A new mapping tool shows how states value wildlife

Habitat seen as a crucial resource in some states more than others.


When infrastructure and habitat collide, there's trouble – not just for wildlife, but also for developers hoping to avoid regulatory conflict. That's why the Western Governors' Association created its Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT), a West-wide map that ranks each state's habitat on a scale of 1 to 6 (with "1" most crucial). "If you're putting in transmission lines, siting pipelines, or building a wildlife overpass, you can find out where the most valuable habitat is before you begin planning," explains Carlee Brown, WGA's policy advisor.

Map users might notice a telling quirk: Because each state had near-total freedom in ranking its habitat, many boundary-spanning ecosystems appear far more valuable on one side of the line than the other. "Every state has different economic and political realities," says biologist Gary Vecellio of Idaho's Department of Fish and Game. "If you look at a Google Earth map of (Idaho's) Snake River Plain, you see a whole bunch of center pivots and then some tiny pockets of wildlife refugia." When that corridor hits Wyoming, however, the protected public lands around Yellowstone are shown as offering lots of high-quality habitat.

Brown says the border seams are a feature, not a bug: They demonstrate states' autonomy to set their own land-use priorities and steer developers in the right direction.

Jim Cooper
Jim Cooper Subscriber
Jul 02, 2014 04:56 PM
As a biologist myself, I think a criteria ranking tool like this streamlines the process and is a win-win for both developers and
the resource management agency.
Christopher Frissell
Christopher Frissell Subscriber
Jul 08, 2014 02:48 PM
As a biologist myself also, I'm concerned by gross mismatches at state borders, because I think they indicate a seriously large degree of human arbitrariness--i.e., ecological unreality--to the mapping efforts. You can try to paint a political smiley face on this outcome, but it doesn't boost my confidence in the science that supposedly underlies the decisions represented on such maps.
Christopher Frissell
Christopher Frissell Subscriber
Jul 08, 2014 03:00 PM
Moreover the clash of priorities for conservation and development likely condemns ecosystems that happen to fall along state boundaries to a fate dictated by the lowest common conservation denominator, established by whichever state is most development-oriented at the time and place of the mapping.
Richard Hutto
Richard Hutto Subscriber
Jul 08, 2014 06:04 PM
I agree with Frissell--the maps are a joke. Every species has different and unique requirements, so it all boils down to what you want, and that means the maps are nothing more than what state agencies like--game species! If you want something meaningful, ask a competent natural historian for some real insight. Then you'll find ungrazed riparian areas and burned forests and a host of other critical habitats that don't have a chance in a system rigged for game production instead of ecosystem maintenance.