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Grandparent advocates push for law changes, launch teen mentoring

TWIN FALLS — A newly formed group of “kinship care” advocates in the Magic Valley is tackling Idaho’s child-custody laws. Grandparents United for Change says the state’s laws are outdated and don’t reflect today’s reality.

Only one-third of children in the U.S. today live with both parents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Often these children end up living with grandparents when something happens to the custodial parent.

Grandparents in Idaho, however, don’t have natural rights to their grandchildren. They must go through the same legal process as foster parents to gain guardianship or custody of their grandchildren.

The process to gain guardianship or custody of a grandchild in need of care is fraught with emotional battles and heart-wrenching legal obstacles, says the group’s founder and executive director, Myril Houk Ray.

Ray

Ray formed Grandparents United a year ago, hoping to provide support for grandparents and others raising minor family members. The group created a four-member board and has since received its nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service.

“We have served 10 families since opening our doors,” Ray said, by providing contacts, resources and emotional support to those going through the process.

The group also created a mentoring program ready to go when school starts. Mentoring will be done “by teens who have been through the same situation as the younger kids are going through,” Ray said.

These efforts help put out current fires, but the board is also focused on long-term solutions such as changing or amending existing child-custody laws. Ray declined to say what those changes might be.

“The committee wants to work in confidentiality at this time until they have something concrete,” she said. Once their proposal is finalized, the group will ask a state legislator to look at it.

Ray speaks from firsthand experience. She and her husband, Gil, help raise her daughter Sami’s three children. Sami is a drug addict, and the children’s father has full custody of the children at his home in Twin Falls. Krystena, Taylee and Trevor live with their grandparents two weekends a month in a modest farmhouse near Hazelton.

The farm provides a safe, stable environment, Ray said. The older children do chores and keep an eye on 100 head of sheep, herding dogs and farm cats.



TETONA DUNLAP PHotos, TIMES-NEWS  

Susan Filkins, a liaison from the Bureau of Land Management’s state office, checks a log book Oct. 4 inside a Duck Valley Indian Reservation greenhouse.


Local
Duck Valley native plant program branches out

OWYHEE, Nev. — In early July, Susan Filkins hiked up Table Rock in Boise to check on sagebrush planted there last year in an area burned by wildfire.

Filkins was pleased to see them thriving. The native plant program she helps facilitate on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation — which supplied those sagebrush seedlings for Table Rock — is also growing.

Now the reservation’s greenhouses in Owyhee have another big sale on the books.

Duck Valley sold 50,000 sagebrush seedlings — an entire greenhouse full — to Barrick Gold Corp. in Nevada; they were planted in the spring for mining remediation. In late July, the reservation planned to start growing bunch grasses, Great Basin wild rye and bluebunch wheatgrass.

“We are thinking about growing more forbs,” said Filkins, a Bureau of Land Management natural resource specialist. “We haven’t quite made up the species list for that.”

This spring, Filkins was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram and underwent surgery twice.

“We caught it very, very early,” she said. “It made me slow down, and I’m a person who keeps going. It was a little bit hard, but I’m back at it now.”

In May, Kenneth “KW” Pete Jr., who works for the BLM as the Duck Valley greenhouse manager, graduated with his master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Idaho.

The Duck Valley greenhouses currently have about 60,000 sagebrush growing. The program received a grant through The Birds of Prey NCA Partnership to grow 1,000 plants so schoolchildren can plant them in the fall.

Meanwhile, with permission, the BLM reprinted a couple of Times-News photos from a January “Big Story” report on the Duck Valley native plant program. The photos appeared in “Sammy’s Quest To Save the West,” a sagebrush habitat conservation book in the BLM’s Junior Ranger Series.


TETONA DUNLAP, TIMES-NEWS  

A sagebrush grown at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation is freshly planted and watered by Riverstone International School students at the top of Table Rock Road on Oct. 27 in Boise.


Local
Idaho races against approach of deadly bat fungus

TWIN FALLS — Money has poured into efforts to slow the spread of white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in the past decade.

