U.S. measles outbreak spreads to Idaho and Virginia, hits 1,022 cases

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

The United States’ worst measles outbreak in a quarter-century spread to Idaho and Virginia last week as public health authorities on Monday reported 41 new cases of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease.

The U.S. has recorded 1,022 cases of the diseases this year as of June 6, in an outbreak blamed on misinformation about vaccines, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The 2019 outbreak, which has reached 28 states, is the worst since 1992, when 2,126 cases were recorded.

Federal health officials attribute this year’s outbreak to U.S. parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. These parents believe, contrary to scientific evidence, that ingredients in the vaccine can cause autism.

“We cannot say this enough: Vaccines are a safe and highly effective public health tool that can prevent this disease and end the current outbreak,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement last week.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, meaning there was no continuous transmission of the disease for a year. Still, cases of the virus occur and spread via travelers coming from countries where measles is common.

CDC officials have warned that the country risks losing its measles elimination status if the ongoing outbreak, which began in October 2018 in New York, continues until October 2019.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Aakash Jagadeesh Babu in Bengaluru; Editing by Scott Malone and Susan Thomas)

U.S. judge orders federal protection restored to Yellowstone grizzlies

FILE PHOTO: A grizzly bear roams through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, U.S. on May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

By Laura Zuckerman

PINEDALE, Wyo. (Reuters) – A federal judge on Monday ordered Endangered Species Act protections restored to grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park, halting plans for the first licensed trophy hunts of the bears in the region in more than 40 years.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana, sided with environmentalists and native American groups by overruling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to strip the grizzlies of their status as a threatened species.

The outcome caps one of the most high-profile legal battles over the Endangered Species Act in many years, rivaling previous disputes surrounding the gray wolf and northern spotted owl.

The ruling came as the Trump administration is seeking to rewrite Endangered Species Act regulations that scientists say would erode wildlife protection for the benefit of commercial interests.

The Trump administration’s decision in June of last year to “de-list” the grizzly, formally proposed in 2016 during the Obama era, was based on agency findings that the bears’ numbers had rebounded enough in recent decades that federal safeguards were no longer necessary.

The de-listing, welcomed by big-game hunters and cattlemen, had applied to about 700 Yellowstone-area grizzlies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

Environmentalists countered that treating those bears separately from other grizzly populations in Montana and elsewhere in the Lower 48 states was biologically unsound and illegal under the Endangered Species Act, and the judge agreed.

Grizzlies, which are slow to reproduce, number fewer than 2,000 bears across the Lower 48. That is far below an historic high of 100,000 before widespread shooting, poisoning and trapping reduced the bears’ population to just several hundred by 1975, when they were placed under federal protection.

Environmentalists have said that while grizzlies have made a comeback, their recovery could falter without continued federal safeguards. They point to, among other things, alterations in the bears’ food supply from climate change and human threats posed by poachers and road traffic.

JUDGE FINDS REASONING ‘ILLOGICAL’

Christensen found that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to apply the best available science, as required under the law, in evaluating continued threats to grizzly populations, including limitations in its genetic diversity.

The judge pointed to two studies cited by the agency that he said actually contradicted the government’s own conclusions that the Yellowstone grizzlies could remain genetically self-sufficient. In his 47-page opinion, Christensen called the agency’s reasoning “illogical.”

The judge’s ruling makes permanent a court order barring Wyoming and Idaho from going ahead with plans to open grizzly hunting seasons allowing as many as 23 bears in the two states to be shot and killed for sport outside of Yellowstone park. The season had been set to begin on Sept. 1.

U.S. law prohibits hunting altogether inside the park, and Montana had decided against a grizzly hunt, citing its concerns about long-term recovery of a bear population that is arguably one of the most celebrated and photographed in the world.

Native American tribes, which revere the grizzly as sacred, sought reinstatement of its threatened status as essential to protecting their religious practices.

Ranchers, who make up a powerful political constituency in Western states, have strongly advocated de-listing grizzlies, arguing the bears’ growing numbers pose a threat to humans and livestock. Agitation for state management of the bears also came from hunters, who highly prize them as trophy animals.

The judge said he discounted such factors.

“This case is not about the ethics of hunting and it is not about solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts as a practical or philosophical matter,” he wrote. Instead, it turned strictly on his determination that the Fish and Wildlife Service had exceeded its authority.

