Carlee Brown’s overview of the Western Governors’ Association’s newly launched Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool captures one aspect of contemporary Western politics that bears repeating: collaboration is the mantra of the New West. Though natural resource conflicts still dominate headlines, big collaborations between conservationists, recreationists, developers and elected officials — several focused on Idaho landscapes — have won the day. The CHAT tool, years in the making, is an example of this new wave of collaboration. As you use the maps, consider the sources of the data, the negotiated filters applied and the spectacular diversity across the 16-state region.  — Eds. Nathaniel Hoffman and Justin Vaughn

The Western Governors’ Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool represents an unprecedented collaborative effort by 16 Western states to create an online mapping tool that depicts crucial wildlife habitat.

When the non-regulatory tool debuted last December at the Western Governors’ Association Winter Meeting, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell praised the state wildlife agencies for developing the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT) to provide a first stop for planning projects with an awareness of wildlife resources.

“The Western Governors’ CHAT shows the governors’ commitment to responsible development of Western resources, while at the same time protecting the environment,” said Gov. Hickenlooper.

The tool provides a common starting point for project planners — particularly those with regional, multi-state projects — and also directs site visitors to CHATs operated by states, which provide additional information. Use of these online tools help project planners become better informed prior to engaging with state wildlife agencies.

CHAT Tool West

WGA CHAT Tool
CHAT view of Western states. Darker shaded areas represent more crucial habitat, according to the tool. You can browse the interactive map at the WGA site.

The public launch of CHAT in December of 2013 followed five years of work by governors and their state wildlife agencies – as well as partners in industry, non-profits and the federal government. In the first six months after its debut, there were nearly 35,000 page views on the website and more than 300 downloads of the CHAT data-set. While most users are in the West, people from all 50 states have visited to use the tool for conservation, energy development, wildlife management and transportation planning.

COMMON NEED LAUNCHES A COMMON GOAL

The Western Governors’ Association (WGA), established in 1984, is a bipartisan association that represents the governors of 19 Western states and three U.S.-flag islands. Denver-based WGA helps the governors develop policy, exchange information and take collective action on issues of critical importance to the Western United States.

In 2006, Western Governors faced a challenge: How could they help the fast-growing industries in their states responsibly develop natural resources while conserving the beauty and integrity of western lands?

The first step was the adoption in 2007 of the Western Governors’ policy resolution Protecting Migration Corridors and Crucial Wildlife Habitat in the West. That launched the “Wildlife Corridors Initiative,” a multi-state collaboration that worked with stakeholders to identify key wildlife corridors and crucial wildlife habitats, and then make recommendations on how to preserve those landscapes.

The work of the Initiative led the Western Governors in 2008 to create the Western Governors’ Wildlife Council. Consisting of designees from 17 WGA member states, the Wildlife Council’s charge was to help state wildlife agencies to be more collaborative and innovative in providing wildlife species and habitat information to their various customers: state and federal agencies, local and tribal governments, conservation advocates, business and industry groups, private landowners, and outdoors enthusiasts.

THE ROAD TO CHAT

It was one thing to talk about collaboration among states, but quite another to accomplish the task. Even though states were already compiling significant data on wildlife and habitat when the Western Governors formed their Wildlife Council, most states didn’t yet have an online mapping tool to share that information with the public. Even if they did, the states weren’t using the same methodology and data infrastructure. Further complicating the matter: no two states faced the same issues with wildlife and habitat. A significant challenge in one state might not be an issue in another.

The Western Governors’ Wildlife Council set out to create a common framework for the data, analysis, and visual information needed to display wildlife habitat across the West. With support from a Department of Energy grant, the Wildlife Council created definitions for the “crucial habitat” that the tool would identify across state boundaries. This definition in a multi-page white paper [.pdf] outlined what information should be included in states’ assessments of wildlife corridors and habitat for the Western Governors’ CHAT.

WHAT IS CRUCIAL HABITAT?

The Western Governors’ Wildlife Council agreed to common definitions of crucial wildlife habitat and corridors, then issued guidelines to help each state prioritize habitat within its boundaries to meet its specific conservation objectives. The West-wide definitions support compatibility and consistency across state boundaries and address certain discrepancies that may exist in identifying habitat and natural features along state borders. “Crucial habitats” are places that contain and connect the natural resources important to aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, including species of concern, as well as hunting and fishing species.

The definition of “crucial habitat” derives from a synthesis of data in eight categories agreed to by the Wildlife Council. Those categories range from habitat for species of concern to measures of how connected the habitat is to habitat for hunting and fishing species. States have the flexibility to choose what data to include in each category for their state, but all states complete the categories to include in their “roll-up” for the crucial habitat dataset.

Many states also have made the underlying layers that compose the crucial habitat dataset available to view on the Western Governors’ CHAT or their own state CHATs.

CHAT IN USE

The online tool provides the public and industry with a high-level, non-regulatory overview of “crucial habitat” across the multiple states.

MORE ABOUT CHAT

  • Private landowner boundaries are not discernible on CHATs. While some private land may appear marked as containing crucial habitat, that delineation has no regulatory or legal ramification.
  • The CHAT is built from state agency data. States collaborated to ensure information in the regional viewer is comparable across the region.
  • Arizona, California, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Washington and Wyoming have developed state-specific CHATs with additional detail.
  • WGA is working with federal agencies — including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service — to integrate CHAT into their decision-making processes.
  • Now guided by WGA policy resolution 2014-14 and focused on implementing the CHAT model, the Wildlife Council is working to make non-regulatory information on important fish and wildlife habitat across the West available to the public.

“The CHAT is meant to provide a first look at wildlife habitat using the same framework across the West,” said John Harja, Chairman of the Western Governors’ Wildlife Council. “It will help planners be better informed about wildlife priorities early in the process, so they can be better prepared as they engage in actual permitting with state and federal agencies.”

Since CHAT is non-regulatory, the information it provides is a rough sketch, rather than an implicit “yes” or “no” for development in an area. The CHAT website provides links to state CHATs and other related resources to help planners get through the initial stages of project scoping. The tool represents a landscape-level analysis, so planners need to work with state or local authorities on fine-grained, project-level reviews.

“The states have provided a great service in developing this West-wide crucial habitat tool,” said Pam Eaton, Senior Energy Advisor at The Wilderness Society’s Denver office, upon the launch of the CHAT. “This tool will be invaluable as we work to guide development to appropriate areas while also protecting sensitive lands. The Western Governors’ CHAT can help reduce conflict as the place to go for wildlife information for energy and transmission planning.”

NEXT STEPS

CHAT continues to be enhanced, refined and updated as WGA and the Wildlife Council work to identify a permanent home for the tool.

“CHAT creates a one-stop shop for environmental planning that did not previously exist,” said Robert Veldman, Senior Environmental Advisor for Noble Energy, upon the launch of CHAT. “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.”

Many of the western states depicted on the CHAT continue to refine the data inputs for WGA’s region-wide maps and their own state CHATs (Arizona, California, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming have developed state-specific CHATs). The Southern Great Plains CHAT depicts lesser prairie chicken habitat across five states.

Politics, and particularly Western politics as described in The Blue Review’s latest issue, emerge in a unique way from the work of bipartisan, regional associations like WGA.

The Western Governors — Republicans and Democrats – work with each other, by definition, on issues that cross state boundaries. That’s not a given in this day and age. But the coordinated mapping and agreed-upon principles that have emerged from the CHAT project indicate that policy can indeed trump politics, given the right process.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.