Best of the West: New tools to fight invasive species; mapping migration corridors across the region; record snowfall in Montana

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Nov. 16, 2020. Photo courtesy of WyoFile.

Invasive species are a major threat to western ecosystems, which makes controlling their spread a top priority for Western Governors.

Last year, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon assembled an invasive plant task force, culminating in a 40-page report detailing everything from policy gaps to research needs. According to WyoFile, the report is part of a larger, collaborative effort between the state and the University of Wyoming, county weed and pest agencies, nonprofit organizations, and landowners.

“If you value the natural resources of an area that can serve both recreation and tourism and an agricultural economy, then the potential degradation of the natural resources by invasive plants is huge,” said Brian Mealor, an associate professor of plant sciences at the University of Wyoming and director of the Sheridan Research and Extension Center

One way researchers are working to combat invasive grasses – including cheatgrass, ventenata and medusahead – is through the use of unmanned drones. The technology works by picking up on electromagnetic energy unique to specific species of plants, which can help pinpoint competitive, nonnative organisms with over 90% accuracy.

This powerful, new tool helps forest and rangeland managers cover much more ground than would normally be possible. Although it’s unlikely to ever replace the need for boots on the ground entirely, experts are optimistic about the progress they have made.

“I feel hopeful, and I feel like part of that is because it’s not just one small group of us working on it now,” Mealor said. “A lot of other people, who historically their emphasis has not been focused on invasive species, are getting involved… and because of that I feel like we’re in a good place to move forward.”

Click here to learn more about WGA’s Biosecurity and Invasive Species Initiative, launched in 2018 as the central policy effort of WGA Past Chair Hawaii Gov. David Ige. And check out our recently released Toolkit for Invasive Annual Grass Management in the West.

Tech Jobs: While the COVID pandemic has been devastating to many sectors of the West’s economy, Colorado’s tech industry has fared remarkably well, The Colorado Sun reports. The most notable example of this trend is the popular videoconferencing service Zoom, now a household name. The company, which has an office in Denver, increased its workforce by 42% since the beginning of the year, bringing its total staff to 3,400 employees. “We’ve just been seeing incredible growth in the tech sector across our state,” said Cory Finney, a partner with the Greater Colorado Venture Fund, which invests in startups in rural areas.  “I see even post-COVID Colorado being a really strong place where people decide they want to spend their time. I think that there’s a lot of tailwind there.” Read more about what the future might hold.

College Enrollment: In a time where some higher education institutions are struggling to attract students, Southern Utah University reported more year-to-year enrollment growth than any other public university in the state, according to Utah Public Radio. The university, located in Cedar City, had a 12.1% increase in enrollment and welcomed 1,358 new students this fall. And they weren’t the only ones. Dixie State University, just an hour and a half’s drive away in St. George, also experienced record enrollment growth. “Overall, enrollment did increase by 7.6% over last year," said Darlene Dilley, the assistant provost of enrollment. "And we did welcome about 3,210 new students to campus, which was a 10.8% increase in first-time freshmen and transfer students; So, one of our biggest incoming classes ever.” Find out what helped contribute to their success.

Migration Corridors: The Corridor Mapping Team, a collaborative effort between the U.S. Geological Survey and several western states, recently released its first volume of maps, which document more than 40 big-game migration routes in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Wyoming Public Media reports that the effort, first began in 2018, aims to prevent mule deer, elk, pronghorn, moose, and bison migrations from being disrupted by human activities. "Many ungulate herds have been following the same paths across western landscapes since before the United States existed, so these maps are long overdue," said Matt Kauffman, lead author of the report. "I'm really proud of the team that worked across multiple agencies to transform millions of GPS locations into standardized migration maps.” The Corridor Mapping Team plans to release a second volume of maps next year, further detailing various migration patterns throughout the region. Learn more. Read about WGA’s policy resolution regarding migration corridors in the West.

Record Snowfall: Winter has come early in Montana, where decades-old temperature and snowfall records have been shattered in recent weeks, according to Montana Public Radio. In Missoula, nearly 19 inches of snow fell between Oct. 1 and Nov. 11, beating the previous record from 1973 by five inches. In Garden City, only one more inch of snow is needed by the end of the month to push the area over the all-time October and November snowfall record, which has held strong since 1961. Additionally, Helena and Great Falls this season have broken 60 and 95-year-old records respectively, both for snow accumulation as well. Meteorologists credit the historic conditions to a strong La Niña pattern, which typically brings with it brings cold and wet winters to the Treasure State. Here’s the latest forecast for the region.

ICYMI: COVID-19 in the West: A state-by-state breakdown of the Governors’ work (updated regularly)

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