The agency said it stood by its de-listing action, adding the was reviewing the ruling and “considering next steps.”

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, a staunch critic of the Endangered Species Act, said he was “disappointed” by Monday’s decision, citing $50 million he said his state had spent on grizzly management over the past 15 years.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Forest rangers, fire crews brace for eclipse watchers to descend on U.S. West

Forest rangers, fire crews brace for eclipse watchers to descend on U.S. West

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) – Forest rangers and fire managers across the U.S. West will be on high alert as motorists flock to Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming for next week’s total solar eclipse, clogging roads and straining scarce resources at the height of summer wildfire season.

The rare spectacle of the moon passing directly in front the sun, combined with the appeal of the West’s great outdoors, is expected to draw tens of thousands of eclipse enthusiasts to rugged, remote national forests and rangelands from the Cascades to the Northern Rockies.

Authorities face an unprecedented challenge from the throngs in a region swathed in tinder-dry vegetation vulnerable to ignition from unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes and hot tailpipes.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said U.S. Forest Service ranger Kurt Nelson, who works in the Sawtooth National Forest near the affluent resort of Sun Valley in central Idaho.

Even without the added threat of careless humans, lightning-sparked wildfires are common at this time of year, raising fears that larger-than-normal crowds of tourists may end up in harm’s way and need to be evacuated.

U.S. fire managers last week elevated the nation’s wildfire readiness status to its highest for the first time in two years, citing heightened danger from thunderstorms.

Besides public safety issues confronting officials, drifting plumes of smoke, even from distant blazes, could end up obscuring the views of eclipse watchers on an otherwise clear day.

The Aug. 21 event marks the first total solar eclipse visible anywhere in the lower 48 states since 1979.

And it will be the first in 99 years spanning the entire continental United States, offering a brief glimpse of the sun completely blotted out – except for the corona of its outer atmosphere – across a 70-mile- (113-km-) wide, coast-to-coast path through 14 states.

Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming are the first three states traversed by the narrow 2,500-mile (4,000-km) “path of totality,” mostly through rural areas unaccustomed to heavy traffic.

BUMPER-TO-BUMPER TRAFFIC

Roads through Idaho’s Sawtooth, for example, are likely to see bumper-to-bumper traffic in the days before and during the eclipse, Nelson said.

That has prompted a regional hospital to park a life-flight helicopter nearby in case of a medical emergency. Extra firefighting crews are also on standby.

Months of bone-dry heat have already brought restrictions on campfires and smoking in many Western forests. But authorities see the fire risks ratcheting up with the influx of travelers, few of whom may understand the dangers.

A wildfire in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest prompted the closure this month of access to Mount Jefferson, the state’s second-highest peak and a would-be destination for those hoping to see the total eclipse, said Kirk Copic, visitor services information assistant for the forest.

First responders may not be able to help travelers as quickly as in a normal situation, Idaho State Police spokesman Tim Marsano warned, adding, “The 911 system is going to be pushed to its limit.”

In the Sawtooth alone, forest rangers expect as many as 30,000 people to inundate an area around the small town of Stanley, home to just 68 year-round residents.

Nelson said the grass has been mowed down in eight eclipse-viewing areas set up for the public, to ensure fire-safe temporary roadside parking.

Smoke from wildfires already burning in Idaho, Oregon, Montana and elsewhere could impair eclipse-viewing for some, but forecasters say smoke conditions, driven largely by wind speeds and direction, will remain uncertain until a day or two before.

The sun will be so high in the sky that smoke should be of little consequence, unless it’s extremely thick, said Michael Zeiler, an avowed “eclipse-chaser” who made a 650-mile (1,000- km) drive, to Casper, Wyoming from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in hopes of witnessing his ninth total solar eclipse.

“This will be the most amazing event you have seen in your life,” said Zeiler, a member of an American Astronomical Society panel for public guidance.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Clarence Fernandez)

Suspect in shooting of Idaho pastor arrested

(Reuters) – A man suspected of shooting an Idaho pastor who led a prayer at a rally for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz was arrested on Tuesday and was facing attempted murder charges, police said.

Kyle Odom, 30, was taken into custody in Washington D.C. in connection with the Sunday afternoon shooting of Pastor Tim Remington outside the Altar Church, Coeur d’Alene Police Department Chief Lee White said in a late Tuesday news conference.

