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Friday news roundup: industry grows and species croak

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Neil LaRubbio | Jan 27, 2012 06:00 AM

Updated 1/27/2012

Breaking: Presidential candidate Marvin E. Quasniki, from the Henson Company, kicked off his Nevada tour this week. He’s a puppet from Nevada, a turquoise farmer from Tonopah and a crude entrenchment of old ideas whom you don’t completely trust speaking around your children.

Marvin Quasniki FacebookWe led with Quasniki's declaration because it's obviously very important, but here are a few other notable items in this week's Western news.

ENERGY

Water's a key element of the nuclear energy equation. And the first nuclear power facility in the West since 1987 just got theirs to add up nicely. Utah state engineer Kent Jones approved the water permit for a new plant on the Green River this week, giving Blue Castle Holdings 53,600 acre-feet per year. "We have listened to and very much appreciate the concerns raised by those in the local community and others," Jones said. "Those concerns helped us look carefully and critically at the proposal as we considered the appropriate action on these applications." Read former HCN intern Rachel Waldholz's story for more history of the deal ("Water fallout", 3/1/10 HCN)

Tensions between local and state authorities in Colorado flared when Arapaho and El Paso counties passed new regulations on drill rig siting from oil and gas companies drilling near their communities. The rules would have extended setback requirements, ensuring rigs could not be too close to houses or other structures, like schools. The state house and industry are united in helping the locals understand the limits of their authority, and in response to the state's outcry, Arapaho County commissioners have already voted down the proposed buffer regs. A lobbying group for the counties argued that locals have "specific authority…to regulate the lands within our jurisdictions."

ECONOMICS

Many Oregon counties face near-impossible budget fixes for the short term. Federal funds to replace lost timber revenue that many Pacific Northwest rural schools and communities count on have expired because the feds haven't renewed the bill dispersing those monies. Some counties have predicted going broke by next year, and others are trying anything they can to raise some capital.

Truckers in Montana haven’t had pay raises since 2008, and Teamster Local 2 has authorized 300 Department of Transportation members to strike. State labor negotiator Paula Stoll says contingency plans will ensure that highways still get plowed in the event that union truckers, who average $18.21/hour (which adds up to $36,420/year, $5,880 less than the state's median income), strike.

LANDS

The city of Bozeman, Mont. and the Forest Service face a familiar trio of environmental groups committed to blocking forest restoration plans for the local watershed. Science shows that thinning forests to density levels prior to settlement reduces the risk of catastrophic fire. Sediment spikes in drinking water after wildfire can cost utilities millions to clean out. Bozeman and the feds want to avoid that, through a combination of timber harvests and prescription burns. Enviros say the plan endangers critical lynx and grizzly habitat and reduces tree coverage for elk.

Transmission line building continues its march through the Big Sky state. Attorneys for Montana Alberta Tie Line LLP, a subsidiary of Canadian power utility Enbridge, argued that House Bill 198 passed last year is not the illegal "special legislation" that opposing landowner attorneys claimed it was. And the state's 6th District Judicial Court agreed with them. The court's decision upheld the bill, noting that even though the bill was specially designed for MATL to exercise eminent domain and traipse through people's ranches, pitching power lines from Lethbridge to Great Falls, the bill does not withhold that same privilege from other entities, so it's legit.

WILDLIFE

Readers looking for fair and balanced coverage should shield their eyes: Here's still more news from Montana. The state's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has recommended to extend wolf hunting in the Upper Bitterroot Valley until April, snubbing traditional policy against hunting animals during breeding season.  Ron Aasheim, spokesman for the FWP, says it’s just a one time thing. FWP commissioner Ron Moody thinks extending the season is a bad idea, but his agency counterparts say only 4 out of 18 gray wolves have been hunted in that area, which has seen tremendous elk declines. The agency's also considering another controversial proposal to open bison hunting north of Yellowstone National Park. Officials typically cull or relocate the migratory beasts because ranchers fear brucellosis outbreaks in Paradise Valley. Activists have fought against culling bison for years, and so FWP has introduced hunting as a solution.

And what about the yellow-legged frogs in California whose populations have declined by 90 percent? The fungus commonly called chytrid, a killer of amphibians worldwide, has decimated once ubiquitous populations of the garlic-scented frogs. Invasive trout, wildfire, timber operations and habitat loss are also seen as factors in their decline. The California Fish and Game Commission meets next week to discuss listing the frogs as threatened or endangered.

Blue glacier in Olympic National ParkCLIMATE

Researchers in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona have demonstrated how climate change may affect songbirds by opening up their high elevation habitat to elk for longer time periods. When scientists fenced elk from some grazing areas, plant and tree communities grew robust habitat and forage for songbirds. The reverse occurred in areas where researchers permitted elk to graze. With less snow in the mountains, elk have longer access to higher grazing land, which has proven deadly for five species of declining songbird populations.

Also, Ferry Glacier has disappeared from Olympic National Park.  Park glaciers have shrunk by 15 percent since 1980, and the park's largest glacier -- Blue Glacier -- has lost 18 percent of its mass. On the upside, there are 45 more glaciers today than 30 years ago! But then, back on the downside, that's only because the large ones have broken into smaller ones.

Correction: In a previous edition, glaciers from Olympic National Park were incorrectly said to be disappearing from Glacier National Park. The blog has been updated to reflect those changes.

Neil LaRubbio is an intern at High Country News.

Image of Blue glacier in Olympic National Park courtesy Flickr user wild trees.

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