Top 10 stories of 2020

As we turn our calendars to 2021, we look back at perhaps the most challenging and stressful year most of us have experienced, a year with both inspiring highs and tough-to-take lows. Here’s a look at our top 10 stories of 2020:


 Big Horn County was not spared from the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19. There were 21 COVID-19-related deaths in the county in 2020, out of 668 total confirmed cases. The impact was especially felt in the New Horizons Care Center. The long-term care facility endured an outbreak of 39 cases among its residents in October, resulting in 10 deaths. The tragedy occurred despite extensive precautions taken by the facility. The facility closed its doors to the public on Feb. 14, far before the first Big Horn County COVID-19 case was confirmed in mid April.

North Big Horn Hospital has also overcome challenges from the pandemic. To respond to the pandemic, the hospital established a mobile medical unit outside the clinic to handle possible COVID-19 cases. It later transformed the old clinic into a new respiratory clinic.  Since October, the hospital has been near or at capacity several times as hospitals throughout the region dealt with an influx of patients.

The hospital received nearly $7 million in grants and loans to withstand the impacts of COVID-19 and remains in strong fiscal shape. 


 Just as profoundly impacted by COVID-19 were the schools of north Big Horn County. Both Rocky Mountain and Lovell schools shut their doors in March, transitioning from classroom learning to long-distance learning in the space of a single weekend. Spring sports were canceled entirely. Lovell High School held a drive-through graduation ceremony at the end of the spring semester, as Rocky Mountain High School held theirs on the school football field, every family and students and teachers spread six feet or more apart.

It was an open question over the summer whether schools would return to in-person education when the school year began, but both districts opened their doors to students in the fall. All schools have faced additional challenges in doing so, contending with keeping students socially-distanced and protected, how to keep their facility sanitized thoroughly and how to fill the spaces left by staff members forced to quarantine. Teachers who learned long-distance teaching last year have had to keep it in their repertoire, as teaching quarantined students at a distance became a part of their duties alongside teaching students in the classroom. A successful fall sport season was held, with the basketball and wrestling seasons underway, but attendance has been limited. Currently, only 100 fans are allowed into each basketball game.

The silver lining for both districts lies in enrollment. The Lovell school district saw a 25-student jump in enrollment, while District One saw the enrollment of “brick and mortar” students up 17.  Connections Academy, an online school belonging to District One, has seen a dramatic change in enrollment, teaching more than 1,200 students statewide after enrollment of 400 in 2019.

More obstacles are on the horizon as districts are looking at a potential $100 million statewide cut to education funding, which may take over $1 million in funds from both Big Horn County School District No. 1 and District No. 2. The cut will likely result in a decrease in staffing, according to both districts.


 North Big Horn County’s business sector also felt a heavy impact from the coronavirus pandemic, as several businesses were forced to temporarily close their doors in March in response to COVID-19’s arrival. Local banks closed their lobbies and moved to attend to their customers through the drive-up window. Restaurants also had to close their doors, delivering food to patrons through carry-out services. Gyms had to limit attendance if not shut down completely. Other businesses, such as Kurt’s Cuts and numerous beauty salons, found themselves unable to serve customers or make an income for weeks. The Hyart Movie Theatre also closed its doors for an extended period. The Red Apple Supermarket found many of its shelves bare throughout March and April as cleaning products, along with dry and canned goods, were in high demand as people stocked supplies. 

Closed businesses were allowed to open their doors under new restrictions at the end of April, as stimulus funds from both the federal and state level were made available to businesses in May, giving local companies much-needed relief. 

Despite the public health orders limiting public gatherings, community celebrations still found a way to occur in 2020. Mustang Days’ traditional parade was converted into a reverse parade. Parade attendants drove their way through the parade as the parade floats and attractions greeted attendants stationed on the sidewalk. The Christmas mingle was also held in December, but this year children had to Zoom Santa. Still, many community traditions, such as the Mustang Follies and the Pioneer Day Variety Show, had to be canceled in 2020, unable to occur due to health orders.


 With every story of hardship due to COVID-19 in 2020 came stories of generosity and goodness as the residents of north Big Horn County stood up to the pandemic in myriad ways.

In late March, as the pandemic first began to impact Wyoming, Linda NeVille organized 16 women to produce masks every day for North Big Horn Hospital. At the same time, Karen Spragg organized her own sewing group to create laundry bags for the hospital. Local schools used 3D printers to print out masks for medical staff, producing 135 masks in the space of only a few weeks. Wyoming Lime, CETCO/American Colloid, the Town of Lovell, the Lovell Police and Haskell Funeral Home also quickly donated materials to local medical facilities. This is only a narrow depiction of the volunteer efforts that instantly occurred as COVID-19 hit.

Also worthy of recognition are the tireless and quiet efforts of medical staff, first responders and school employees, who have directly risked exposure every day to provide emergency services and provide education for local students, all while taking on an increased workload. Those on the front lines included grocery store workers and delivery truck drivers who worked through the pandemic to provide needed goods.