Odom was apprehended by Secret Service officers after he tossed several items, including flash drives, over the fence of the White House, White said.

The items thrown by Odom were deemed non-hazardous, the U.S. Secret Service said in a statement.

The attack on the pastor is the latest in a spate of highly publicized shootings in the United States that have made gun control an issue in the presidential race.

Remington had led a prayer at a Cruz rally on Saturday and was shot by Odom, an ex-marine, the next day in the church parking lot in a preplanned attack, police said.

The senior pastor was shot six times, including in the skull, after Sunday morning service, John Padula, outreach pastor at the church told Reuters. Remington regained consciousness on Monday evening as a candlelight vigil for his recovery was underway, Padula said.

“He opened one eye and gave me a thumbs up,” Padula said, adding that Remington does not have feeling in his right arm but appears to be improving. “Without God, there is no way he’d be here.”

There is no apparent connection between the shooting and Remington’s appearance at the Cruz rally, Padula noted.

Cruz, an outspoken supporter of gun rights, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but a campaign spokeswoman told NBC News on Monday that they were praying for Remington’s recovery.

Odom flew from Boise, Idaho to Washington D.C., on March 7, White said. An investigation into his plans was ongoing.

The police chief, who previously said Odom had a history of mental illness, read a statement from Odom’s family saying they were thankful for his “safe apprehension.”

Local broadcaster KXLY reported that a Facebook page linked with Odom, who police said suffered from mental illness, was updated on Tuesday with a statement claiming that Remington was part of an ancient Martian civilization that ruled Earth.

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner and Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Sara Catania, G Crosse, Kim Coghill and Michael Perry)

Washington State Storm Kills 2 and Leaves Hundreds of Thousands Without Power

A storm in Washington state brought high winds of up to 49 miles per hour, downing trees and triggering mudslides on Tuesday. The storm has so far killed 2 people and has left over hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in the Seattle-area without power.

The National Weather Service told Reuters that the majority of the Puget Sound region was under flood watches and warnings through Wednesday afternoon. A windstorm warning has also been issued for Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho since Tuesday at noon according to ABC News.

At least two people have been officially reported dead, with some news agencies reporting a third death. In all incidents, downed trees landed on all the victims. Their identities have not been officially released.

The local power companies have told various news sources that almost 178,000 customers are without power in the Puget Sound region due to power lines being downed by trees and landslides. Fox News reports that a power failure at a Tacoma sewer treatment plant has led to sewage water being released into the Puyallup River. Additionally, 136,000 homes and businesses were without power in Spokane and Northern Idaho. Flights leaving or entering the Spokane International Airport had to be cancelled or delayed due to the storm.

Fallen trees and high winds have also led various roads and interstates being closed, including Interstate 84, Highway 2, and Interstate 90.

In other parts of the country, another storm system dumped heavy snow on Colorado and brought tornado threats to millions in the central and southern states, according to Fox News. Northwest Kansas is forecasted to receive up to 15 inches of snow. Two weak tornadoes touched down in Texas early Tuesday and no injuries were reported.

Military Troops Brought in to Fight Western Wildfires

With over 100 wildfires burning in Western states, the U.S. military is now training troops to join the fight against them and provide relief to some of the 25,000 firefighters on scene.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported that 200 active duty troops will be split into 10 units of 20 men and all deployed to the same fire.  The move marks the first time that active duty military has been called out to fight domestic fires.  The troops will come from 17th Field Artillery Brigade of the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington.

National Guard troops have already been on the scene at several fires to help firefighters.

Officials in Idaho reported that an elderly woman died and 50 homes were destroyed in a cluster of fires along the Clearwater River.  The “Clearwater Complex” fire has burned more than 50,000 acres of timber & brush.

A spokesman for Clearwater fire command said that they are facing significant shortages and have had requests for reinforcements for ground forces and aircraft returned “UTF” or “unable to fill.”

Currently fourteen major wildfires are impacting Idaho.  Oregon and Washington have more than 30 large fires and have totaled the highest property losses from the flames.

At least 32 homes were destroyed in fires burning in north-central Washington near the resort town of Chelan.

Rare July Snowfall Hits Rockies

The National Weather Service (NWS) says ‘this pattern should not happen in July.”

The pattern? A weather front that brought several inches of snow to elevations over 8,000 feet in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The NWS also said the front was bringing the “windiest July day ever” to the region.

