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Western Governors Put Wildlife Protection Front and Center

The U.S. West's abundant wildlife and scenic beauty, which often are adjacent to prolific oil and natural gas reserves, have become a riddle wrapped in a mystery for regulators, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. The puzzle may never be adequately solved by everyone's standards, but the Western Governors' Association (WGA) took a big step last week by establishing a regional council to ensure that wildlife habitat is protected.

The annual conference, which this year brought together governors from western states, U.S. territories and Canadian provinces, was held in Teton Village, WY. At the top of the agenda was a vote to create the Western Wildlife Habitat Council to coordinate policy decisions that affect wildlife habitats and migration routes.

By crafting a "decision support system" within each affected state, the council is designed to address habitat issues in a way that could be used across political and regional boundaries. The system would use common definitions, data and mapping systems that could be analyzed at a variety of levels by state and federal regulatory officials. Each governor would appoint one person to the council, which would be permanently staffed in Denver.

The regional initiative is based on "common concerns" among western state officials about economic development -- specifically oil and natural gas -- encroaching on animal habitats that have led to the disappearance of sagebrush, which is habitat for the greater sage grouse. The sage grouse is considered a key barometer of a healthy ecosystem because of their sensitivity to change, the governors noted in their report.

"Change is occurring in the region at a pace that is difficult for decision makers at all levels to track and accommodate," the WGA stated. "This rapid change is happening on many fronts, including unprecedented population growth and associated land-use impacts, energy development to meet growing demands and reduce dependence on foreign supplies and new transportation infrastructure."

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who addressed the meeting, agreed that the council was a good step.

"It is very interesting that you often have world-class habitat that is sitting right above world-class energy reserves," Kempthorne said. "It is to our benefit that they are not mutually exclusive. When you look at the $4 a gallon gasoline and see what the implications are of that for the American family with regard to fuel and food, you need to do all you can to responsibly and environmentally develop our energy resources."

Kempthorne, the former Republican governor of Idaho, said the Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, needs "what the western governors are suggesting. That means, on sage grouse for example, the fact that we'd have eight fish and game entities working together, that are providing some data that can prove beneficial."

WGA's incoming chairman, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said the council would enable regulating entities to use a process whereby "we are also able to say, 'what are those lands that really are important longer term to our state?' instead of just letting the federal government forget about action because it gets lost in the shuffle."

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, whose state has seen an explosion in natural gas production in the past few years, said the council would provide a warehouse of information to not only his state but to other states where oil and gas production is growing. The number of drilling permits issued in Colorado increased to around 7,000 in 2007 from 1,000 a decade earlier, Ritter said.

"If you look at all the permitting that has already happened," said Ritter, "the drilling will happen and it's going to impact the wildlife corridors." Wildlife, he said, "is a precious resource and the sooner we get [clear] about this, the better."

"At issue is not whether to grow our communities and economies, but how and where we should grow them," the WGA reported. "These decisions will not only affect quality of life in our neighborhoods and communities. They will also determine whether the wildlife and landscapes that so characterize the West will persist in the future."

In addition to growth and wildlife issues, the council would examine transportation infrastructure and development as well as the impact "possible climate change" could have on the landscape.

In related news, British Columbia (BC) agreed to work with Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California on energy and climate issues that affect the entire Pacific Coast region. Participants in the Pacific Coast Collaborative would share concerns and ideas related to energy issues, regional transportation and transit, alternative fuel distribution and developing a sustainable regional economy.

"I believe that we will establish a legacy of engagement among the leaders that will lead to cooperative action on critical issues that face our region both now and in the future," said BC Premier Gordon Campbell. The accord forges "a common front to set a cooperative direction into the Pacific century."

The Pacific Coast states and British Columbia also plan to cooperate on climate change issues and on emergency management topics. Every year an annual meeting among the participants, rotated around the region, would be convened.

Coastal states and provinces face unique issues, and the agreement allows them to look beyond "artificial boundaries," said Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. "We may divide states by some fictitious line, but we don't divide our water, don't divide our air."

Added California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, "One state alone cannot solve the fight against climate change, or protect our entire ocean, or clean the air we all share."

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