Campbell County and Gillette’s populations have gone up over the past decade.
As of April 1, 2020, there were 33,403 people living in Gillette, which is up by about 15% from 2010, 29,087, according to the U.S. Census.
“I guess I was kind of surprised knowing the beginning of the decade, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 we were growing pretty well, but we ended in kind of a down note,” Mayor Louise Carter-King said.
Part of the increase can be attributed to the city’s annexation of Antelope Valley and Crestview subdivisions.
“They annexed two very large pieces of county,” Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell said.
Campbell County’s population grew about 2%, or 893 people, from 46,133 people in 2010 to 47,026 in 2020.
“Things with the energy industry are up-and-down so it’s good to see there’s stability and we’re not decreasing in population,” Bell said.
White people make up 86.7% of the county’s population, or 40,762. That is down 5.1%, or 2,212, from 2010. The biggest increase in population for non-whites was in the Hispanic or Latino community. In 2020, their population was at 9.1%, or 4,283 people in the county. It marks a 0.5% increase, or 221 people, from 2010, according to the census data.
Across the state the percentage of Hispanic or Latino people went up from 8.9% in 2010 to 10.2% last year.
Campbell County also saw a 2.1% increase in adults — people 18 and older — from 33,151 to 33,847 in 2020. The number of people under 18 went up 1.5% from 12,982 people in 2010 to 13,179 children in 2020.
Across the state, Teton and Laramie counties had the biggest increases in population since 2010, 9.6%. Lincoln County followed in third, with an 8.1% increase, and Sheridan and Natrona counties saw 6.2% and 6% growth, respectively.
Overall, Wyoming grew about 2.3% from 563,626 in 2010 to 576,851 in 2020.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses the information from the 10-year count to determine states’ representation in Congress and to redraw congressional district boundaries. The census is also important for other reasons including it helps municipalities know how much it could qualify for in federal funding for programs like Head Start and the Community Development Block Grant program.
The census helps the city, the county, the state and getting those dollars helps the city take care of its needs, Carter-King said.
“That’s why we are so diligent or try to be in reminding people to please take the census and get everyone counted,” she said.
Bell hopes the county will continue to see growth before the 2030 Census.
While there are some challenges to the energy industries there are new technologies being introduced that will help. Plus, there are new businesses coming into Campbell County, he said.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue to see that increase our population and we see stable growth for Campbell County,” Bell said. “And that’s good for all businesses. I think all businesses want to see population growth. That means the businesses will continue to do well.”
The U.S. Census Bureau will come out with census information on a more user-friendly website, data.census.gov, at the end of September.
Steve Schmitz, 35, was driving west on First Street in Gillette, parallel to the railroad tracks, when he first saw them.
Above his car, headed in the same direction as him but descending, he said he watched somewhere between 20 to 30 flying lights cross the sky. Together but in a loose pattern, he watched the orangish red lights glow, flicker and glide through the sky, with no visible wings, rotators, sound or source of propulsion.
Schmitz pulled out his phone and began filming through his truck’s front window before pulling over and continuing to record and gawk in disbelief. It was between 9 and 10 p.m. May 27, the night he hasn’t been able to get straight since.
“I was like, how am I the only one who sees this,” Scmhitz said. “Because there’s 30 lights in the sky and I guess no one else noticed them.”
The videos he took are grainy and somewhat difficult to follow. But between the four videos shared from that night, they corroborate the story he told: Multiple lights flying through the sky from east to west, some lit, others without lights, heading from the dark night sky into a part of the air still lit by the setting sun.
He said the lights went on and off, making them hard to see in the night until they traveled out of the dark and into the still-light sky.
A passing train takes up most of the audio in one of the videos, along with his own excited commentary and some distortion from the wind. One of the last moments he captured shows the train carts rolling on the track while a round, dark object drifts through the sky above it.
“It looked like a 10-story flying building,” he said. “To scale, it was probably that big. It looked like it shouldn’t be flying. It looked like a flying building. Almost disk shaped.”
While he considered it a literal UFO in the sense that it was unidentified, flying and some sort of object, he was clear that none of that necessarily meant it was alien. Still, it was alien to him.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Schmitz said. “I had a hard time coming to grasp with it. I think it’s almost above the military.”
