This story started on Capitol Parkway in Nebraska, with one passing Prius, then another right behind it.
Both wore mountain lion license plates.
And after that, they started standing out. A lion-plated Prius at Whole Foods, and in the Haymarket, and at the post office, Target and a Wilderness Park trailhead.
Which raised the question: Are there more mountain lion plates on the Toyota Prius than other makes and models?
The short answer? No — but more on that later. First, here's a look at the popularity of the plates, where they came from, where they've gone and what it means:
The state of Nebraska lowballed the appetite for the mountain lion plate a few years ago, when it was still just a hopeful bill introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, Neb.
The Department of Motor Vehicles filed a fiscal note — a dollars-and-cents estimate of the impact of legislation — predicting it would sell 2,500 plates the first year.
They could have added another zero. Since Oct. 1, 2016, when the plates were introduced, the state has sold nearly 25,000.
With an additional cost of just $5 — money that goes straight to the Game and Parks Commission’s educational efforts — the mountain lion quickly became the state’s most popular specialty plate.
“My impression is because of its unique design, it’s a very pleasing design,” said Betty Johnson, administrator of the department's driver and vehicle records division. “And I think the other thing that impacts it a lot is the low $5 fee.”
About 20 percent of the mountain lion plates are also message plates, meaning nearly 5,000 car owners paid the extra $40.
The next best-selling plate isn’t even close: Since October 2016, the state has sold nearly 11,000 military honor plates.
At the end of 2017, most of the lion plates predictably lived in the state’s three largest counties, Lancaster (6,258 plates), Douglas (5,796) and Sarpy (2,415).
They’d also spread to their natural, rural habitat, with the plates landing in 91 of Nebraska’s 93 counties — though not always in great numbers. Blaine, Deuel, Hayes, Keya Paha and Thomas counties each had just one.
And none had made it to Grant and Arthur counties by the beginning of the year.
So are those counties anti-mountain lion or anti-Ernie Chambers? Neither, said Al Davis, who represented the area as a state senator.
They just don’t like to waste money.
“We come from a frugal part of the state. A lot of people don’t want to pay extra for a plate. We look at it as a utilitarian piece,” he said.
Plus, he added, there aren’t that many cars to license out there.
Carolyn Cerny, the Arthur County treasurer, said her neighbors aren’t interested in mountain lions.
“If they were going to spend the money,” she said, “they’d get the beef plate.”
The image on the license plate is a digital marriage of two photos taken by NEBRASKAland photographers, a sweeping view of the Wildcat Hills taken by Bob Grier, with a closeup of a lion by Justin Wambold.
But Wambold, who now manages The North Face store in Boulder, Colo., hadn’t heard of the plates until last week.
And when he took a look, he didn’t immediately recognize his cat.
“If it is my photo, I wish I could regale you with a story of traipsing across the wildlands, but unfortunately not,” he said.
Here’s the real tale: When lion sightings were increasing in Nebraska 15 years ago, the magazine realized it needed more stock photos of the animals.
So Wambold took his camera to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha.
“It was a 40-mile drive up the road, and maybe a couple of hours at the zoo. It was nothing exciting.”
The money started adding up for the Game and Parks Commission’s education fund, $5 for each set of regular plates, and $30 from each set of message plates.
The most recent total? More than $265,000.
“It’s a great surprise,” said Tim McCoy, the commission’s deputy director. “It’s a great addition for our wildlife educational activities.”
Specifically, the commission is spending the money to partner with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies to pay for an educator in the Wildcat Hills, about a dozen miles south of Scottsbluff.
“That person will do a lot of conservation education with the public and landowners, talking to them about bird-friendly conservation things they can do, going out and having field tours with landowners,” he said.
The educator will also teach students about wildlife and birds and the importance of conservation, by going inside their schools and hosting them at the visitor center.
Back in our time zone, the mountain lion money will also pay for state-of-the-art interactive displays at Ak-Sar-Ben Aquarium in Schramm Park State Recreation Area, midway between Lincoln and Omaha.
And finally, the make and model with the most mountain lion plates?
The Ford F150, with three of its styles making the Top 20, for a total of 761 pickups bearing the photo from Wambold’s visit to the zoo.