Because much about the disease remains a mystery, research is key to stemming the tide as the fungus threatens the nation’s bat population, biologists and wildlife specialists say.

The fungus kills bats during hibernation, when their energy reserves are critically low.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game is partnering with National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Power Co. and Idaho National Laboratory to monitor for the fungus and to plan for its eventual arrival in Idaho. So far, Idaho remains symptom-free, said Ross Winton, a Fish and Game regional wildlife biologist, after taking swab samples from bats hibernating in Magic Valley caves last winter.

COURTESY OF MARK MASTROFINI, IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME  

Ross Winton, wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Jerome, takes a swab sample from a hibernating bat March 27 in a south-central Idaho cave. Fish and Game is leading Idaho’s efforts to guard against white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that has devastated bat populations in the East.

But since the disease turned up in the western U.S., near Seattle, more than a year ago, WNS-infected bats were confirmed in three more states — Oklahoma, Nebraska and Rhode Island — bringing the total to 31 states and five Canadian provinces. In addition, the fungus that causes the disease has been found in Mississippi and Texas where it has not killed bats, leading researchers to believe the virus can be carried by some bats without infecting them.

“The impact of the disease and how quickly it spreads can’t be underestimated,” says the Canada Wildlife Health Center, which is coordinating Canada’s response to what it calls “one of the most significant health issues ever faced by the wildlife community.”

In the states, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is leading the effort to defeat the disease, which has decimated some bat populations in the eastern U.S.

The FWS recently awarded more than $1 million in grants to 37 states in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading while increasing survival rates of afflicted bats. Idaho received $27,500, Winton said. In the past eight years, states have received a total of $7 million in an international effort involving more than 100 state, federal, tribal, academic and nonprofit partners.

Increased research in other states has already revealed more information about bats, Winton said. While dead or dying bats have been found mostly in or around mines and caves, more have been found in rocky talus slopes and cliffs, indicating that bats seek winter refuge in a wider range of hibernacula than previously thought.

The fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, attacks bats even before the appearance of its symptoms — a powdery fungal growth on a bat’s nose and wings. The immune system’s response to the fungus causes the bat to become active during its hibernation, depleting its energy reserves.

The bat dies either from exposure to the cold or from starvation.


Local
Pitch counts have already changed Idaho prep baseball, but injuries persist

TWIN FALLS — In Idaho’s first season with high school baseball pitch counts, one of the state’s best pitchers hurt his throwing arm.

In early July, Skylar Holcomb was throwing for the Twin Falls Cowboys American Legion baseball team. There was no flash point, just a slow buildup of pain over a few days.

Holcomb later learned he had a bone spur in his left elbow. He didn’t pitch the rest of the summer.

Holcomb suspects the injury was caused, or at least aided, by too much pitching — a problem Idaho’s new pitch count rules aimed to minimize. The health effects of pitch limits won’t be clear for years, but the new rules have already altered several aspects of Idaho prep baseball.

“I’m personally not a fan of the pitch count,” Holcomb said. “I get why it was put in there, but players should be able to take care of their bodies.”

The Idaho High School Activities Association never expected pitch counts to eliminate all pitcher arm injuries, especially not in the first season. The in-game pitch limits and the mandatory rest days were chosen thoughtfully, yet arbitrarily. Nobody at any level of baseball knows how much is too much.

Idaho's counting era: No-hitters take back seat to pitcher health

This year, Idaho joined 45 other states with mandatory pitch limits for high school baseball. It's too soon to know whether Idaho's restrictions will accomplish the long-term goal of reducing the rash of pitcher arm injuries. But they already have squashed no-hitters and revamped pitching rotations.

The in-game pitch counts and the mandatory rest days, to some extent, attack only a small issue. Pitcher overuse can occur in one game, in one week, in one season and in a career. Limiting pitches per game hardly helps a pitcher who is throwing year-round.

Holcomb was Twin Falls’ ace during the high school and Legion seasons, and he’ll continue his pitching career at College of Southern Idaho this year. He pitched steadily for nearly six months, with a mix of seven-inning starts, bullpen sessions and countless warm-up throws. He couldn’t exceed 110 pitches in a game, but he still torqued his left arm repeatedly for half a year.

