state wolf management there.
According to an analysis of records obtained by Western Watersheds Project, hunters, trappers, and state and federal agencies have killed 570 wolves in Idaho during a 12-month period from July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020. Included in the mortality are at least 35 wolf pups, some weighing less than 16 pounds and likely only 4 to 6 weeks old. Some of the wolves shattered teeth trying to bite their way out of traps, others died of hyperthermia in traps set by the U.S.D.A. Wildlife Services, and more were gunned down in aerial control actions. The total mortality during this period represented nearly 60 percent of the 2019 year-end estimated Idaho wolf population.
“There is nothing scientific about the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s management, which seems to be guided by anti-wolf hysteria among some members of the ranching and hunting communities, rather than any sort of conservation ethic,” said Talasi Brooks of Western Watersheds Project. “It is cruel, morally and ethically reprehensible, and policy is set through a process which denies conservation interests any voice.”
About 400 wolves have been killed each year in Idaho for the past several years, and the 570 wolves killed in 2019-2020 is record-breaking, perhaps reflecting Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s (IDFG) incentivization of wolf killing. This level of population disruption leads to population-level effects among wolves, including population decline, a younger, destabilized population, and ultimately more livestock conflicts.
“It’s sickening to see how wolves have been slaughtered in Idaho once federal Endangered Species Act protections were lifted,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “If wolves are delisted nationwide, this cruelty could extend to all wolves within our country’s borders. This treatment of our nation’s wildlife is unacceptable.”
“Idaho’s reckless, violent, massacre of wolves and their pups not only showcases the worst of state wildlife “management,” it shines a light on the darkest corners of humanity. To maim, bludgeon and actively seek to destroy a native animal, that is familial and social by nature, is disgusting,” said Samantha Bruegger, Wildlife Coexistence Campaigner with WildEarth Guardians. “Tragically, the Idaho narrative clearly shows, to the rest of the country, what can happen to wolves if they are delisted from the Endangered Species Act.”
“Idaho is not ‘managing’ wolvesbut is attempting to reduce the state wolf population to the brink of federal relisting while jeopardizing region-wide recovery of a native carnivore. This inhumane mass killing of wolves abuses federal recovery objectives and is one of many reasons why Endangered Species Act protection is so important for gray wolves nationwide,” said Zoe Hanley of Defenders of Wildlife.
IDFG recently announced it had awarded approximately $21,000 in “challenge grants” to the north Idaho-based Foundation 4 Wildlife Management, which reimburses wolf trappers a bounty up to $1,000 per wolf killed. The Foundation also has received funding for wolf bounties from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. A single individual may now kill up to 30 wolves under IDFG hunting and trapping rules—a new increase from the 20 wolves previously allowed.
“It is beyond tragic that Idaho has become the poster child for animal cruelty through their pathological destruction of wolves,” said Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense. “I find it hard to believe that most Idahoans would approve of this indefensible carnage being carried out on behalf of zealots in the ranching and hunting community. Time and again we see that removing Endangered Species Act protection and allowing states to manage wolves generally leads to mass slaughter.”
“Wolves are a native species and part of our iconic Western wildlife heritage,” said Derek Goldman, Northern Rockies Representative of the Endangered Species Coalition. “It’s deeply disappointing that Idaho Department of Fish and Game is abandoning science and ethics in its zeal to eradicate wolves, when many nonlethal, less-costly approaches to conflict prevention already exist.”
Gray Wolf pups. Photo by Tim Fitzharris.
Andrea Zaccardi, Center for Biological Diversity, (303) 854-7748; Zoe Hanley, Defenders of Wildlife, (509) 774-7357; Brooks Fahy, Predator Defense, (541) 937-4261; Talasi Brooks, Western Watersheds Project, (208) 336-9077; Derek Goldman, Endangered Species Coalition, (406) 370-6491
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Jennifer Liebrum told me toer any time: “I’ve got nothing else to do,” she said, “but lay in this room.” She’d been in that room, fully isolated from the rest of her family, for nearly three weeks — ever since she started feeling sick, assumed it was the coronavirus, and knew if she didn’t immediately quarantine herself, she’d risk infecting her 16-year-old daughter, who’d only recently entered remission after two years of treatment for leukemia.
