A family from Idaho wandered into the backcountry in Lincoln County and got lost. Twice.
A group of snowmobilers on Togwotee Pass needed a helicopter rescue to the tune of $14,000, then hired an attorney when the Teton County Sheriff’s Office asked them to foot some of the bill.
Call them accidents, irresponsible or maybe stupid behavior in some cases.
State Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, wants county sheriffs to be able to collect from them.
Gingery has sponsored House Bill 35, which would in part allow a county sheriff to file a claim in court to recover money from people who were rescued. Money would be turned over to the state’s search and rescue fund, which reimburses county sheriffs for searches and rescues.
The bill doesn’t include searches and rescues in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
It would be up to the sheriff to decide who should pay and whether they should pay part or all of the costs, Gingery said.
“What we hope is just by the threat of it, people will think a little bit better,” Gingery said.
But Wyoming sheriffs are unsure about the bill, acknowledging that the reimbursements would help taxpayers, but wondering if they’re necessary when the state’s search and rescue account has plenty of funds.
On Feb. 15, Ray Shriver, a volunteer with Teton County Search and Rescue, was killed when the Bell 407 helicopter in which he was flying crashed en route to a snowmobile crash on Togwotee Pass.
Like other search and rescue team members throughout the state, Shriver was a volunteer.
“We had a lot of discussion in our community of how much rescuing we’re doing,” Gingery said. “People expect us to come because we’re so good at it.”
Most of the rescues in Teton County occur in the winter. In the summertime rescues are mostly in Grand Teton National Park, where the National Park Service has a helicopter on site and costs are assumed by the federal government and not counted in statewide search and rescue data.
Each winter, Teton County spends close to $200,000 for a helicopter on call, said Gingery, an attorney for the Teton County attorney’s office.
“It’s $1,000 per hour when you have a helicopter up in the air,” he said.
In the backcountry, helicopters are needed to pluck people who are lost, injured or stuck.
There’s nothing wrong with recreating in the backcountry, as long as you’re within eyesight of the main trail, Gingery said.
Most searches and rescues are in western Wyoming, where there are mountains.
Many travelers visit Wyoming for the outdoor recreation, but Gingery doesn’t think his bill would negatively impact tourism.
Alan Dubberley, deputy director of the Wyoming Travel and Tourism Board, also doesn’t think the bill would scare away visitors.
“Backcountry travel is a niche market,” he said.
HB35 also would provide immunity to search and rescue volunteers in civil lawsuits.
Another bill, which hasn’t been assigned a number yet, increases the donation people can give to the state’s search and rescue fund from $1 to $5.
The fund currently receives donations when hunters and fishermen buy licenses and snowmobilers and boaters pay user fees.
The proposed bill, sponsored by the Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Interim Committee, gives people paying registration fees for off-road recreational vehicles the opportunity to donate.
County sheriffs’ funds pay for searches and rescues but sheriffs can go to the Wyoming Search and Rescue Council for reimbursements.
The fund currently has about $640,000.
On average, between 2007 and 2012, Wyomingites donated $186,000 through licenses and fees, said Guy Cameron, director of the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, which provides administrative support to the council and fund.
For the most recent year, the council paid out $226,000, so it spent more than what was donated. That’s not always the case, though, Cameron said. Some years, reimbursements are less than donations.
Fremont County Sheriff Skip Hornecker, a member of the Wyoming Search and Rescue Council, said searches and rescues increasingly require helicopters.
“I do know the costs of the missions that we’re having to review for reimbursement in the past two years have been moving up,” he said.
Although the state search and rescue fund is adequate, “I can see in the future where the fund could not be adequate,” he said.
The problem with increasing the donation amount — even if it’s voluntary — is that Wyomingites may see it as a tax hike and decline to donate.
“It may adversely impact the monies,” he said.
Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen favors the legislation that would give sheriffs authority to bill for search and rescue costs — if all the consequences are considered.
“It may have the unintended consequence of causing people to hold off on calling us when they need us,” he said. “Let’s say it’s 2 in the afternoon and someone breaks an ankle and they might hobble out. And then it’s close to dark and they make the call, and we’re scrambling to try to find them.”
Not everyone who calls 911 is irresponsible. Some have accidents, he said.
“Things happen,” he said. “Do we only bill the irresponsible ones? How do you draw that line?”
Dave Hofmeiler is the Sheridan County sheriff and chairman of the Search and Rescue Council. He said sheriffs will get reimbursed if they have a true search and rescue — for instance, a body recovery doesn’t count — properly complete paperwork to the state and follow the rules for reimbursement.
“[Search and rescue] is a service that we as elected sheriffs take on, that we say we’ll take care of — whether you’re rich, poor, whatever,” he said. “We will take that on. It’s a public service.”
Lincoln County Sheriff Shane Johnson believes the best way to prevent calls for search and rescue is educating the public about being safe.
“Really focusing on education and being prepared, that’s what we’ve done in this county,” he said. “Our search and rescue units do trainings. We do an avalanche class every year.”
Wyoming isn’t the first state to debate charging people for their searches and rescues.
In 2004, the board that oversees the search and rescue fund in Utah considered new taxes to raise money.
Money for the Utah fund came from fees from hunters, fishermen, boaters and ATV riders, although at least 34 percent of the searches and rescues were for hikers and mountain bikers who don’t pay fees.
Ultimately, the proposal never moved forward.
Grand County, Utah, began charging for searches and rescues nearly a decade ago. Grand County is the home of Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Moab, a jeeping and cycling mecca.
Some people pay and some do not. “Some of them we refer over to a collection agency,” Grand County Sheriff Steve White said.
The fees are on the county’s website. They range from $250 for a “small rescue,” defined as up to three hours and six responders, to $750 for a “large rescue,” of more than three hours and seven responders.
Fuel costs, damaged equipment and helicopter rentals are additional.
“We hope that it doesn’t detract whether they pay the bill or not,” White said. “We’re going to come help. But if it makes them think a little bit or act responsibly, maybe they’ll be a little more prepared.”