“The biggest thing guys can do is limit throws off the mound,” CSI pitching coach Nick Aiello said. “Every pitch you throw off the mound takes away from the day.”

Holcomb wasn’t the only local player to suffer an arm injury this summer.

Kimberly High School junior Austin Phillips strained his right shoulder while playing catch before a game in June, and he missed the rest of the Legion season. Senior and fellow right-hander Lars Christiansen also strained his shoulder in June, after he threw a weighted ball in an attempt to gain arm strength. He missed most of the season.

Kimberly played at this spring’s 3A state tournament, which left about a week of down time before the Legion season began.

“Maybe a break would’ve helped, but I don’t really know,” Phillips said. “I felt fine, and then I got hurt.”

Pitch counts and rest days can’t eliminate all risk, but they can help save a pitcher from himself.

DREW NASH, TIMES-NEWS 

College of Southern Idaho pitcher Skyler Holcomb works a photo shoot Aug. 18 at Skip Walker Field in Twin Falls.

Shortly after Holcomb’s injury, an ultrasound of his left elbow showed a tendon appeared to have a slight tear, which would have ended his Legion season and potentially required surgery.

Holcomb’s fears were quelled a week later, when an MRI revealed the bone spur. He didn’t pitch the final three weeks of the season, but he did hit and play the outfield during the state tournament.

Holcomb still wishes he could have pitched those last three weeks. He wonders how he could have prevented the injury.

Pitch counts never factored into the equation.

“A coach should be able to see when a player isn’t able to throw strikes,” he said. “You can just see the fatigue. If there’s not the sharpness on his fastball or the break on his curveball, it’s time to come out.”

Holcomb also wants to stay in the game as long as possible. He believes he can finish just about any game, no matter his pitch count.

“Even if I can’t feel my arm, I’m gonna finish it,” he said.

A pitcher’s competitiveness rarely accounts for his health. Pitch counts help ease that tension. Feel like you can throw 150 pitches? Too bad; 110 is all you get. End of discussion.

DREW NASH, TIMES-NEWS  

In July, Skylar Holcomb was throwing for the Twin Falls Cowboys American Legion baseball team when he hurt his throwing arm. Holcomb, now pitching for College of Southern Idaho, wonders how he could have prevented the injury but says Idaho’s new pitch counts didn’t factor in. ‘A coach should be able to see when a player isn’t able to throw strikes,’ he said. ‘You can just see the fatigue.’

This system prevents arguments between coaches and stubborn pitchers, and coaches do not need to look for small hints of pitcher fatigue as much as they once did.

That doesn’t mean every coach loves the new rules.

Twin Falls Bruins and Cowboys coach Tim Stadelmeir has a specific issues with the mandatory rest days in Legion ball. In high school, a pitcher who throws 86 to 110 pitches in a game must rest three full days before seeing the mound again. In Legion, any player who exceeds 76 pitches in a game must rest four days.

“It’s gonna ruin American Legion baseball,” Stadelmeir said. “I think it’s good to develop more pitchers, but it’s making for some long doubleheaders and making for some kids who are not pitchers.”

The expanded pool of pitchers this past season can be directly tied to pitch counts, and at least one player has changed the way he pitches because of them.

Before this year, when Christiansen had more strikes than balls in an at-bat, he sometimes threw pitches outside the strike zone, hoping to induce bad swings. This year, he knew exactly where his pitch count stood late in games, and he pitched accordingly.

“I like to play with the batter,” Christiansen said. “But when I have to get a certain amount of pitches, I go right after him.”

Christiansen doesn’t think this change is negative, necessarily, just different. For the most part, coaches are happy to develop more pitchers. And every coach and player approves of the pitch counts’ overall goal: to prevent injuries.

Some, however, are skeptical about the counts’ ability to reduce injuries. Until aces like Holcomb stop injuring their arms, coaches like Boomer Walker will be on edge.

“We want our kids to play. When they play, there’s always a risk of injury,” said Walker, head baseball coach at CSI. “You’re just not gonna avoid all injuries.”