Like a lot of people in Blaine County — made up of 2,661 square miles of mountains and wilderness, smack in the center of the bottom half of Idaho — Liebrum wears, as she puts it, “a lot of hats.” Since moving to the Wood River Valley in 2001, she’s worked as an equine therapist, a ranch manager, and a waiter. Now she’s a writer, works at the middle school, and takes on the odd gig to supplement her family’s income. That’s what she did on March 7, when she did “advance work” for a wedding at River Run Lodge at Sun Valley, the ski resort that serves as an economic center of gravity for the area.
A significant number of people in the wedding party were from Seattle, including two health care workers. At that point, people were still thinking of COVID-19 as something mostly isolated to a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, and a handful of other cases (Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had yet to even ban meetings of 250 or more). So when the first official positive test results for COVID-19 came back in Blaine County, on March 14, there was an immediate impulse to try to figure out where it came from: Was it the Seattle wedding? The rollicking closing party for the National Brotherhood of Skiers, held the night before with music from DJ Jazzy Jeff?
Debbie Bacca had attended the party and worked at the wedding. She started feeling sick a few days later and made an appointment at the local hospital, where coronavirus testing kits had just become available. Her results came back on Saturday, a week after the wedding: She was one of the first two official cases in Blaine County. But as was the case in Seattle and many other places around the US, chances are high that the virus had already been in the area for some time. The closing party and the wedding just served as vectors for its spread. As Bacca put it, “That lodge was a petri dish.”
By March 19, five days later, the number of confirmed cases had risen to 16, and shortly after, the county issued a stay-at-home order. The hospital, which has just two ICU beds and one ventilator, was forced to temporarily close, as four of the seven emergency room doctors were quarantined after being exposed to the virus. Two of them tested positive. Tourists almost certainly brought the virus to the county, where more than 40% of houses are short-term rentals and second homes. But it’s full-time residents who are figuring out how to deal with the aftermath.
By April 11, there were 452 confirmed cases in Blaine County, and five people had died. The area has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the US — higher, even, than New York City’s — and the fifth-highest deaths per capita. But nearly a month since the stay-at-home order was issued, the number of new cases has actually begun to decline. And the high number of cases relative to the county’s population (23,000) is largely indicative of widespread testing that hasn’t been feasible for many cities.
For weeks in Idaho, like so many other places, you couldn’t get a test, regardless of your symptoms, unless you knew you’d been in direct contact with someone who had COVID-19. But in a small community like Blaine County, when just a handful of people tested positive, dozens more who were exhibiting symptoms were able to get tested as well. And the widespread (official) infection rate has a silver lining: Earlier this week, the city of Ketchum and the county announced an official collaboration with the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to launch an antibody testing program.
In truth, Blaine County isn’t that different from any other community with an outbreak of COVID-19. The virus just hit it earlier than most, and with less warning. And as has been the case in every other place, systemic issues, from the lack of affordable housing to the digital divide, have emerged in even starker relief than before.
The stereotype of Sun Valley, in and outside of Idaho, is a town dominated by a bunch of rich, white, out-of-state skiers with second homes. But Blaine County is far more than Sun Valley (one of four “major” small towns in the area), and the lived reality of its full-time residents tells a story that will sound familiar to people living in far more dense urban areas. Idaho, as a whole, is 93% white. Yet 48% of school-age children in the Blaine County school district, according to the school board chair, are Latino. Almost half of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The county seat of Hailey, population 8,282, ranked ninth in the nation for most severe income inequality in a 2018 study from the Economic Policy Institute.
