Addressing Sublette's alcohol culture

Brady Oltmans photo

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Sheriff K.C. Lehr has referred to Sublette County as home ever since he and his parents moved to Big Piney when he was 10. Formative memories of the county brought him back after stints in South Dakota and Arizona.

One of those memories, and one many Sublette County residents share, came at a branding. It’s hard work. For many it’s also where a kid cuts their teeth, proves their worth and becomes a man. The reward: a beer pulled straight from the nearest cooler.

“It’s how we grow up here in Wyoming,” Lehr said. “A lot of that is, wrong, right or indifferent, that’s how things are.”

Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Klief Guenther has called it the culture of the area – people drink to impairment then get on the road. Impaired driving has been an issue in Sublette County for years. The coronavirus pandemic sheltered some, only for the rate of DUI arrests to rubber band in the other direction.

Then came New Year’s Day – and an event that established 2021 as a year of urgency.

Pinedale resident Shane Deal was killed in an accident near Hoback Canyon, that prosecutors allege involved an impaired driver. Guenther previously said Highway Patrol was en route to the other vehicle involved, which was already reported for erratic driving. They couldn’t have been more than a couple moments from catching up to the driver in question when they discovered the accident.

“It kind of triggered my attention Day One,” public information officer at the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Travis Bingham said. “I’ve been watching it ever since. I’ve been here 15 years and there were some during the (oil and gas) boom where we had a lot. We had 67 last year; we’re on track to double it.”

By the first week of March there were 28 different individuals charged with driving under the influence of alcohol this year. According to information provided by Bingham, the average blood alcohol concentration level of .18 is also an escalation from last year’s .14.

Outside of impaired driving, alcohol has also been a contributing factor in general arrests. According to information compiled by the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, 56.57 percent of all arrests made in Sublette County in 2019 involved alcohol. Those same statistics show DUI arrests account for 44.57 percent of total offenses in the county.

Statistics show almost an even split in 2019 between a bar and a person’s home as the leading location of alcohol consumption.

The Sheriff’s Office has tried addressing this issue. Lehr said he knows of four deputies who look for drivers not using their turn signals or driving with a license plate light out during certain times as a way of pulling over a driver for reasonable cause. During the stop those officers check for inebriation. If it’s determined that driver isn’t under the influence, the officer lets the driver off with warning or a “fix it ticket.”

“They really go out and that’s what they look for,” Lehr said. “And I have no problem with that.”

Wyoming state law prevents law enforcement from establishing checkpoints for the sole purpose of screening drivers. The law requires probable cause to stop a driver. So the attention turns to education.

Working in tandem with the Wyoming Highway Patrol and Sublette County Prevention Coalition, the Sheriff’s Office has begun releasing videos warning drivers of the repercussions of impaired driving.

Trisha Scott of the Prevention Coalition showed how its educational efforts range from informing residents on what establishes heavy and excessive drinking, all the way to beverage server training.

Scott also displayed the correlation between the coalition and alcohol. It’s estimated alcohol is a contributing factor in nearly 40 percent of all suicide victims and an alcoholic is nearly 120 times more likely to commit suicide than those who do not depend on alcohol. Wyoming had the highest suicide rate in 2019 and the second highest the year before. Scott remembered a recent suicide and the possible role alcohol played.

“It was so preventable,” Scott said. “There was a lot of alcohol, apparently. It was easy for him to get alcohol, easy for him to drink a lot. And you think if you take that piece out, the kid might still be here today. That’s really hard to take.”

All the institutions in play stress education of excessive alcohol as early as possible. They worked to increase law enforcement presence at last year’s Sublette County Fair, which members of the fair board previously said they would appreciate again this year.

One of the signs placed at last summer’s fair involved a cowboy holding a baby and it reminded those of drinking age to consider how the youth perceive their actions.

An alcohol community study conducted by the Wyoming Department of Health in 2018 showed 77.63 percent of Sublette County eighth-grade students attended community events in the previous year where adults were drinking alcohol. A similar study conducted showed 59.4 percent of Sublette County sophomores polled said they were at community events where adults were drunk. That amount elevated to 64.49 percent when accounting for seniors.

Those involved intend to lower those statistics.

“Hopefully, it’ll change that mindset and the culture, so to speak, moving forward,” Lehr said.

Lehr said the community reaction hasn’t been as favorable towards the current campaign against impaired driving as he’d hoped. He's still witnessed a lot of dismissive attitude. Scott said that’s where the continued education comes into effect. Alcohol abuse could lead to the loss of a house or a spouse, and time in jail. Plus, the financial burden on many in the county now would only be exacerbated by a pending DUI charge.

Of course, the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption aren’t limited to the one person involved, as the New Year’s Day crash reminded the rural community.

“Feels like a cultural problem,” Bingham said. “We have to change that mentality. A handful of traffic crashes, fatalities, should be enough of a reminder that you’re a near-miss away from a tragedy.”