Recently, a renewed interest has struck those who never stopped looking to the sky and believing. In an unclassified report released toward the end of June, the federal government took steps toward increased transparency on the topic of UFOs by acknowledging a series of documented sightings, many of which have still not been explained.
For those true believers, their unexplained experiences with the vast of night have gained some validation as the government has danced around yet still given some credibility to the topic of what it refers to as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs.
The renaissance and validation for long-time and newly fascinated sky watchers gained steam in December 2017, when the New York Times reported that the government had been reinvestigating UAPs since 2007.
It was learned that the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was designated to investigate those unexplained sightings back in 2007, with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, helping to get the program funded and running.
In 2017, some of that program’s work leaked to the public. Three videos involving U.S. military sightings piqued public interest, particularly when paired with the commentary from the parties involved offering their own disbelief and wonder at what they saw before them.
The Department of Defense formally released three videos captured by U.S. Navy personnel in 2020, confirming that the videos, which had been leaked and circulated since 2017, were indeed real.
One video showed an encounter off of the coast of San Diego, California, in 2004, where Navy fighter jet pilots on a training mission reported seeing an unknown ovular aircraft hovering above a large break of whitewater in the otherwise calm ocean waters, then taking off at what appeared to be an unprecedented rate of acceleration.
Another video captured by Navy pilots shows a peculiarly shaped flying object accelerate against the wind, with little to no ostensible affect to its trajectory, then rotate while continuing its motion, as the pilots commented in disbelief.
Finally, the last video showed pilots trying to lock onto an unknown object zooming through the air, as it escaped its targeting function and traveled quickly, again, with the documenting parties expressing awe.
The buildup in UFO hype crescendoed this June, when a Pentagon task force released a report investigating more than hundred UAP sightings that remain unexplained. The report fell flat for anyone hoping for a neatly packaged explanation for decades of unexplained sightings, but it also did little to dispel the possibilities.
The document, and the information it drew from, is not perfect. It does not confirm or deny, affirm or denounce. It is an incomplete analysis of an incomplete set of information.
What it did was confirm that there are dozens of documented sightings of aircrafts that even the U.S. government cannot — or will not — account for, while also acknowledging that maybe the crazies have never been that crazy after all.
The report classified the 144 reported sightings into five categories that encompass everything from standard flying objects mistaken for UAPs, to potential unknown technology from China or Russia.
One category titled “other” leaves a catchall for further possible explanations. Conspicuously missing from the report is the term “alien.”
Another report is in the works, which is unlikely to confirm or deny alien existence, so much as make suggestions for more reports that continue to inch towards conclusiveness on evidence that appears to be miles away.
The increased efforts to explain and acknowledge UAPs lately may have led to more reported sightings from the public over the past year.
UFO reports increased by 15% during 2020,, the National UFO Reporting Center reported, according to the New York Times.
“You know the definition of UFO doesn’t necessarily imply aliens, it’s just meaning an unidentified flying object, which that was,” Schmitz said of his yet to be explained sighting. “There’s no way I could have identified them. Therefore, I guess they are UFOs.”
Wyoming has its own history with unexplained phenomena, as brief as it may be.
While most famous for hosting Devils Tower National Monument’s involvement in an iconic moment in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a 1977 UFO film directed by Steven Spielberg, the Cowboy State has not been exempt from a handful of documented sightings across the vast, sparsely populated state.
According to the National UFO Reporting Center, there have been 380 reported UFO sightings in Wyoming, dating back to 1949. One report came from 1871, where someone claimed to spot flying objects in the background of historical photographs taken at Yellowstone National Park. But for the most part, the online database skews top-heavy, with just over half of those incidents reported since 2010.
One man who never saw what he would consider a UFO firsthand, but remains a believer nonetheless, is Nello Williams, a former Gillette College astronomy instructor and school district planetarium director.
“Why does one think we’re the only ones in the universe?” he asked rhetorically.
A big, but fair, question.
Now in his 80s, Williams has spent decades looking to the sky and trying to make sense of the great expanse to his students and community. But when it came to UFOs, he has always had his own hunch, if not always his own mountain of evidence or even personal experience.