All of the problems facing Blaine County before COVID-19 are still there, but are now exacerbated by the crisis. The Hunger Coalition is now serving nearly triple their normal weekly numbers, with more people in need every week. Thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the tourist economy, which has ground to a halt, are struggling to make ends meet. The school district is scrambling to figure out how to continue educating in a way that’s fair and equitable when at least a quarter of their students don’t have high-speed internet at home, either because of cost or remote location.
Even with all of those problems, Blaine County is still a tight-knit community. In the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, that meant a fair amount of gossip about where the virus had come from, and who was spreading it. When Bacca first started telling people about her diagnosis, she told me, “The news spread like wildfire. I felt like Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter.” Molly Page, who runs the local Facebook page for COVID-19 support, told me people across the state are “furious with 5Bers” (the license plate abbreviation for Blaine County). “There’s this anger about us being here, just generally,” she said. “But we locked down the county. We didn’t start the pandemic. We were just the first in Idaho to really get it all over.”
The county is still under a mandatory stay-at-home order, as is the state, and plans to remain so for the foreseeable future. But this past Sunday, Liebrum was finally able to come out from her room and rejoin her family. Others are slowly starting to do the same. Blaine County is sending us a letter from our near future about what the asteroid impact of the coronavirus is like when it hits a small community, and what life might look like in its wake. Here are the stories of 14 people who live there — stories that, soon enough, might sound a lot like yours.
Interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Cathy Swink, 48, Pharmacist at Valley Apothecary in Ketchum, Idaho
Every year, people get what’s called the “Ketchum Kroup.” Kroup with a K. It’s just the name people use to describe getting sick when the tourists start coming around Christmas. This year, I don’t feel like it was any more than any other year. The actual influenza didn’t hit that hard — so from our standpoint, in the pharmacy, it felt milder. There was never a moment where it was like, oh my god, something’s here.
This past week, my phone has been blowing up. Everyone I know who got tested weeks ago is coming back positive. There are definitely some false negatives too, people with the same exact symptoms as people who tested positive. We’re already peaking. But my advice to everyone else in small towns is that you can’t wait until it gets there. At that point, it’s out of control, and you’re behind the eight ball. You have to have an action plan right now.
“You can’t wait until it gets there. At that point, it’s out of control, and you’re behind the eight ball. You have to have an action plan right now.”
I had been closely following what was happening in China. I’ve been a pharmacist for 20 years, and I’d never seen anything like this. I knew it was going to come here and that it was going to be bad. Starting in January, we overstocked on everything, from thermometers and gloves to hand sanitizer. And when we saw that hand sanitizer was going to run out, we ordered the stuff to make it ourselves.
We had a meeting the week before the first positives came back. We came up with our game plan — and the Saturday when the first case came back, we closed our doors and went curbside-only. Emailed our mayor and within a day they had six “temporary parking only” signs out front of our business for people coming to pick up. On Tuesday, we hired a bartender from the local bar and started free delivery all over the valley. Our patients are in sync with it, and it’s working very smoothly.
People from the outside are still coming in. They’re out there, sledding, not self-quarantining. This is usually when we get our town back — when the tourists leave. But I had a friend going into the local grocery store, and she said, ‘Look around — do you recognize anyone here?’ Not a soul. The amount of prescriptions we’re getting from out of state, it’s ridiculous — New York, California, Washington, New York, California, Washington. That’s really going to be our problem if we don’t get an antibody test — people are just going to keep coming in and reinfecting.
Kelsie Choma, 29, Police Dispatcher in Hailey, Idaho
My husband and I met when he was a state trooper, and I moved from Boise to be with him here. I have two stepkids and a baby. Back in January, February, everyone seemed kind of oblivious. I mean, we’re in the middle of nowhere, Idaho — why would this disease come there? I wasn’t thinking about the tourist aspect; those people normally just keep to themselves.
We’re still working. I’m essential. My husband is essential. It’s a blessing and a curse. I used to have normal hours from Monday to Friday, 9–5, and would cover overtime. But now we’re working 12-hour shifts. We’re attached to the sheriff’s office, but we can’t leave our little space. There’s no one else allowed in. No one’s gotten sick. That’s a big miracle.
