Betsy Marston
High Country News

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April 4, 2012
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Heard around the West

A 200-pound black bear with a flair for home decorating denned this winter in the crawlspace beneath a family cabin at Georgetown Lake, west of Butte, Mont. Once dug in, the bear noticed the stairs and a trap door above it, reports the Billings Gazette, and proceeded to break open the door and wander into the cabin, only to discover all the little things that make hibernation more enjoyable - "decorative pillows, comforters and blankets to keep warm." Family members who visited the cabin on New Year's Day realized the place had been ransacked, but were puzzled because nothing was missing except bedding, including designer sheets. When they peered down into the crawlspace, however, they saw "a pair of eyes staring back." Everyone, including the game warden, decided that the bear - dubbed "Blue" by a thrilled 5-year-old - could sleep right where it was until spring.

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Poor Beijing, suffering as it does from horrendous storms of swirling pink dust that frequently darken the sky and cause residents to wheeze and cough. But Californians might temper their compassion with a bit of gratitude if they happened to catch a recent New York Times story about the surprising "upside" of China's air pollution. For in just a week or so, the high-altitude jet stream can blow Beijing's fierce dust clouds thousands of miles to California, and once there, the polluted clouds "seed" snowflakes that blanket the state's Sierra Nevada Range. "Snowflakes cannot fall out of a cloud unless there is a floating seed husk, or piece of pollen, speck of dust or other aerosol that they can cling to and grow around," explain researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California at San Diego. So the more dust in the air, researchers say, the more ice crystals, and those ice crystals grow into snowflakes as they drop from the sky. Because the mountains of Northern California have been suffering from dry winters, it's good news for the region that dust from China is bulking up the snowstorms that will eventually provide drinking water for 25 million people. Snowmelt from the mountains also provides up to 15 percent of the state's hydropower as well as water for wildlife, ranches and farming operations. Unfortunately, there's still a downside: Besides causing serious harm to the health of millions of people in China, the country's dust storms are also bad news for some Americans: "Research suggests that as much as one-third of the airborne lead in the San Francisco Bay Area wafted over from China."

Perhaps it was the "intense public scrutiny," as Jeff Ruch, head of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, put it, or it may have been a sudden attack of common sense, but the director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, recently reversed himself and announced that Grand Canyon National Park can soon ban disposable water bottles less than one gallon in size. Coca-Cola, which sells bottled water, had complained about the proposed ban and delayed its execution for a year.

Police hear so many bizarre things that it's no wonder some officers become jaundiced about human nature. In Carbondale, Colo., the Sopris Sun reports that a man called the police in the late afternoon to report that his bird was missing: "The last time he saw the bird it was 'rolling around on the floor.' " When asked if it had been left outside, the man replied, "It's entirely possible because one never knows." The man then told the officer "he was going to clean up a little and maybe he'd find his bird." Or maybe not; we stopped reading, though the "Cop Shop" conversation kept going. And in Ogden, Utah, a man called 911 late at night to complain that Walmart was closed "and that made him mad." Then he demanded a ride home and grew increasingly angry as he berated the police. The man did get a ride, reports ksl.com. "It just wasn't to the destination that he was preferring."

There's a mystery plaguing hog farms, and researchers at the University of Minnesota are trying hard to unravel it, reports KSTP Eyewitness News. They know what the problem is: Foam has begun forming on the surface of manure pits, sometimes reaching a height of four feet and even drifting onto the top of barns. Wherever it forms, the foam traps gases such as methane. If a spark ignites the foam, the barn can blow up, often killing thousands of the hogs trapped inside. Researchers say the mystery is what kind of bacteria are developing in manure pits; according to the Minnesota Daily, researchers suspect that "a new set of species has formed in these pits in the last few years." They hope to find out soon, because pork production is a billion-dollar industry in Minnesota.

Betsy Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, an op ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared (betsym@hcn.org).


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The VailDaily Updated Apr 4, 2012 12:55PM Published Apr 4, 2012 12:52PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.