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Western governors unveil wildlife maps

RENO, Nev. -- Governors in 16 states unveiled a high-tech wildlife habitat mapping project Thursday that they hope will encourage economic development across the West while protecting the region's environmental treasures- an ambitious effort that's winning praise from conservationists and the energy industry.

The Western Governors' Association wants to make it easier to chart paths across large landscapes where developers can expect the least regulatory resistance and threat of litigation as they draft plans to build highways, dig gold mines and erect power lines, pipelines or wind farms.

Five years in the making, the database will connect 16 western states from California and Alaska to Montana and Oklahoma with a first-of-its-kind online system of colorful GIS maps displaying wildlife habitat, wetlands and other valuable natural resources- much of it detailed down to square-mile increments.

The Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, or CHAT, provides layers of data that rate the resources on a scale of one to six, from most to least ``crucial.'' Individual states determine those priorities based on their information about such things as the condition of the habitat and the individual species' economic and recreational importance.

``The governors' intent back in 2008 really was to cater to industries within their states who need data while at the same time conserving the resources the states are blessed with and the governors are charged with preserving,'' said Carlee Brown, policy manager for the Western Governors Association.

``It's going to provide that first look- a 30,000-foot view of the situation on the ground. It's meant to be a starting point for states with different priorities and different resource needs to bring all their information together,'' she told The Associated Press before the WGA announced details of the effort Thursday at its annual winter gathering in Las Vegas.

``If I'm a transportation planner working in Walla Walla, Wash., and I want to modify a highway for safety concerns along the Washington-Oregon border, I can look at different routes and draw different lines to see what kind of crucial habitat I run into, and where it ranks on the scale of one to six,'' Brown said.

The Energy Department provided a $3 million grant and individual states contributed the time of mapping specialists the past three years to help gather, organize and input the information, said Joe Rassenfoss, WGA's communications director. It's expected to be especially helpful for projects that may encounter species of concern in multiple states, like the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, the sage grouse in the Great Basin or the prairie chicken in the Southwest.

``It's the one-stop shopping feature that is so powerful about CHAT,'' he said.

Energy industry leaders agreed.

``That did not previously exist,'' said Robert Veldman, senior environmental adviser for the Houston-based Noble Energy Inc., which drills for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico, and recently starting exploration in Nevada.

``It will be instrumental in supporting Noble Energy's commitment to protecting wildlife and their habitats, particularly during project planning, infrastructure route selection and in doing due diligence for acquisitions and divestitures,'' Veldman said.

Brown said conservation groups and land trusts have expressed interest in the data to help make decisions about prioritizing protection of wildlife or purchasing property most valuable to their preservation mission.

``It provides a common footing for the public and a wide array of stakeholders who are interested in land use,'' said Rob Mrowka, an ex-Forest Service supervisor who now works as a senior scientist for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona.

``It integrates the various mapping systems and databases across state boundaries. To me, that is the quantum leap forward,'' he told AP after watching the unveiling of the project in Las Vegas.

California, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and Kansas already are utilizing their own state databases. Nevada rolled out its new maps Thursday in concert with the regional package, with New Mexico and Oregon to follow later this month.

The other states are at various stages of compiling their data- Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota and Utah.

``Mining companies like to say, `The gold is where the gold is, that's where we need to go,''' said Chet Van Dellen, GIS coordinator for Nevada's Department of Wildlife. ``We like to say the animals are where the animals are.''

The ``crucial habitat'' is not to be confused with critical habitat, a legal term when it comes to protecting wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.

Developers and U.S. regulators still must complete environmental assessments as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. But the habitat maps themselves carry no regulatory authority, and developers will be free to pursue projects regardless of what shows up in the path of their projects, although sometimes with a healthy price tag.

``It really is a pro-development tool,'' Van Dellen said. ``We're just letting you know if that's the piece of ground you are going to commit to, you might expect a bumpier ride than a smoother ride. If you go this way, you are going to cross all this important stuff, but if you go this way, you are not.''

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