(A note on the numbers: The state distinguishes between specific styles of the same make and model. For example, it lists more than 30 types of Toyota Camry — SE, LE, XLE, DLX, etc. Altogether, the state has sold mountain lion plates for more than 3,000 vehicle types. We considered the 20 vehicles with the most lion plates, and combined multiple styles of the same model if they ranked in that range.)
So three styles of the Honda CR-V are No. 2, with 479, and two styles of the Chevy Silverado K1500s are third, with 462 trucks.
And at No. 4, the basic Prius — the car that started all of this, with 154 mountain lion plates that seem to be lurking everywhere.
NEW YORK | Chloe Zhao is driving through the Arizona desert just north of Mexico on a research expedition for a film.
"I'm keeping an eye on the border," chuckles Zhao, a Chinese-born, U.S.-based filmmaker. "I don't have my passport with me."
In her young and promising career, Zhao has made flirting with boundaries a specialty. She was born in Beijing and attended boarding school in England before studying political science at Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke College and filmmaking at New York University.
Despite a life spent mainly in cities, she's been drawn intractably to the American heartland. After reading about the epidemic of teen suicides on Indian reservations, she packed up and drove from New York to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She stayed, on and off, for four years, and made two films there: 2015's "Songs My Brother Taught Me," an affecting study of Lakota siblings, and the new "The Rider," a lyrical, elegiac western about a Lakota rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) whose career is threatened by a head injury.
Each stars Pine Ridge non-professional actors playing versions of themselves — an approach that lends an unfiltered authenticity to an often mythic American genre. Earthly and soulful, Zhao's films find pain and beauty in humble lives lived close to the land. They take cinema somewhere new, and somewhere real.
"There are just all these rules about how films can be made today. It becomes like a bubble, an industry that's quite detached from reality in many ways," Zhao said in a recent interview by phone from a remote Arizona road. "Independent film has suffered from that."
Alongside the 22-year-old Jandreau, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, "The Rider" co-stars most of the people in his life: his autistic sister Lilly, his father Tim and many of his friends, including bull rider Lane Scott, who was paralyzed from a 2013 car crash.
Zhao became intrigued about making a movie about Jandreau while watching him recover from a head injury when he was trampled during a rodeo competition. Despite the risk of re-injury, he refused to give up riding. They first met when Jandreau, a talented and sensitive horse trainer, taught Zhao how to ride.
"I never met anybody from China. I never met a director. I didn't know anything about movies," said Jandreau speaking from his home in South Dakota. He lives there with his wife and their 8-month-old daughter. On a recent afternoon, he spoke on the phone after checking on a just-born calf.
"Chloe wasn't scared to get on a horse, so I shouldn't be scared to say a line or whatever the hell," said Jandreau.
Zhao gives Jandreau more credit. "I'm not as good at riding horses as he is at acting," she says. "I figured if he can manipulate the emotions of a horse, he can probably do that with the audience. I just had a feeling he might be good."
Zhao came up with the story a month before shooting, shaping it around Jandreau's own experiences. For Jandreau, not being able to ride was an existential threat.
"It's all I love," he says. "It's all I do." He was able to ride on a horse by himself, he says, since he was a year-and-a-half old.
"A very well-trained horse," says Jandreau. "I was still in a diaper."
It's been much the same for his daughter. Jandreau estimates she's been riding 40 times already, on 20 different horses. She's also been on a lot of planes. With "The Rider," the Jandreaus have traveled to Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Austin and elsewhere. Jandreau, who has started a horse breeding and training program since shooting the film, also would like to keep acting — a goal supported by the rave reviews he's received.
"I've actually auditioned for a couple things," said Jandreau. "Looking forward to acting again, hopefully. If things go well, I guess."
Zhao is juggling a handful of projects, unsure which will be next for her. One is a historic western about a black sheriff. Another is set 5,000 years in the future in China. "So no more real life for a while," she jokes. But Zhao senses a lot of opportunity coming her way.
"I feel like the industry really wants to support female filmmakers. It feels a lot more open than a year ago," says Zhao. "But at the same time I'm also very careful because the people who jump on the bandwagon now will jump off when the next social issue becomes popular."
"There's a huge shift," she adds. "There's some part of it that's going to stick."
Zhao will likely work with professional actors in the future, but even in larger productions, she expects to continue to look beyond the usual head shots.
"Even the historic western and the sci-fi, I'm going to want to include unfamiliar faces and unconventional casting," says Zhao. "I think it throws everybody off a little bit, including myself. And that's a good thing."