We have two busy seasons in town: summer and winter. The mountain was supposed to still be open at this point. But I’m not even worried about the tourists coming back. I’m worried about the locals who can’t keep up. We have a small-town feel here, you know, because we are a small town. And I know the restaurant owners. I know they’re having to shut their doors. How could they have protected themselves or prepared for something like this?
The stimulus check from the government — I mean, realistically, up here, that’s not even going to cover our mortgage, which is $1,300-something a month. We can make that work because there’s two of us still working, but other people we know are paying $1,700 or more. There are those people with second houses up here, but my husband and I can’t afford to go skiing on the mountain.
People love to come to our county, and now they’re terrified too. But our community, in times like this, we all come together and try to make things work. We all live in this wonderful place where we all get to go hiking and some of us can go skiing. We just want the best for each other.
R. Keith Roark, 71, Chair of the Blaine County School Board
I tell people I’m from Hailey, Idaho. I don’t use the word “Sun Valley.” I was elected chair of the school board this past year, and I’m also a lawyer, and was previously the mayor of Hailey. When the first round of COVID-19 cases came out, there was a connection to the school district, and we closed the schools as soon as we could.
Right now, we’re still trying to plan and implement the so-called distance learning plan. The difficulty is that 25% of our students do not have access to high-speed internet. And to be pursuant with state and federal law, we have to provide a quality, equal education for all our students, so we cannot ignore those who don’t have access. We’re trying to increase high-speed internet accessibility, but we’re fighting a losing battle. We were trying to help some families add internet to their cable bill, but a lot of people are already cutting expenses — including their cable access.
It’s like trying to bail out a lifeboat that has a hole in the bottom. But this is a school district that has prided itself on quality education. We have a dedicated and well-educated teaching staff. And some of them — not a huge number, but some — don’t have access to high-speed internet either. They live in areas that have satellite, and that just doesn’t work with the sort of teleconferencing that we’re using.
“It’s like trying to bail out a lifeboat that has a hole in the bottom.”
Our district is 48% Hispanic. Many live in households where their parents might not speak English at all. We have a full-time interpreter, and all communications that go out from the district are translated into Spanish. But the easiest way to handle communication is through email — and again, we’re in a situation where 25% of homes do not have access to the internet. So we’re doing a lot of texting. Before the pandemic, almost half of our students were on free or reduced-price lunch. Since we closed down the schools, we are providing lunches to all students, whether they were in those programs or not.
Right now, all our issues as a district have been put on the back burner. Depending on how badly the resulting recession hits this area, people are probably not going to be able to pay their property taxes, and that means we’re not going to be able to think about pay increases for our employees. We’ll also be absorbing what looks to be a significant increase in insurance premiums.
I’m not circulating around the community. I’m handling things from home. And I’ve been thinking about a whole lot more than I want to talk about right now.
Jaime Rivetts, 42, Social Learning Specialist in Bellevue, Idaho
My parents are in their seventies, and last year they went on a big trip for their 50th wedding anniversary. My dad got pneumonia when he got back and had to be intubated and life-flighted out of the area. He’s a super-active guy, but he’s been on oxygen ever since. My mom has type 2 diabetes. So when the virus started coming around, I was paying attention — ever since Christmas, especially since my dad has a bit of the cowboy attitude and kept skiing and doing everything all through January.
On March 17, they got it — probably while grocery shopping in those few days before. My dad had a progressively harder time breathing, and he kept upping his oxygen, and then he just realized he couldn’t manage it. On March 20, he drove himself to the ER. They were shutting down the hospital there, so they took him in an ambulance down to Twin. [Editor’s note: Twin Falls, the nearest metropolitan area, is about a 90-minute drive from Blaine County.]
They tested him and got rushed results. The infectious disease doc came in and said, “You have COVID, and I don’t think you’re going to survive, because you only have 61% of your lung capacity.” They asked him, “Do you still want to have this DNR [do-not-resuscitate order]?” He said yes. “Do you want to be put on a ventilator if needed?” He said yes.