Williams said that he never saw any UFOs himself, but as a scientist, he is not one to lean on purely anecdotal evidence anyways. Given the number of known and unknown planets and galaxies in our universe, Williams said it seems more improbable to think that Earth is the only one of billions of planets to have life.
“There are billions of planets out there that could support life ... how smart are some of the people on these planets?” Williams asked. “What if they’re 10,000 years ahead of us? What would they be able to do. And if we’re still here in 10,000 years, what will we be able to do?”
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is an institution seeking for other technological civilizations within the universe, or even our own galaxy.
Williams said he is a strong proponent of the organization’s work. If life is found outside of Earth, it is more likely that humans will have to go find it, rather than simply crash-landing a body of evidence in Roswellian fashion.
“Yeah, I’m a true believer in SETI, a true believer in UFOs,” Williams said.
Later this year, NASA is set to launch the James Webb Space Telescope — with 100 times more power than the Hubble Space Telescope — into outer space where it will enter orbit around the sun. The telescope’s infrared capabilities will be able to peer back billions of years in time, shining light on how the first galaxies were formed. It also will be able to gauge atmospheres on extrasolar planets, perhaps finding clues to which planets may be capable of hosting life.
When it comes to the recent government reports, particularly some of those key sightings, especially those involving trained military personnel with documented videos to boot, Williams said he tends to defer to the experts who experienced those incidents firsthand.
“These are pretty smart guys who saw these. These aren’t dummies,” Williams said. “These are smart guys, and I listen to smart guys. I think they know what they’re talking about, to some degree. There’s too many incidents out there to say ‘this isn’t true.’ You’re not talking about two or three incidents, you’re talking about hundreds of incidents that they can’t explain.”
Answers as questions
For almost 30 years, Tod Love, the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport director of operations, has worked in air traffic control. And in that time, he’s seen just about everything from every angle in the sky.
Like virtually every rural airport in the United States, he said Campbell County’s airport does not have a radar system of its own. While the entire landmass of all 50 states is monitored by radar, it is done by a handful of regional hubs, he said. Finding a record of what may have been in the sky that night, if it even showed on radar somewhere, is very unlikely.
After watching the videos Schmitz took on May 27, Love had his own theory.
“I’m not saying that there aren’t unexplained lights out there, but from my experience, most of the ones that you see like that, especially if they’re (flickering) in and out, they’re flares,” Love said.
Gillette sits just outside of the Powder River Military Operating Area, which occupies a large mass of airspace east and north of town. He said that it is not uncommon for military planes in that zone to shoot off flares or chaff, which could drift towards Gillette.
Being near a military operating area, Love said that sightings may be more common than in other airspace where low-flying planes and experimental flights don’t occur.
“I think you’re crazy if you think the government doesn’t have an aircraft that they’re not telling you about, because they have to keep their technology quiet,” Love said. “But is it some kind of nefarious conspiracy? No.”
Schmitz said he is sure that what he saw that night is unlike any standard air activity he has seen before. But without corroborating witnesses, an official record of the sky that night or better quality footage, he may never truly know what he saw.
The truth may be out there, but it also may not be attainable. Whatever was in the sky that night now exists only in his mind and on his cellphone. Where it exists beyond that is likely to remain unknown.
Luckily, living and thinking in the realm of uncertainty is something Schmitz has learned to embrace.
“This world doesn’t make sense to me,” he said with a laugh. “I’m lost. I’ll just go spray weeds and not think about or worry about anything else. Which is comforting. It’s very uncomfortable to question and challenge what we were taught to believe, which is why people don’t talk about this stuff.”
But after the national UFO discourse of the past year, and a firsthand encounter of his own, he may be aligned with a growing contingent of sky-watchers and true believers, not content with the official government narrative and more trusting of their own eyes.
“I think it’s becoming more acceptable in the public eye,” Schmitz added.
After the government took the step towards taking unidentified sightings more seriously this past year, it makes sense that more people may follow suit. Validation may not have come yet for the true believers, but their search for answers is headed in that direction.
Those seeking an answer to the question of if they’re alone in the universe, certainly aren’t by themselves anymore.
“There’s some interesting stuff in the sky if you really look up,” Schmitz said, “and pay attention.”