It’s no mystery in Gillette which came first — the chicken or the ordinance.
After the better part of a decade lobbying and advocating for raising chickens in city limits, some who favor the fowl find themselves as first-time chicken owners.
But being allowed to have the birds is just the first leg of learning the ins and outs of raising urban chickens.
It’s been a couple of months since the Gillette City Council gave residents in qualified zoning districts the OK to raise chickens, and among those embracing the pastime is Ashli Bowman and her family.
“I thought it would be a great lesson for my kiddos and a step toward self-sustainability,” she said about why she wants to have chickens. “I think it’s extremely important for my children to know where our food comes from and how it gets on our table.
“We garden (and) can now have our own food source in our backyard. It’s been such a fun experience to share with our family.”
Meet the Spice Girls
In early May, Ashli and her husband Brian Bowman went to Montana to pick up five chickens, which is the maximum allowed in the city.
“I thought they were just joking,” said 8-year-old daughter Berklie about her parents revealing their plans to set up a coop in the backyard.
Their small flock has affectionately been tagged as the Spice Girls in honor of the 1990s pop group. Salt is a Delaware chicken; Pepper a black sex link; Sugar a white leghorn; Cinnamon a cinnamon queen; and Ginger, an Easter egger, and Berklie’s favorite.
That’s because Ginger “lays pretty eggs,” Berklie said.
“She’s definitely probably at the top of our pecking order,” Ashli said of Ginger. “She’s kind of bossy and she lays really, really big, dark eggs.”
These Spice Girls don’t perform on command or have fan clubs. Instead, they live in a 4-foot by 12-foot wooden chicken coop with a shingled roof surrounded by a fence known as the “Chicken Palace” for the expensive lumber used to build it.
The chickens lay their eggs inside a nesting box attached to the coop. It contains nesting herbs and healing smells to relax the birds.
“Sometimes they’ll sit on each other,” Ashli said. “They like to sit in close quarters.”
So far, as a group they produce four or five eggs a day. The children go out multiple times to look inside the nesting box to look for new arrivals.
“They are our pets, but they also have a purpose,” Ashli said. “I think that is one thing we’re having to remind ourselves (of).”
The ability to legally own chickens in the city of Gillette was a lengthy battle between the city and a group of residents who felt that owning chickens would give them a way to be more self-sufficient, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A year ago, Sara Marchbank got the ball rolling on the most recent push for urban chickens by starting a petition that ultimately had hundreds of signatures.
The city originally rejected her overtures in June 2020 like it had done to a handful of other people in the past.
“I didn’t think our chances were great,” Bowman said about that rejection.
The city became more open-minded about the idea later this past summer when it agreed to appoint a task force made up of people in favor of and against having chickens in city limits. An ordinance was drafted and eventually adopted by the City Council in April.
Bowman believes that the pandemic and its corresponding food shortages helped convince council members that the time had come to allow chickens in the city, adding that she is “so grateful for my fellow members of this community who fought so hard to get this passed.”
The amended ordinances allow for residents in the suburban residential (R-S), single family residential (R-1), single- and two-family residential (R-2) zones and mobile home district (M-H) to keep chickens. This is in addition to those who live in the agricultural (A) and rural residential districts (R-R) who already could own them.
Among the guidelines urban owners must follow include:
Owners have to pay $50 for a license to keep chickens and $15 to renew it every year.
Prospective owners have to schedule an appointment with the Gillette Animal Shelter to come to their homes and inspect coops before they can get chickens.
As of July 6, the city had approved 16 chicken permit applications, according to the Gillette Animal Shelter.
“They had a form you had to fill out. Once we got our coop the animal control officer came and inspected it,” Ashli said. “They were really nice and answered any questions we had.”
As for the chickens, they have adjusted well to city life, she said, adding that there are times when they’ll get loud, especially if they are fighting over a piece of spinach or watermelon or are disappointed with their owners for not feeding them fast enough.
“They can see us coming, hear us and they all run to the door thinking we had treats, and if we don’t have treats they get pretty disgusted with us,” Ashli said. “They’ll squawk and they’ll make noise because they don’t like it.”
Ashli said she has not received any complaints from neighbors, including Caitlin Riggs who lives next door.
“I thought it was great,” Riggs said about her neighbor keeping chickens. “(It’s) a fun addition to the neighborhood. My grandparents growing up had chickens, so I knew they would go to bed early and would not be noisy at night.
“I have actually never heard them once since she got them. And it wasn’t loud, they were just happily clucking.”
Marchbank said everything has gone well for her as a new chicken owner.
Her children named her Easter eggers Marshmallow, Barbecue 1, Barbecue 2, Smokey and Ninja.
“They just wander around the yard and make us laugh,” she said about the chickens. “We did get one egg so far. And now I’m wondering if my dog has eaten the other ones because we didn’t find any after that one.”