I talked to him on the phone on Friday and Saturday, and I thought those conversations might be the last ones I’d ever have with him. We took my mom to the ER on Saturday, and they tested her, did a chest X-ray and sent her home with antibiotics. But she was home all by herself while my dad was in the ICU. I made food and put it on the doorstep. I made sure she answered texts and phone calls every few hours. But she got worse, and that Wednesday, my brother and sister-in-law — who live next door to her — took her to get IV fluids. Now my brother and sister-in-law have it.
Meanwhile, my dad was gradually improving. He said it was so hard to be alone, with the only people he came into contact with wearing full protective gear. He said it felt like they were scared of him. But he’s a tough cookie. He couldn’t get out of bed or go to the bathroom for nine days, but when they let him out, he took a shower, and came home — that was March 29 — and surprised everyone on the family Zoom call. It was my parents’ 51st anniversary. My mom was just totally taken aback and so happy.
That was one of the hardest weeks of my life. My worst nightmare when I started thinking about this virus, back in January, came true. One of my kids turns 4 on April 24. We’re just hopeful we can all be together.
Herbert Romero, 46, Community Organizer in Hailey, Idaho
In 2016, I moved to this beautiful paradise. It’s quiet here, and tranquil. But it’s diverse too — even within the Hispanic community. Americanized, people from Mexico, from Central America, from South America. There’s a lot of opportunity here. But there’s challenges too. Like in every community, there are people who are disenfranchised, who are disengaged and disconnected. There are so many resources here, but there has been a gap between those providing and those in need.
The reality here is that skiing, hiking, river rafting, all that incredible stuff — there’s a big percentage of people for whom that’s not reachable. Of course you can go to the mountains any time of day, but people don’t understand that. They think if they go to the hiking trails, maybe they’ll get policed. It was like this in California, where I’m from, too: People see the mountains; they know they’re right there, and they don’t go.
With COVID-19, the big problem in my community is that dealing with the system is a challenge. Monolingual people in my community don’t understand English. There’s a disconnect, and information just has not reached them. I helped with an article in our local newspaper, and the headline was straight to the point: “Hispanic community in ‘crisis’ over COVID-19.” And that’s the truth. There are mixed messages out there — from the national media, the local media, and then you have the rumor aspect of it.
But there’s also people out there working to counteract those rumors. The city and county are being really proactive in getting out information in Spanish. And they’re reaching out to us, asking, “What do we need to do?” We’ve been doing interviews on the Spanish-language radio station. And that’s been helpful in pushing against the fear and the rumors.
“People are going to get to the reality: I still cannot go back to work. But we’re organizing and mobilizing.”
But, you know, not everyone has the luxury to quarantine in a separate room. That’s a real concern for the Hispanic community here. And it’s hard to capture what it means for us, to quarantine your mom, your grandma, your dad, in that way. When trouble like this happens in our community, you come together, you unify your family — but you’re telling the family to separate. Go in that room. And that’s really hard. And what about the other family members? They can’t just leave. They’re scared of this unknown. I have some families who believe that if they come out the door, the virus is there in the air. The public health officials and the CDC need to educate more, get out more information.
In March, people maybe had some savings to cover their rent. People got paid. But this month, April? It’s going to be intense. It’s going to shake us. The need is going to be triple. People are going to get to the reality: I still cannot go back to work. But we’re organizing and mobilizing. We’re starting a leadership task force in our community and having our first meeting this week.
And that’s the thing I want people to know. We are out there, boots on the ground. We’re passing out care packages to families. We’re working to support the school district. We’re taking the initiative to support the Hispanic community and the community at large. Right now, Hispanics are not just receiving or needing resources. We are a resource.