“In my 27 years as the chief meteorologist for KXLF/KBZK, I have only reported a few times that snow is falling in SW Montana in July,” Mike Heard, a television meteorologist for the affiliate serving Bozeman and southwest Montana, told the Washington Post. “Today [Monday] is one of those days.”

The weather system was a combination of moisture and cold air from Alaska and Canada that stalled over the region. The NWS says those weather patterns usually do not appear until late August or early September.

The famed Jackson Hole, Wyoming ski resort said they had over an inch of snow and farmers throughout the region had to scramble to cover crops. Other resorts reported a mix of rain and snow depending on the elevation.

“This morning it was snowing right where the ski lifts start and all the way up the mountain,” said Tom Conway, assistant golf pro at Big Sky Resort south of Bozeman. “At our elevation on the golf course, about 6,500 feet, it was raining. But at 9,000 feet there was about an inch or two of accumulation.”

“We’ve covered our melons and cukes and closed the greenhouses. We are saying to the fruits and veggies, ‘Stay warm, everybody,'” Jessica McAleese, co-owner of Swift River Farm said to Yahoo.

Idaho Republicans Pass Resolution On Bible Use in School

Republicans in Idaho have passed a resolution that would allow the Bible to be used in schools as a reference material.

David Johnston of the Republican Party told KBOI-TV Boise the Bible would be used in multiple subjects just like any textbook.

“I don’t see it as a forcing upon anybody or interfering with it,” said Johnston. “Whether it be geography, history, literature or frankly just the study of the world religions; if there is a school district that thinks having the Bible as part of the curriculum would be useful, this resolution is basically saying, ‘we support the idea of allowing them to have that tool in their tool box.'”

The resolution notes that the Supreme Court has ruled the Bible can be used for historical purposes in schools.

“[T]he use of the Bible for literary and historic value is consistent with the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1963 case of Abington School District v. Schempp declared that the Bible is worth studying for its literary qualities and its influence on history,” it states. “[I]n 1980, the Supreme Court ruling of Stone v. Braham stated that ‘the Bible can constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.’”

No schools would be required to use the Bible, but it would be available as a resource.

Party leaders hope that one of their legislators will turn the resolution into a bill for next year’s legislative session.

Appeals Court Strikes Down Idaho Abortion Ban

A federal appeals court has struck down Idaho’s ban on abortions after 20 weeks.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a woman who filed a class action lawsuit against the law.  She had been facing criminal charges for an abortion after 20 weeks.

Jennie McCormack illegally obtained RU-486 in 2011 through her sister.  She then kept the baby’s dead body on her porch in a plastic bag when she was found out by authorities.  She was charged with unlawful felony abortion which a state court dismissed.  She then filed suit against Idaho’s Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

President Carter appointed judge Harry Pregerson stated in the ruling that 20 weeks was too restrictive.

“The twenty-week ban applies regardless of whether the fetus has attained viability,” he wrote on behalf of the panel. “The Supreme Court reaffirmed in Casey that an undue burden exists if the purpose or effect of a provision of law places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus obtains viability.”

“Because [Idaho’s law] places an arbitrary time limit on when women can obtain abortions, the statute is unconstitutional,” Pregerson declared.

Idaho officials have not yet announced if they will appeal to the Supreme Court.

Idaho and California Hit With Quakes

Weekend earthquakes shook California and caused rock slides in Idaho.

Two back-to-back quakes struck southern California Saturday night with the strongest a magnitude 4.2 according to the U.S. Geological Survey.  That quake was centered around 8 miles north of Castaic, California.

“All of the sudden it was two big rattles and little rumbles afterwards,” Castaic resident Jessica Shickle told NBC Los Angeles. “It was like the Lord literally just took our house and just kind of gave it a couple shakes, and that was it and it went away.”

USGS seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones told NBC the quake was basically small.

“This really is a very small earthquake,” Dr. Jones said. “It’s a size that’s relatively common in Southern California. I did a check and there were eight earthquakes 4.2 and larger in 2014.”

On Sunday, a 4.9 magnitude quake rocked Challis, Idaho and surrounding areas.  The quake was followed by aftershocks of 4.0 and 3.6 a few hours later.

The 4.9 quake caused rock slides that blocked roadways but officials say there were no serious injuries.