Her films — particularly "The Rider," which Sony Pictures Classics will release Friday — have made the 35-year-old Zhao a breakout filmmaker and an in-demand director. When she was given a $50,000 grant earmarked for female filmmakers at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in March, Ava DuVernay said, introducing Zhao: "Her work burns so bright it burns my eyes."
"The Rider" has been a quiet sensation on the festival circuit since winning the top prize of Cannes' Directors' Fortnight last year. It's prompted comparisons to early Terrence Malick films like the (more painterly) frontier drama "Days of Heaven." Zhao grants Malick is a touchstone.
"People are like, 'You must know Terry, right?'" Zhao says, laughing. "I always say, 'Actually no. If you see him, please tell him he's got a fan.'"
PIERRE | All three Republican and Democratic candidates plan changes for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development when one wins election Nov. 6 as South Dakota’s next chief executive.
Their words have the attention of Scott Stern. The commissioner brought up the topic Tuesday to state Board of Economic Development members.
Stern said the office landed 26 new or expanded businesses from within South Dakota during the past year, compared to 16 from other states. Stern said he would like “a healthy conversation” about what the balance should be.
On Thursday, Gov. Dennis Daugaard gave the $20,000 Giant Vision award for economic development to SMRTGrid, a Baltic utility-technology company led by Todd Christensen and Jamie Hale. It’s engaged in beta testing with several major companies.
This Tuesday, Daugaard plans to speak at the groundbreaking for the new Terex Utilities international headquarters at Watertown. Stern said the project would put South Dakota on the world stage as host for a Fortune 200 company.
Terex makes vehicles and equipment for construction and maintenance work. The company closed four plants elsewhere in the world and had capacity to move the main offices to Oklahoma.
“In this circumstance, we were exposed,” Stern told the board.
The Republican governor appointed Stern during the summer of 2016 to replace Pat Costello, who returned to Sioux Falls after five-plus years as commissioner. Stern is the 11th full commissioner since 1987.
Gov. George S. Mickelson created the current version of GOED when he took office in 1987. The Legislature, at Mickelson’s request, temporarily added 1 percent to the state sales tax to raise $40 million for the Revolving Economic Development Initiative fund.
Since then, the program has made many low-interest REDI loans to help businesses create jobs. Few failed. The Feb. 28 monthly report said REDI had $63 million in loans and commitments while $49 million remained available.
Mickelson also convinced the Legislature in 1987 to establish the Future Fund by taking a portion of what businesses paid in unemployment taxes and re-designating it as economic-development grants he and four subsequent governors solely controlled.
Daugaard spread more than $13 million of Future Fund grants in 2017 and more than $11.7 million in 2016, according to state reports.
The Legislature went past Daugaard and Costello in 2013 and started the Building South Dakota programs. Legislators assigned the incentive efforts to the state board to administer and installed four lawmakers as non-voting board members.
But Daugaard used state government financial shortfalls, turnover of legislators, varying degrees of involvement and generally conservative spending to gradually bring more control over Building South Dakota.
At the same time, the GOED staff gradually shrunk, falling from 34 full-time equivalents in 2013 down to 28 in 2017.
Here are the views of the three major-party candidates for governor:
Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton: “As governor, I’d prioritize the focus of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development on entrepreneurs and small businesses in all parts of the state and ensure the program is simplified so everyday South Dakotans can more easily utilize available resources.
“Local development groups and the state should work together to further streamline operations and include every community in our plans for growth.
“REDI Fund dollars should be used to develop residential recruitment tools like housing and Main Street development and provide access to start-up capital to new or expanding small businesses that call South Dakota home.
“Our existing industries remain important, and there are additional opportunities for growth if we invest in technology, housing, and workforce through affordable education and training opportunities — all of which will renew the spirit of entrepreneurism in the state and provide opportunities for our families and communities to flourish.”
Republican state Attorney General Marty Jackley: “The Governor’s Office of Economic Development administers numerous economic development programs, including the REDI Fund- which is a great program that has created countless jobs and opportunities for our state since it was created by Gov. Mickelson in 1987.
“I do believe we should review existing economic development programs like REDI to make sure the programs are being effective in an ever changing economic environment.