The Big Horn County government quickly set up an incident command team that directed county efforts to respond to the pandemic. The group organized the acquisition and drop-offs of personal protection equipment, made accessible and provided relief funds to businesses throughout the county, and guided school districts and businesses through the various health orders that have been implemented by the state. In response to an increase in crime, particularly domestic and substance abuse, and an increase in suicide attempts, the team has also been pursuing additional mental health resources, including increasing mental health training to the area.


 After two challenging years, Western Sugar has had a more than solid year in north Big Horn County.  The full crop of 400,000 tons of sugar beets was harvested in the 2020 season, with the sugar content above average at 18 percent, with some beets quite a bit more than that, according to Western Sugar Factory Manager Shannon Ellis. The sugar content is well above the forecasted 16.93 percent, an improvement agriculturalist Mark Bjornstad called exceptional.

It’s a welcome and needed improvement from last year, when an early-season freeze saw 40 percent of the crop left in the ground, and 2018 when a powerful summer hailstorm wiped out a significant portion of the beet crop.


 Many leadership positions in north Big Horn County saw a change in 2020. It began with Rick Woodford’s resignation in January as the superintendent of Lovell schools. Former Lovell Middle School Principal Doug Hazen was hired in March to replace Woodford as interim superintendent Nancy Cerroni guided the district through the opening months of the COVID-19 pandemic. District No. 1 soon followed with a pair of transitions of their own. Greybull Middle School Principal Betsy Sammons, a former teacher at Lovell Elementary and a resident of Cowley, was hired to replace the retiring Karma Sanders as the principal at Rocky Mountain Elementary School during the spring. Superintendent Ben Smith announced to his school board in October that he would be stepping down at the end of June 2021. In November, Matt Davidson, the current principal of Burlington Schools, was hired to replace him.

North Big Horn Hospital saw their long-time CEO Rick Schroeder retire this year. Originally planning to end his career in June, Schroeder instead opted to stay at the helm for several more months to help guide the hospital through COVID-19. He finally retired in December. Eric Connell, previously the CEO of Daniels Memorial Healthcare Center in Scobey, Mont., has replaced Schroeder in the position.

The Town of Lovell also gained a new mayor this year in between elections. Former Lovell mayor Kevin Jones stepped down from his post in September after accepting a position in Utah. Councilman Tom Newman was appointed mayor by the town council in October.

The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is looking for a new superintendent after Mike Tranel accepted a promotion to become the deputy superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. He began his tenure in May of 2018. An interim superintendent is planned to be in place by the end of January as the job search for a permanent replacement continues, but Tranel expressed confidence in the park department heads that remain in place.


 The November election brought in a slate of changes locally. Bruce Jolley of Lovell was elected as county commissioner, replacing Deb Craft. Deb Fink was voted onto the Lovell School Board, replacing incumbent Keith McIntosh, and Holly Michaels, Jared Boardman and Don Hatch were elected to the District One school board, replacing three trustees who did not seek re-election. Ronald Christensen was welcomed to the North Big Horn Hospital Board. Karma Sanders was seated on the Byron Town Council. Steven Richardson, Marty Roedel and Keara Poole were newly elected to the Frannie Town Council. 


 The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have brought with it some unexpected silver linings. Visitation remained strong at the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, despite the several-month closure of the Lovell Visitor Center, as local people enjoyed “staycations” and residents of population centers drove to Wyoming to escape “COVID-19 crowds.” Through the end of August, tent camping was up 73 percent, growing from 348 site uses in 2019 to 603 one year later. RV camping was up from 1,843 sites in 2019 to 2,501 in 2020, a 35.7 percent increase. 

“That goes along with the national trend,” Chief of Interpretation Christy Fleming told the Lovell Chronicle in October. Fleming also said that trail use was up as well as boat use of the lake. Aquatic Invasive Species tests are an incomplete way of tracking boat use. AIS tests given in July jumped from 763 to 1,020 from 2019 to 2020. August saw an even more significant leap, from 554 to 1,035.

The Kane Historic Trail was dedicated September 25 at the town site east of Lovell near Big Horn Lake.


 Another unforeseen silver lining appears to be the local real estate market, which saw a notable increase in activity in 2020. From August of 2019 to August of 2020, 65 residential properties sold, according to statistics from the Northwest Wyoming Board of Realtors Multiple Listings Service.  According to realtor Sarah Johnson, the increase in real estate interest began at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Johnson theorized that the attraction was due to north Big Horn County being a more rural, spread out location and favorable mortgage rates, which plummeted after the economic troubles spurred by COVID-19. “I don’t think the timing is a coincidence,” Johnson told the Chronicle in August.


 Projects continued unabated in north Big Horn County, with the Town of Cowley erecting a new, much larger water tower and enjoying the sight of two towers side by side for several months, while the Town of Lovell went forward with a project to greatly enhance Constitution Park. Lovell received word in September of a $300,000 grant award after application to the State of Wyoming for Land and Water Conservation Fund money for Phase I, which includes a splash pad and new playground. A second round of grant funding was applied for in December after local companies stepped forward to enhance the park for Phase II of the project, including an amphitheater, flow track and walking path.

A major renovation project was also completed this year at the North Big Horn Senior Center.