Wyoming's souring economy and the enduring saga over gray wolves in the state were the top Wyoming news stories of 2009, according to an annual ranking by Wyoming Associated Press members.
The economic recession ranked high on ballots submitted this month by news editors from across the state. The story rose to the top of the news agenda as Wyoming's energy boom sputtered and the effects filtered through the job market, local economies and the state budget.
The state's unemployment rate nearly doubled between February and November, from 3.7 percent to 7.2 percent.
Steven Peck, publisher and managing editor of The Riverton Ranger, said the recession was hard to miss because it affected the newspaper's bottom line, which is tied to the economic success of other area businesses.
The recession translated into news coverage as the slowdown of natural gas exploration and production affected other parts of the community, he said.
"The property tax base, sales tax revenues and travel statistics and lodging tax _ all the things that we cover as a local newspaper _ had a similar theme this year, which was that it was suddenly much worse than it had been," he said. "Many, many people felt the impact of it across the entire swath of our community."
The recession also shook Wyoming state government in 2009 as state financial experts repeatedly lowered their state revenue projections. AP members ranked Gov. Dave Freudenthal's decision to cut stage agency budgets by about 10 percent for the current fiscal as one of the state's top five stories of 2009.
The story of gray wolves in Wyoming maintained its presence on the list of top stories, as it has for five of the past six years.
In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave Idaho and Montana management authority over wolves in their states but left wolves in Wyoming on the endangered species list. Wyoming sued in response, saying its plan for wolf management would maintain Wyoming's share of a recovered population.
The wolves' impact on big game hunting, as well as Wyoming's fight against the federal government, make them one of the state's top stories, said Patrick Murphy, managing editor of The Sheridan Press.
"The amount of emotion that the story generates _ that's why I believe it's not only going to be a top story this year, but it's going to be an ongoing story," Murphy said.
AP members ranked the state's emergence from drought conditions as the state's fourth most important story of 2009. A second year of normal- to above-average precipitation helped fill Wyoming reservoirs and propelled the entire state out of drought conditions for the first time in nine years.
Ranking fifth among editors was the story of former Wyoming state trooper Franklin Ryle. Authorities said the 12-year Highway Patrol veteran from Douglas kidnapped a Wal-Mart truck driver in January and intended to kill the driver in a staged accident and collect settlement money.
Ryle ultimately released the driver unharmed, but he pleaded guilty in July to charges he violated the civil rights of the trucker by pulling him over and kidnapping him. In November, a federal judge sentenced Ryle to 15 years in prison.