“I have traveled every corner of the state holding economic development roundtables, and I hear the same message. Workforce, affordable housing, and potential uses of REDI funds are all concerns.
“As governor, I will make sure the REDI Fund is being utilized to match the needs of today’s lending environment and to make sure our in-state businesses have the tools to succeed.
“I will also make sure we consistently review and reform state programs so they do not become outdated or stagnate.
“Government does not create jobs, it is the job of government to remove obstacles, and provide resources so jobs can be created by the private sector.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem: “South Dakota — including GOED — does a lot of things right. But as a candidate — and as governor — it's my job to look for ways to improve, and I have a fundamental belief that every government agency has room for improvement.
“From 2014-2018, South Dakota experienced roughly half the nonfarm employment rate of growth, compared to the national average. Previous to that, South Dakota nonfarm employment growth was very near to or higher than the U.S. growth rate.
“To reverse the trend, my Kickstarting the Economy Plan centers around keeping South Dakota’s taxes and red tape at a minimum — which South Dakota has historically done well — while making the right investments.
“First, as I lay out in my Kickstarting the Economy agenda, I want to use GOED to make it even easier to start and grow a business. Today, SDReadyToWork.com employs the resources of GOED. Unfortunately, it does not adequately address the complete needs of starting and growing a business.
“I have proposed modernizing SDReadyToWork.com to significantly simplify the user experience, while also providing GOED employees with sufficient training to better help those looking for assistance.
“Second, I see GOED playing a bigger role in coordinating workforce development. As I lay out in my agenda, I want to bring GOED together with area employers, the South Dakota Department of Education, the Board of Regents, and tech schools to make sure young people are getting the skills needed for key jobs.
“Third, I believe South Dakota is ready for a new growth industry. The financial services industry flourished in South Dakota during the 80’s and 90’s because Gov. Janklow made it a priority to provide that industry with low regulatory burdens and an advantageous tax environment.
“Between low taxes, minimal regulations, and the skills training and research available at South Dakota’s universities and tech schools, I believe the state has all the necessary ingredients to recruit a new industry — we just have to recruit it and I see a targeted role for GOED in that effort.
“Finally, I've heard from many across the state that more can be done to expand and nurture business growth within the state. I've owned and operated my own businesses throughout my life, so I get that concern.
“If elected, I'll work to incorporate the feedback received from folks across the state into GOED’s core mission, helping the businesses putting South Dakotans to work today grow from five employees to 10, 20 or more.
“To be successful, the next governor will need a multi-pronged approach within GOED, as well as the experience to champion change. Again, GOED does a lot of things right, but a more streamlined and responsive agency, combined with a passionate economic development advocate, is going to be the best recipe for job creation and growth for tomorrow.”
SIOUX FALLS | The 2016 election was the tipping point.
South Dakota voters passed a sweeping campaign finance and ethics law, and legislators quickly struck it down.
They have been chipping away at voters' ability to bring issues to the ballot ever since.
A year after Initiated Measure 22's demise, the Legislature passed a dozen bills tightening the reins on the initiative and referendum process.
Some changes are small, like requiring a uniform font size for ballot measure petitions. But all told, the onslaught of bills puts South Dakota in a league of its own in terms of restricting direct democracy.
"South Dakota was a standout," said Wendy Underhill, an expert in initiative and referendum processes at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There's been more action in South Dakota than in other states."
Now, direct democracy advocates are scrambling to undo the laws that do the most damage before they're left fighting under the new constraints imposed on the process.
Discussions over restrictions to initiative and referendum have cropped up from the time South Dakota became the first in the nation to implement the process in 1889.
But they came to a head again after voters approved IM 22.
"(Voters) were hoodwinked by scam artists who grossly misrepresented these proposed measures," Gov. Dennis Daugaard said of the law during his budget address in December of 2016.
He pointed to a provision of the law that would've established a voucher system for funding political campaigns and said South Dakotans would prefer to spend their taxpayer dollars to boost to K-12 education, health care and state employees.
From there, the Legislature made quick work of striking IM 22 in 2017. All the while opponents crowded the galleries at the Statehouse and held demonstrations, including one that involved a plane towing a banner of opposition around the Capitol building.
Lawmakers tried to go one step further, mulling an out-of-state funding ban for ballot measure campaigns. But they couldn't move forward with the lingering political pressure from voters still sore over the ethics law repeal.
