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Heard around the West

Betsy Marston

It’s always smarter not to drive and shoot: A 22-year-old man in Great Falls, Mont., shot off his right testicle “while stuffing a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun in his waistband while driving,” reports the Associated Press. The man told police he was upset because a friend had been cut in a bar fight.

The man, whom police declined to name, also injured his penis and put a hole in his right thigh. The officer said police initially thought of ticketing the man for disorderly conduct but likely won’t, under the circumstances.

Bee all you can be

Aren’t bees busy enough without being harnessed by the military? Apparently not. The Pentagon is training honeybees to ignore flowers and zero in on the faint molecular trails left by explosives. A down side is the high probability a swarm of bomb-sniffing bees will not go over well in crowded airports. Bees also don’t care to buzz about during cold weather, nighttime or storms. But honeybees do work like all get-out when they’re working. They’re also fast learners, according to researchers at the University of Montana, who have been training bees to search for particular scents, using sugar as a reward. When one bee learns there’s a payoff for sniffing out a particular odor – an entire hive learns, too, and all within a few hours. Since 1988, the Pentagon has spent $25 million on “controlled biological systems,” reports the New York Times. That’s gov-speak for training animals such as bees to help us fight our wars.

Gates not so great

Stone columns and forbidding iron gates guarding the road to pricey houses send a clear signal in the West: Keep out unless you belong. But some of those barriers are fake, reports the Los Angeles Times, and the gates never close. Real blockades come with problems such as the high cost of maintaining a private road and employing a gatekeeper who might turn out to be the robber you’re trying to exclude. “The guards turned out not to be the best guardians of people’s possessions,” notes Ed Blakely, who co-wrote “Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States.”

So, even though home-owners first assume that gates ensure privacy and exclusivity, many have learned fake gates can deliver the same thing. Meanwhile, city officials would rather see gated communities throw down their barriers, both real and faux, since they “create a planning nightmare by turning cities into fortified enclaves.” Once a community declares itself separate, it tends to keep out shared amenities such as bike trails.

Heavy reading

Patricia Nelson Limerick, historian of the American West, has a suggestion she thinks could save the lives of firefighters. Limerick told Denver Post reporter Susan Greene she’d like to fight the testosterone effect of the job by ensuring every firefighter read abridged versions of two books: Norman MacLean’s “Young Men and Fire,” about the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana that killed 12, and his son John MacLean’s “Fire On the Mountain,” about the blaze in 1994 that killed 14 young men and women near Glenwood Springs, Mountain homes may turn to ashes, Limerick said, but they don’t have to take firefighters with them.

The buzz in Berkeley

Trust Berkeley, Calif., to put its money where its mouth is. The city by the Bay is said to run on caffeine, but this November voters will decide exactly what kind of coffee customers can drink.

The question: Should the city ban the sale of a cup of java unless it’s grown with strict protection for both the environment and workers? The San Francisco Chronicle says the ballot initiative has created quite a buzz, with some people ticked off by its intrusiveness and others cheering on its champion, lawyer Rick Young, 36, who gathered the 3,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot.

Nevada plate bombs

Nevada has stepped back from the brink, dropping a special license plate that featured an exploding nuclear bomb. The director of the state’s Motor Vehicle Department said the license plate was “insensitive to the times,” reports the Nevada Appeal. Plate designer Richard Bibbero slammed the decision as political correctness run amok. But an unintended consequence of the design was the impression by some in Congress that by embracing its nuclear legacy of testing more than 900 bombs at its Nuclear Test site, Nevada was also embracing a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. Not a chance, say state officials. It’s back to the drawing board for the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, which sponsored the competition for the short-lived license plate.

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, an essay and opinion service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (betsym@hcn.org).


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