Brent Russell, 50, Emergency Room Physician at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center
You think that skiing is low-risk for the virus because you’re outdoors. But you spend three-fourths of your time on a chairlift, turning to talk to the person next to you, or in a closed gondola. The only thing worse than skiing is, like, being on a subway — or a big ol’ Mardi Gras party. And we had that, too, with the Brotherhood — they throw these incredible events that everyone wants to go to, and they’re nice enough to open them to the general public. All these things, like weddings, that were beautiful things for people to attend — now we have to think of them in this different way.
Then it all just exploded that next week. That’s when I started getting symptoms. I was the sickest I’ve ever been. I’m writing an article right now for the local newspaper that talks about mental health and how everyone’s scared and wants to blame other people. How we don’t become our best selves when we’re scared.
But we were so lucky. We don’t have a robust intensive care unit — so from the start, we were keeping the patients who didn’t need intensive care but sending everyone else to Boise or Twin. If it was cloudy, like it is a lot this time of year, we wouldn’t have been able to fly them — which would’ve meant three hours on snowy roads if they were headed for Boise after Twin filled up. What’s saved us here, too, is that we’re 20,000 people in a state of 2 million, and because the state hadn’t been hit as hard, we had the resources of the entire state at our disposal. Doctors coming in, patients going out. Where I’m from, in the South, all the communities are packed together. Each one spills into the next. If it hits a small town there, it’ll hit the entire state. But here, we’re so isolated — it probably came here by plane, and it has largely stayed here.
The number of new cases is going down right now. But the rate of hospitalized people will go up as people who tested positive get sicker. I’m hopeful about the antibody testing — there’s the one that’s been announced and another project that hasn’t been officially announced yet. The ideal thing would be to test our entire county — because until we know what our rate of infection is and can find those asymptomatic people shedding the disease early in the infection, we’re operating in the dark. If you were going to pick a small town to study, this would be the best one. I feel like we’re in a movie — that’s what I’ve told everyone. It’s so weird to be at the epicenter of all of this.
Jennifer Liebrum, 54, Special Education Teacher and Freelance Writer in Bellevue, Idaho
I knew our valley was in Chicken Little mode. Because my daughter’s immunocompromised after all the chemo, we’ve been out banging the drum about vaccines. Our valley can be a self-centered place. You can make a friend if you’re out and doing sports, but they don’t know you; they just know that you like to do this activity. You only find out years later that they’re either super loaded, and that’s why they’re always available, or they’re socially weird and couldn’t make friends elsewhere. But of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful people here, too.
Isolation isn’t new to me or my family, because we’ve been trying to protect my daughter while she was going through chemo. She got a bone marrow transplant from my husband, and now she has an immune system like a brand-new baby. So when I started getting sick, I went straight to our bedroom, and I’ve been here for 20 days. I know my girls are scared on the other side of the door. It’s worse because right when this started, their beloved horse, who’s almost 30 years old, had to be put down. I felt like my arms were cut off, because they were just standing there bawling and I couldn’t do a damn thing.
“I had what I would consider a mild case, but I really expected that by the end I was going to spew something out of my body with a head.”
My husband was still working, because he’s a farrier, but he also works as a firefighter at the airport — they always have to have someone there, just because. When I went and got the test and tested positive, I was like, you’re grounded, dude. Welcome to my world. I keep thinking back to when I got that test result back. I document everything. I take pictures of dog farts. But I could not bring myself to take a picture at that moment. I was just too sad. Too incredibly sad.
Luckily, I could retrace my steps pretty easily. Because of my daughter, we just don’t really run amok. I had what I would consider a mild case, but I really expected that by the end I was going to spew something out of my body with a head. It just knocks every organ in your body. I feel like it goes around wondering what it can mess with now.
We assume everyone’s reading the internet and knows what’s going on, but they’re not. My family’s out in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. My family only really gets it now because I’m sick. That’s how it’s going to spread — the awareness and the disease — is when someone you know gets sick. And then it’s gonna snap their heads up. And they’re going to be beyond terrified because they’re not prepared. Rural people think they’re okay with isolating, that they can handle it. That’s true. But what they can’t handle is what’s going to happen when they’re shipped to these overwhelmed urban hospitals.
