Best of the West: Mars expedition has roots across the region; cloning a black-footed ferret revival; stemming the exodus of young rural residents

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Feb. 22, 2021. (Mars lander and rover image courtesy of NASA)

Hundreds of millions of miles away on Mars, the Perseverance rover has begun to explore the Red Planet for signs of life following its safe landing on Feb. 18. Meanwhile, much closer to home, innovators from across the West are playing a role in the remarkable mission.

  • Scientists at Arizona State University designed the rover's camera-system, Mastcam-Z, which takes high-definition video, panoramic and 3D photos.
  • A team at Lockheed Martin in Colorado created the aeroshell that protects the rover from the heat and pressure of the planet's atmospheric environment.
  • An Idaho National Laboratory team worked on a component that uses pellet forms of the radioactive material plutonium-238 to generate the electricity that powers the rover. (As they did with a previous Mars rover.)
  • First Mode, an engineering firm based in Seattle, Washington, oversaw assembly of the rover.
  • The mission might have seemed old hat for Sierra Nevada Corporation, which has now worked on 14 Mars missions with NASA. The company has eight mechanisms on the rover, including a descent brake mechanism critical to landing.
  • When the rover arrives at a site where scientists believe a river used to flow, New Mexico-based geologist Larry Crumpler will begin mapping terrain and collecting samples with technology developed in part at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
  • And it was ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who successfully guided the mission and successful landing.

Scientists are far from done. They have two follow-up missions later this decade to retrieve the samples being collected now by the rover.

RURAL CHALLENGE: The Modern West podcast of Wyoming Public Media recently produced an episode on the “out-migration of rural youth” that examines the reasons why, including an interest in exploring the world outside their hometown. It also considers the question of whether they might come back home if there was more high-speed broadband availability. WGA examined the same issue in our Reimagining the Rural West Initiative, which included a keynote by noted rural sociologist Benjamin Winchester that paints a more vibrant picture of rural communities and suggests how those communities could retain more young and older residents.

CLONING A REVIVAL: Meet Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret who is more than just a new arrival: she’s the first-ever cloned U.S. endangered species. The Associated Press reports that Elizabeth Ann is "a genetic copy of a ferret named Willa who died in 1988 and whose remains were frozen in the early days of DNA technology." Because the existing ferret population lacks genetic diversity, it is potentially more susceptible to intestinal parasites and diseases such as sylvatic plague. The animal born and being raised at a Fish and Wildlife Service breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, is part of an experiment that could potentially broaden that genetic diversity and help bring back other extinct species. Read more.

SAVING THE WHITEBARK PINE: Nothing stands alone in the forest, a reality exemplified by the Whitebark Pine found in the high elevations of the Rocky Mountains. The pine tree shelters creatures and provides “nutritious cones packed with protein-rich seeds” that are a major food source for grizzly bears and the Clark’s nutcracker bird. But a rare disease, white pine blister, and mountain pine beetles now imperil the tree’s survival. A new film, Ghost Forests, explains how forest managers, including tree climbers collecting cones in Canada and a University of Montana scientist, are battling to save the tree. Learn more and watch.

STATE OF THE STATE: Western Governor have been delivering their State of the State addresses in recent weeks. Watch all addresses to date and see a ‘word cloud’ of the top issues discussed by Jared Polis of Colorado, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, Greg Gianforte of Montana, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Brad Little of Idaho, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Laura Kelly of Kansas, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Kate Brown of Oregon, Spencer Cox of Utah, David Ige of Hawaii, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Lemanu Mauga of American Samoa. Read, watch all addresses.

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