So they put off the conversations about reform and scheduled a summer study on the initiative and referendum process.
A panel of lawmakers, campaign leaders, constitutional officers and political science experts met last summer and mulled over changes to the process.
And in the end, they came out with a handful of proposals ranging from requiring a uniform petition and font size to increasing the threshold of support needed to alter the state's Constitution on the ballot.
"There was really a genuine effort to bring bills that were ideas we could all agree upon," said Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, who was a member of the task force. "And we saw that many of those (bills) without the support of the task force were dropped."
For the most part, the task force's bills found bipartisan support in the Statehouse.
But then other lawmakers began filing bills that the task force hadn't OK'd.
The proposals filed outside the task force ranged from asking voters to opt out of their ability to bring constitutional amendments to the ballot, to requiring petition signatures from a broader geographic area, to asking those who circulate petitions to submit affidavits listing information about their background.
The changes were crucial in blocking foreign influence on South Dakota laws, supporters said.
"The goal is if we're going to ask people to be residents to circulate, we need to make sure (to) enforce that," House Speaker Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls, said. "We've seen many occasions where out-of-state groups, many times liberal groups, use that process to promote ideas that don't fit our culture."
Mickelson circulated two ballot measures in 2017 and said he frequently witnessed non-residents circulating petitions, which violates state law. He said he wouldn't have had a problem operating under the new requirements with his teams of dozens of volunteers.
Daugaard agreed that the new requirements wouldn't be significant for those aiming to bring policy questions to the ballot.
"If you're organized enough to recruit 70 people, you should be organized enough to aggregate five or six items of information on each of them," Daugaard told reporters last month. "I don't see that as very burdensome."
But opponents said the measures would block grassroots groups from bringing initiatives to the ballot.
Direct democracy advocates and those who've led ballot measure campaigns in the past said the Legislature's "scattershot" approach would raise the bar for those aiming to bring questions to the ballot in the future.
And while lawmakers passed the bills with a hope of blocking out foreign influence, circulators said they anticipated it would hurt grassroots groups most.
"It's not that there's any one bill this year that's a disaster that will absolutely kill initiatives and referendums," Cory Heidelberger, a Democratic state Senate candidate and former circulator said. "It's that there are so many of them that continue to complicate the process and that crowd grassroots organizers out."
Former state Rep. Steve Hickey, who helped direct an effort to cap interest rates on payday lenders in South Dakota in 2016, said he was frustrated to see the Republican supermajority in the Statehouse aim to make it harder for South Dakotans to bring policy questions to the ballot.
"All the hurdles they sought this year don't make it harder for the out-of-staters who have gobs of money to pay for signatures in far larger states than ours," the Sioux Falls Republican said. "It only makes it harder on South Dakota citizens."
Joe Kirby, who led an unsuccessful campaign to bring a proposal implementing non-partisan primary elections to the November ballot, said it would "pretty much eliminate the volunteer petition drive."
Compared to other states, South Dakota took a unique approach to addressing perceived problems with the initiative and referendum process, national experts said.
While 13 states considered more than 45 bills aimed at the initiative and referendum process in the last year, South Dakota seemed to lead the charge, said Kellie Dupree. Dupree is the director of partnerships and training at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports progressive ballot initiatives.
"While South Dakota is ground zero for what we're seeing in these attacks, it's part of a coordinated attack," Dupree said, pointing to calls from a Republican group of secretaries of state to defeat liberal ballot initiatives.
And the set of smaller changes also come with less voter outrage, he said.
Heidelberger and Sioux Falls City Councilor Theresa Stehly said they'd consider a broader initiative in 2020 that would aim to gut the state's laws dealing with initiative and referendum restrictions.
But bringing that proposal would require them to test the constraints of the new laws.
"This is how the elephant eats us, one bite at a time," Heidelberger said. "They don't just kill initiative and referendum because we won't stand for it, but they do a little thing here, a little thing there, knowing that it's really hard for the people to do a referendum drive on 12 different bills."
For now, opponents of South Dakota's new laws say they're not sure what they'll do.
They've mulled referring a couple of the laws back to the voters or challenging them in court. But those options come with hefty price tags. And it takes time to get the petitions needed to bring the laws to the ballot.
"It's hard to keep up with a scattershot assault," Heidelberger said. "It's a lot easier when it's a big missile like the repeal of IM 22 last year."