Best of the West: Sagebrush habitats threatened; Montana capitalizes on astrotourism; the ski industry’s Bob Ross

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on news of the West. Here are top stories for the week starting Nov. 11, 2019. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sagebrush habitat, vital to the survival of 350 different species of plants and animals, is facing a serious problem.

Colorado Public Radio reports that due in part to drought, urban development and damaging grazing practices, approximately half of the plant’s longtime habitat in the West has been wiped out. This is troublesome for the region’s ecosystem, as sagebrush provides food and shelter for many animals, its leaves improve the soil for other plants, and like other vegetation, sagebrush also helps to scrub carbon from the atmosphere. 

In its place, invasive species of “alien grasses” are making inroads. These species, which include plants like Mediterranean grass and cheatgrass, can exacerbate the risk of wildfires in already fire-prone regions like California, AP News reports.    

To combat the decline of sagebrush, the Nevada Department of Corrections has teamed up with the Bureau of Land Management and the Institute for Applied Ecology in order to spearhead a program where inmates cultivate the plant behind bars. Once fully grown, KOLO 8 reports that the sagebrush is transplanted to “scarred areas,” namely places where native specimens have been wiped out by fire.

In Wyoming, a similar program was launched last month, as part of a partnership between the Wyoming Honor Farm and the state’s Bureau of Land Management and Department of Environmental Quality.

This week New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a shared stewardship agreement  with the U.S. Forest Service intended to improve collaborative efforts between state and federal officials to address problems like invasive species and wildfire.

Learn about WGA’s policy regarding sagebrush and invasive grasses in this letter commending the recent completion of the Western Weed Action Plan.

Easing Stress for First Responders: In 2017, more firefighters and police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty. This issue is especially prevalent, reports The Sacramento Bee, in California, where first responders battling fierce wildfires are often left with long-lasting trauma from the experience. Consequently, Cal Fire has begun a series of preventative programs intended to help their firefighters heal, using stress reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga and equine therapy. Learn more about their efforts.

Microplastics in Marine Life: “Several studies have shown that microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic that make up other larger plastic items, can make their way into fish, crustaceans, clams, oysters and ultimately into us, the people that eat them,” Oregon Public Broadcasting reports. Researchers of an Oregon-based study on the matter, however, are unsure what effect these microplastics may have on biotic organisms. Find out what experts know so far, and what they still need to learn.

Astrotourism in Montana: Tourists are increasingly being drawn to eastern Montana to witness something almost 80% of North America lacks: a dark night sky. According to Montana Public Radio, this boom in so-called “astrotourism” has inspired residents to capitalize on the opportunities that come with it, including pushing for “dark sky designations” for parks across the state. Recently, the Montana Department of Commerce provided a $75,000 grant to help the process along. Here’s what the money will be used for.

The Ski Industry’s Bob Ross: If you’ve gone skiing in the West during the last few decades, chances are you’ve seen the artwork of James Niehues. The Colorado native has painted more than 350 ski maps around the world since 1987, including maps for almost every resort in Utah, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Recently, the man dubbed “the ski industry’s Bob Ross” was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame after his illustrations went viral on Twitter. Read more about Niehues’s life and career.

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