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New West Daily Roundup for Aug. 19, 2016

Today in New West news: Montana FWP close parts of Yellowstone River over whitefish, Colorado company seeks to retrain workers for solar industry, and drones in Park County, Wyoming.

Yesterday, we reported that thousands of dead whitefish had been found in the Yellowstone River, prompting concern from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials. We added that the agency was testing fish for probable causes and would know by Thursday what course of action to take.

Now, according to a Montana FWP press release, the agency is closing part of the Yellowstone River and its tributaries, from the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park and Gardiner to the Highway 212 bridge in Laurel, to all water-based recreation activities (fishing, wading, floating, tubing, boating, etc.). Officials have determined the whitefish were killed by a particularly pernicious parasite, and closing the river will “protect the fishery and the economy it sustains.” From a MTFWP press release:

Test results from samples sent to the U.S. and Wildlife Service Fish Health Center in Bozeman show the catalyst for this fish kill to be Proliferative Kidney Disease – one of the most serious diseases to impact whitefish and trout. The disease, caused by a microscopic parasite, is known to occur in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. It has been documented previously in only two isolated locations in Montana over the past 20 years. Recent outbreaks have occurred in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. In trout, research has shown this disease to have the potential to cause 20 to 100 percent mortality. The parasite does not pose a risk to humans.

The effect of the disease on Yellowstone’s fish populations is exacerbated by other stressors like near record low flows, consistent high temperatures, and the disturbance caused by recreational activities.

FWP Director Jeff Hagener says in coming to the decision, the Department had to weigh the totality of the circumstances and risk to the fishery.

“We recognize that this decision will have a significant impact on many people. However, we must act to protect this public resource for present and future generations,” said Hagener.

“A threat to the health of Montana’s fish populations is a threat to Montana’s entire outdoor economy and the tens of thousands of jobs it sustains,” said Gov. Steve Bullock, noting that Montana’s outdoor recreation economy is responsible for more than 64,000 Montana jobs and nearly $6 billion in yearly economic activity. “We must be guided by science. Our state cannot afford this infectious disease to spread to other streams and rivers and it’s my responsibility to do everything we can to stop this threat in its tracks and protect Montana jobs and livelihoods.”

FWP will continue to monitor the river and will lift the closure when stream conditions such as flow and temperature improve and fish mortality ceases.

Over in Colorado, a new program aims to retrain coal and/or oil and gas industry workers to work in the solar industry, installing panels. According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, the state Department of Labor and Employment has given a $400,000 grant to a Paonia-based company to get said program up and running:

The goal is to recruit and train 350 people for various jobs in the solar industry. Students can take a single course as an introduction to solar power or more than 200 hours of training in the Solar Professionals Certificate Program.

Chris Turek, spokesman for Solar Energy International, said the company recruited coal miners because of their focus on safety and experience with mechanics and electrical engineering. Those skills can easily be transferred to the solar industry, he said.

“People are becoming more and more open to it because they’re starting to realize it’s just another part of the energy sector,” Turek said. “At the end of the day, we need electricity, and that need for electricity is just growing.”

Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association President Rebecca Cantwell said solar energy programs are bearing fruit, the Denver Post reported. “We’re going to see more and more of this because there’s more and more awareness that the coal industry is in real trouble,” Cantwell said.

Stuart Sanderson, who is president of the Colorado Mining Association, said other jobs like the solar industry usually don’t pay as much as jobs in the oil and gas industry or coal mining. The average mining job in Colorado paid $91,000 in 2015, according to the National Mining Association. Solar installers can make up to $25 an hour, or about $50,000 a year.

The news comes amid an announcement from the Department of Labor and Employment that Colorado’s unemployment has risen slightly for the fourth consecutive months, according to the Denver Business Journal. Oil and gas, along with mining, posted some of the most notable declines.

Finally, according to the Wyoming Business Report, a public forum scheduled for Powell, in Park County, is looking to gather input on the potential for drones and remotely piloted aircraft in Park County:

The forum will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 25, in the Yellowstone Conference Center on the campus of Northwest College in Powell. There will be short presentations by industry experts, followed by a question-and-answer period. Drones and remotely piloted aircraft will also be on display.

According to a 2013 study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, through 2025 the drone industry is expected to have a more than $80 billion impact on the U.S. economy, creating over 100,000 jobs. The study also found the main industries driving the growth will be agriculture — monitoring everything from crops to cattle — and public safety. In the energy industry, they are being used to examine oil and gas pipelines.

“In the study, Wyoming is listed as being the state that will benefit the least from this industry over the next 10 years, but we actually have local resources in place already to defy this prediction,” said Christine Bekes, executive director the Powell Economic Partnership (PEP). “The goal of the forum is to highlight the economic potential for Park County and Wyoming in the growing industry of drones, or remotely piloted aircraft systems.”

The forum is being hosted by PEP and Forward Cody, in partnership with the Northwest College Center for Training and Development.

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