I love this place so much. It’s filled with kind people. I worked for the coffee shop for several years, and I’ve owned it for four. We’ve got the roaster running; we are selling wholesale and still offering curbside coffee and some breakfast items — but mostly people are coming through for their lattes. We had to close down our store in Ketchum, though, and we only have two people working.
My staff — I want to help them. I worry about them. I’m always calling them and texting them and seeing how they’re doing. Seeing if I can help if I can with what I can. You know, everything’s changed. Everything I planned, it’s changed. But the thing we have to keep is hope, and thinking day to day. These past few days it’s felt better. And the sun, it’s really, really helped.
Caleb Morgan, 20, College Student
I was born and raised in Hailey, but I’ve been at Montana State University in the documentary film program. I’m just finishing up my junior year. I had plans to go to New York for spring break before all this went down. But then they announced we’d be going to all online classes, and I thought, Well, I better get home.
All my friends are back home too, so it’s like being back in high school — only we’re not allowed to see anyone. The other day, I was sitting in my room, just quarantining, and I heard this blood-piercing scream. There was this lady, just howling. Then I realized everyone else was doing it, too. They’re doing it every night at 8 p.m. for all the essential workers.
Now I’m filming the howl every night. When I first heard it, I thought it was funny. But now it’s different: I’m out in the back of my truck, and it feels like I’m really witnessing it. It brings people together, even though they physically can’t be. It’s just a presence, you know, like, everyone out there hoping the best for everyone else.
Maritt Wolfrom, 47, Social Studies Teacher at Wood River High School
The week before our schools shut down, there was a lot of anxiety. A bunch of my colleagues had been sick, but that was before anyone thought it could be here. When we had parent–teacher conferences, we were social-distancing with other teachers in the hallway. A teacher down the hall got really sick, and I was in contact with him. I was laid out for more than a week, couldn’t get out of bed, walking 10 feet across the room and wheezing and coughing, with severe tightness in my chest. I’m asthmatic, and I’ve never felt anything like it. I got my test back yesterday, and it was negative, but literally the second line of the email about the test results is that the test is not perfect.
“I’m worried about teacher burnout. None of us were trained for this.”
For school, we all have one class of kids, an advisory, who are ours for four years. We’re all making personal contact with those kids through Google phone calls. I’ve been working with teachers and students on how to get it set up, but if they don’t have access at home, I can’t do anything. This is really an equity issue.
I’m worried about my second-language learners. If these kids are highly proficient in reading, then they’ll be okay. But kids can be really proficient in speaking or listening and not in reading — and they’re going to struggle without face-to-face classes. I’m worried about my kids on 504 medical action plans, and on IEPs (individualized education programs). By federal law, we still need to accommodate all these students. But this is just unprecedented. It’s flying-the-airplane-while-we-build-it kind of stuff.
And I’m worried about teacher burnout. None of us were trained for this. Some teachers are so great in the classroom, face to face, but they don’t have the tech savviness. I hope they can be patient with themselves. A friend of mine on social media was like, “I can’t believe the district hasn’t planned for this. But how could we have planned for this?”
Brooke Irby, 26, Hotel Concierge in Ketchum, Idaho
I didn’t even get to help close up the hotel where I work — because my daughter, who’s a year old, had a cough, and I realized my mom’s friend had been over the night before, and she’d been at the wedding and tested positive. She’d hugged my sister, my mom, my daughter, my nephew. The next day, I had a 103-degree fever. I couldn’t breathe at night; I’d just have to sit up.
Applying for unemployment has been really, really hard. There’s all this red tape. They say someone will call you, and no one calls you. One of my friends showed me she had called 300 times before she got an answer. I’m still going to school online, but my financial aid doesn’t cover my housing. I have a special training in postpartum depression, and I’ve been talking with clients online — it’s so hard right now. You can’t have family members over, and a lot of new moms have no one to support them.
