Best of the West: Celebrating wildlife conservation; a new non-profit hospital system; harnessing the power of volcanoes; and acid-spewing ants

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting April 4, 2022. (Photos courtesy of Bart van meele and the U.S. Mint)

In celebration of National Wildlife Week (April 4-8), now is a good time to revel in the success of recent conservation efforts throughout the West and examine how these strategies are being expanded regionally. 

In Washington, thanks to a slew of efforts to protect whales and their food supply, a record number of orcas and humpback whale calves were recently spotted in the Salish Sea as well as in Bellingham Bay. “Humpback whales, I’m very happy to say, are doing incredibly well in this region,” said Erin Gless, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. A new calf was also born to the southern resident orcas around Seattle and more Gray whales are being spotted in San Francisco, California

Further inland, in North Dakota, wildlife officials say bighorn sheep have successfully overcome a crippling disease outbreak in the Badlands and now boast record populations. In Montana, thanks to close monitoring of water temperatures during severe drought conditions, 2021 had the second-highest estimate on record for rainbow trout along the Craig section of the Missouri River. Federal officials in Arizona said they recorded the highest number of Mexican gray wolves in the wild since recovery efforts for the endangered species began in 1998. Even the famed Western Monarch butterfly, which many worried was disappearing, is rebounding. Thanks to conservation efforts throughout the west, the iconic species increased its population by more than 100-fold this year.

By leveraging millions in new federal aid, western states are working with non-profits to expand upon these successful conservation strategies. Many of the projects are focused on resorting habitat. California announced it would award funding to 15 multi-beneficial restoration and protection projects for North Coast coho salmon recovery. In Arizona, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its partners allocated $2 million in grant funding for elk habitat stewardship, wildlife management and hunting heritage projects.

Others are dedicated to maintaining important migration corridors. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation provided a major grant to aid a federal effort to map big-game migration corridors in the American West to stimulate public and private conservation efforts that benefit wildlife populations. The Oregon Legislature recently passed a bill allocating $7 million for wildlife corridor projects. In California, The National Wildlife Federation announced that construction will begin on the world's largest wildlife crossing, which is set to span over U.S. 101, one of the busiest highways in the country. 

Modernizing Medicine: Intermountain Healthcare in Utah recently merged with Colorado-based SCL Health to form one of the largest nonprofit hospital systems in the West. With 33 hospitals and more than 58,000 employees spread across four states, as well as dozens of clinics, the merger will help transition the service providers to a digital world while also keeping prices in check. “My industry, which I love, is woefully behind virtually every other industry in terms of digital adoption,” Dr. Marc Harrison, the CEO of Intermountain Health, said. “You’re probably more likely to be able to make an appointment for your dog at the vet online than you are to be able to make an appointment with your doctor online.”

Volcano Power: The Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, a remote village in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, received $2.5 million in federal funding for the Makushin Geothermal Project. When completed, the plant will harness power from the 6,000-foot Makushin volcano and help offset the city’s use of around 3 million gallons of diesel per year while keeping energy prices down for the local residents and fishing industry. Having last erupted in the 1990s, the magma within the Makushin volcano is exptect to generate 30-MW geothermal power, which will then be transmitted to the city via underground and undersea cables.

Acid-spewing Ants: Researchers at The University of Texas have discovered a naturally occurring fungus that can reverse the spread of tawny crazy ants, which have disrupted ecosystems throughout the Lone Star State for 20 years. The invasive insect wipes out local insect and lizard populations, drives away birds and even blinds baby rabbits by spewing acid in their eyes.

Women in the West: As part of the four-year series celebrating women's contributions to the United States, the U.S. Mint announced that it will feature five prominent women on quarters each year. In 2023, the second year in the series, quarters will feature several prominent western women. Bessie Coleman, who was born in Texas, was the first African American and first Native American woman to be certified as pilot in the country. Jovita Idar, who was also born in Texas, was a prominent Mexican American journalist who advocated for women’s suffrage. Edith Kanaka'ole was an indigenous Hawaiian who helped keep the islands’ cultural traditions alive by founding the internationally recognized dance company, Hālau o Kekuhi, known for hula dancing. Maria Tallchief, from Oklahoma, was America's first prima ballerina. 

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