For some people, having chickens is like owning a pet.
Chelsie Collier is not a new chicken owner and lives in the city’s rural zoning district, but she has some advice for new owners.
Before people going on vacation, they need to make sure to find someone to watch their chickens, she said.
Building a bond is another thing that is important, Collier said.
Collier’s own chickens have not started laying eggs yet, but her kids are becoming attached to them. Her son puts one on his lap and talks with them.
“I love the relationship my children have with them,” she said. “They miss them while we’re gone.”
The children also learn about chores and responsibilities such as the kids going out and taking scraps to the chickens.
Just like with any pet, they’re good for relationship-building, Collier said.
The circle of life
In her backyard recently, Berklie told her mom she hopes to one day own baby chicks.
“Please, please, please,” she begged her mother.
Ashli said that may be an option down the line when the Spice Girls can no longer produce eggs on a regular basis. At which point, they could be replaced by other chickens and become dinner.
“Of course we will do it humanely,” she said. “(But) their purpose is to provide eggs and meat.”
People raise animals for one reason or another. They love and nurture them for a long time. They become a part of families. But there are some animals that also provide food and health.
And for at least the last few months, the answer to the cliché, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” seems to be: To get to Gillette.
Campbell County Health trustees have approved an amended affiliation agreement with UCHealth, adding terms that would prevent the Colorado-based health care group from setting up shop and competing with CCH in Campbell County.
Trustees voted unanimously in favor of the amended agreement, putting the tweaked contract in the hands of Campbell County Commissioners ahead of Tuesday’s commission vote on the potential affiliation.
Commissioners voted 3-to-2 against an affiliation last month.
Chairman Adrian Gerrits said that the commissioners have been sent the amended contract to review. If they approve the affiliation next week, the contract goes back to UCHealth to sign off on before becoming official.
After being the lone vote against the affiliation contract put before the hospital board in June, Trustee Alan Stuber voted in favor of the amended contract Thursday.
“(UCHealth was) able to facilitate my needs, asking all the questions that I did. I think they also deserve a lot of credit for the work they’ve also put in,” Stuber said.
Since CCH announced its intent to affiliate with UCHealth and began its pitch to the public, as well as commissioners, many have openly questioned parts of the deal.
Some of the concerns revolved around CCH CEO Colleen Heeter becoming a UCHealth employee while continuing to lead CCH, the question of what UCHealth stands to gain and whether there would still be potential for UCHealth to either buy CCH or compete with it by directly entering the health care marketplace in Gillette.
Under the amended contract trustees approved Thursday, Heeter would still become a UCHealth employee, but there is language added to prevent UCHealth from competing with CCH in Gillette.
The clause clarifies that UCHealth cannot buy, operate or build a hospital or other inpatient medical facility in Campbell County during the contract and for a year afterward, if the contract is ever terminated. There’s a similar stipulation for outpatient services or facilities.
Trustee Tom Murphy, who voted for the original and amended contracts, pointed out that while UCHealth may now be contractually blocked from competing within Gillette, there has still been growing competition in the marketplace.
“I understand why the commissioners would be concerned about UCHealth maybe wanting to buy us out or compete with us, but what’s to prevent the other people who we’ve been talking about affiliation with, for them to come into our community and do the same?” Murphy said.
Hospital board attorney Tom Lubnau said other past suitors or potential partners have already moved in.
“Wyoming Medical Center has opened a facility, Monument Health is opening a facility, Black Hills Orthopedic (and Spine Center of Wyoming) has opened a facility,” Lubnau said at the meeting.
“If UCHealth wanted to open a facility, right now, there’s nothing stopping them. They could just come up here and open up a facility if they want to,” he said. “Instead, they’ve chosen to affiliate with you all and sign a non-competition agreement that says that they won’t open a hospital, a clinic, a medical practice, a physical therapy outfit — anything without your expressed written permission, which is far more than any of the other competitors you may have, or even some of the people that you’ve talked about affiliation with who have decided to go their own way instead of affiliating with you, have done.”
Through the affiliation, CCH expects to gain buying power on supplies, IT and management services as well as a more affordable way to integrate Epic as its new electronic health records system.
“We view partnerships like this as an opportunity to enhance patient care, improve efficiencies and boost the overall health of people throughout the region,” said Kevin Unger, president and CEO of UCHealth’s northern Colorado region, in a press release.
“Campbell County Health, their medical group and clinics have a reputation for providing high-quality care and an excellent experience for patients. We would be honored to partner with CCH to help advance their excellent work.”
Tuesday’s commission vote will decide whether the amended contract and extra month of communication between CCH, commissioners and the public will be enough to bring a health care affiliation to Gillette.
“I think we’ve done a great job of being transparent and educating the public,” Gerrits said at the meeting. “It’s exposed a lot of things that we are going to be able to do better in the future as far as keeping the public informed with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”