Those of us who work in the hospitality industry, we’re pretty sure we’ve all had it. But there’s no way to know. The testing is still backed up. Most of us don’t have a way to make it for three months without working. I’m a single mom. I make $13.25 and I have two children. I moved back in with my mom. Right now I’ve probably gone negative in my bank account.
Debbie Bacca, 53, Construction Project Manager in Ketchum, Idaho
Every Friday, I have an afternoon ski session with a good friend. On March 6, we went to the Brotherhood Party. It was just a blast. They always have the best parties, and everyone in town looks forward to it. But at that point, that lodge was a petri dish. I think we gave it to a bunch of them. The next day, I worked the wedding of the people from Seattle.
When I got my positive test back, I told a few of my friends, and we alerted the people who’d been at the wedding. I kept getting text messages from people, people who weren’t in my social or, let’s say, economic group. I was like, leave me alone, because you wouldn’t even say hi to me if you saw me walking down the street.
They had the state press conference, and they aired it on Facebook. People were commenting on the side, and someone was saying, “We need to know if this woman in Blaine County has been around old people.” And another person asked where I lived, and someone else answered with the name of my neighborhood. And I thought, Wait a minute. That’s not fair. It’s not as if I was walking up and down the aisle rubbing the produce.
People wanted to know how someone like me, with relatively mild symptoms, got a test. Well, I was the 5:15 appointment, and they had just gotten the tests in — so, lucky me. I tell people: My cough was scary, and you’ve got to rest. I’m four weeks from my first symptoms, and I had a funky day yesterday. And, again, I had a mild case.
One thing I’m learning through all of this and being home for four weeks is that I’m going to come out of this stronger and with a lot of clarity. I have an amazing peer group, and people came and fed us for two weeks. The owner of the local grocery store did my shopping and dropped it off at my house. I got out, and people have been kind. They’re like, “Hey, you’re the first case, you’re famous!” But that’s not really a title I want to be given.
There’s no use in finger-pointing about where this came from. We’ve just got to get on with it and manage it the best we can. I’m trying to push kindness over anything else. Tolerance, empathy, patience — that reduces panic and produces a level of calm that’s more important than anything else right now. Some of the decisions we make will be wrong, and some will be right. But every decision will be well intentioned.
What I’m trying to do with the next few months is turn this notoriety into something positive. We’re officially working with two groups on an antibody study. We’re so bad that we’re perfect for it — the perfect sample size for the rest of the country. That’s felt good, because it’s something that we can do. We can try to lead the charge for our county, for our state, and for the nation in finding a solution.
The more we can test ourselves, the more information we can generate, the better decisions we can make about when to open. We’re all always looking for a sense of purpose. And our sense of purpose, as a community, has landed on our lap. The only shame will be if we don’t see what’s on our lap and react to it.
I love my customers. I was telling a customer the other day, “I miss the hugs; I miss the kids.” I know all the kids by name. I’m Hispanic and Catholic, and hugs mean so much to me. But you know what? This is a wake-up from nature. This is nature saying, “Take good care of me, and if not, I’ll destroy you.” I see the fear in people’s eyes. I see it in the way they’re still hoarding. I want to say, “You can’t eat toilet paper.”
“I see the fear in people’s eyes. I see it in the way they’re still hoarding. I want to say, ‘You can’t eat toilet paper.’”
I was sitting here two weeks ago on my day off, just listening to the radio. I know the DJ, and he was talking about how he was out of toilet paper, wondering, do they have to go out of state to get it? So I went over there and dropped off some toilet paper. I said, “We’re a community, and we have to take care of each other.”
I’m the frontliner. I’m more exposed than anyone, maybe even more than doctors and nurses. My daughter said, “Dad, you’re 64 years old. You’re at risk.” But I’m not scared to go to work. I put this in God’s hands. And you know what? I’m here to serve. I told her, “They need me. And I need them.” ●
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Missoula, Montana.