Rae Ellen Bichell

Rae Ellen Bichell reports for the Mountain West News Bureau out of KUNC in Colorado. 

Before joining the team, she covered everything from Ebola to butterfly evolution and space toilets as a science reporter for NPR. She also tried freelancing for a couple years in Helsinki, Finland, originally under a Fulbright grant.

Now based in northern Colorado, she spends her free time reading, playing indoor soccer (not very well) and doing a crazy sport called canyoneering. 

You can reach Rae Ellen at rae.bichell@kunc.org.

The spring thaw is upon us, and parched western states will be watching closely as snows melt and rivers rise. Fancy satellites monitor water levels in the biggest rivers, but they don't spot the smaller streams and waterways that feed into them. Now, some Colorado scientists have hit on a new way of tracking those smaller streams — inspired, by Pokemon.

Members of Congress are pushing to seal the deal on the status of immigrants who came to this country illegally as children.

The decision was supposed to be made by March 5, but that didn’t happen.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are calling for an investigation into the National Park Service, pointing to a report they say follows a "pattern" of censoring scientists who study climate change. So I checked in with the scientist who wrote the latest report and is now worried about her future.

The tamarisk plant, also called saltcedar, is infesting waterways across the West. The scaly-leafed shrub can grow taller than a person. It sucks up a lot of water and spits out salt, making the soil around it too salty for other plants to grow.

“It’s very bad, yes,” says Alex Gaffke, a graduate student in land resources and environmental science at Montana State University.

Details are unfolding about how British data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica influenced national elections. Meanwhile, a newly surfaced document suggests the group also had a hand in our region -- and in one especially tight Senate race in Colorado.

For years, Western lawmakers have been trying to change the way we fight wildfires, or at least the way the government funds such work. Now, they may finally get that wish. Congress just passed a measure that would do just that, creating an emergency fund of $20 billion for the Forest Service to fight wildfires over the next decade. It's part of a sweeping new spending deal that the President signed on Friday.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has been pushing for years to make this change.

A fierce debate is taking place across the country right now: What to do about immigrants who came here illegally as children. Up until recently, they qualified for a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects them from deportation. But the Trump administration rescinded that Obama-era rule and Congress is debating what will take its place.  

We talked to three people affected by that debate right here in the Mountain West.

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Courtesy of the Amache Preservation Society

In the spring of 1942, official posters went up across the West Coast and Arizona. All people of Japanese ancestry had one week to report to assembly centers.

In the first century, a doctor called Aretaeus of Cappadocia described the rotting smell of "Egyptian ulcers." Ancient Chinese medical literature mentions a disease called "children-killing carbuncle." In 17th century Spain there were references to an illness known as "the strangler."

Fake birth control pills. Cough syrup for children that contained a powerful opioid. Antimalarial pills that were actually just made of potato and cornstarch.

These are, according to the World Health Organization, just a few examples of poor-quality or fake medicines identified in recent years.

In early autumn, it became clear that something was not right in Madagascar.

The country often sees small outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which comes from an infection spread by a flea bite. The disease is now easily treatable with antibiotics.

But this time, the number of cases was growing quickly, and the bacterial infection was spreading in a different, more serious form.

A 79-year-old man picked up an object with his left hand and suddenly felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. Something moved in his upper arm. And with that, he was Popeye.

His right arm looked the same as it always had: lean and sagging a little with age. But his left biceps now sported a baseball-size bulge that looked like it could land a powerful punch. The brand-new muscle mound looked even bigger when the man flexed his biceps. The only thing was, it hurt. A lot.

The day Dr. Roberto Montenegro finished his Ph.D. was memorable. But not for the right reasons.

"I still cringe when I think about it," says Montenegro.

It had started well. His colleagues at UCLA had taken him and his girlfriend (now wife) out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate.

Abstinence may have found its most impressive poster child yet: Diploscapter pachys. The tiny worm is transparent, smaller than a poppy seed and hasn't had sex in 18 million years.

It has basically just been cloning itself this whole time. Usually, that is a solid strategy for going extinct, fast. What is its secret?

In the spring of 2016, there was a frenzy over the threat of Zika virus at Brazil's Olympic Games. As infections reached their peak, a group of scientists called for the games to be moved somewhere else. A number of athletes, worried about sexually transmitting the virus to pregnant partners, chose to stay home.

But a group of researchers with University of Utah and the United States Olympic Committee announced Saturday that they weren't able to find any evidence that U.S. Olympians, Paralympians or staff got Zika virus at all.

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