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Brett French, Billings Gazette

New West Daily Roundup for Mar. 16, 2017

Today in New West news: chasing thunderbird art in Wyoming, Idaho wildlife plan approved, and Secretary Zinke finalizes controversial Utah coal lease.

Eagles carry great import in a variety of cultures, especially in Native American nations across North America. Eagle feathers, especially, were valued in headdresses. More than a fashion statement, however, feathers signified the wearer’s worthiness—you had to earn the right, it was not taken lightly.

Indeed, one researcher from the Draper Natural History Museum in Cody, Wyoming is looking whether thunderbird art across the state correlates with eagle nesting sites, according to the Billings Gazette:

CODY, Wyo. — When Bonnie Smith first saw three golden eagle nests on a cliff above an ancient American Indian thunderbird petroglyph, she had to wonder if there was a connection.

“Was that intentional?” she thought. “It seems so obvious.”

That question has launched her on a search across the Bighorn Basin for other rock art sites depicting eagle-like creatures close to eagle nests, eagle capture sites and fasting beds used by native people before the Euro-American migration west.

“I’m looking for positive ways to make the correlation in the Bighorn Basin,” said Smith, the curatorial assistant at the Draper Natural History Museum in Cody, Wyoming.

The work ties in nicely with her boss’s research. Charles Preston is studying golden eagles in the area. He has identified 70 nest territories occupied by golden eagles at least once since 2009.


“Eagle feathers, since they were part of an eagle, aka the thunderbird, were considered a special item, something you’d earn the right to use, wear or touch,” said Rebecca West, curator of the Plains Indian Cultures and the Plains Indian Museum in Cody. “It was not done by just anyone.”

West said although some people may look at a feather bonnet as a piece of clothing, it was actually an earned right for a leader, spiritual leader, healers and medicine man or woman.

“So it’s a lot deeper than people think,” she said. “It’s not just for warriors. That’s why it’s so controversial today when a New York fashion model wears a feather — because it’s an earned right.”

Over in Idaho, according to the Idaho Business Review, the state has received the go-ahead for a wildlife conservation plan aimed at using federal money to boost nongame species and “avoid” listings under the Endangered Species List:

In a letter received by state officials the week of March 6, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on Idaho’s 1,500-page State Wildlife Action Plan that identifies 205 species of concern.

Those species include already listed grizzly bears and salmon, plus imperiled sage grouse, monarch butterflies and the magnum mantleslug, which hasn’t been verified in Idaho since a dead one was found 2013.

“Ultimately, the goal is to make sure that these species don’t make the endangered species list and those that are on come off and the state maintains management authority,” said Brad Compton, assistant chief of Wildlife for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Idaho has received about $550,000 annually under its previous plan developed in 2005.

Officials examined nearly 5,000 species to come up with the 205 identified as “species of greatest conservation need.” The plan divides those species into three priority categories, with 43 assigned to what the plan calls an early warning list of species possibly heading toward extinction within the state.

The plan also identifies potential threats and the highest priority actions to help specific species.

Idaho “really went above and beyond in getting input from partners and stakeholders to develop a robust method to identify the species of greatest conservation need,” said Kathy Hollar, chief of the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region. “Idaho has a lot of biodiversity so they had a lot to work with.”

She noted the program involves more than keeping species off the Endangered Species List.

It’s “the whole idea of being able to keep common species common so you have biodiversity and the full complement of species and their interaction in the ecosystem,” she said.

Finally, down in Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Interior Department has finalized a 55 million-ton coal lease deal with the operators of Sufco mine under Fishlake and Manti-La Sal national forests. Hailed by new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the deal was swiftly criticized by environmental groups like WildEarth Guardians, who have a pending administrative appeal. From the Tribune:

“The validity of the leases hasn’t been resolved yet. It is unfortunate BLM is moving forward,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth’s energy policy director. “They are bending over backwards for the coal industry like never before.”

Also Wednesday, Zinke named a career BLM manager to succeed director Neil Kornze in an acting capacity. The appointment of Michael Nedd, the agency’s assistant director for energy, minerals and realty management, was meant to signal Zinke’s “focus on creating responsible energy jobs on public lands where appropriate.”

In the coming days, the Trump administration is expected to make good on a campaign promise of lifting an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing, which had been imposed while the Interior Department reforms the federal coal program to ensure the public receives a fair return on any mining on public lands.

Greens Hollow is one of four major federal coal leases in the pipeline in Utah, including one near Bryce Canyon National Park needed to keep Alton’s Coal Hollow mine going.

Canyon Fuels Co., now owned by Bowie Resource Partners, proposed the Greens Hollow lease a decade ago so it’s Sufco mine could continue its underground longwall operations, extracting high-Btu, low-sulfur coal. This lease is expected to return $194 million in royalties and taxes. Sufco is under contract to supply PacifiCorp’s nearby Hunter and Huntington power plants through 2020.

While the lease could keep Sufco’s 600 miners employed and was endorsed by four neighboring counties, Nichols questioned whether it would be good for the landscape, the planet or the treasury.

“The BLM continues to turn its back on the climate consequences of issuing coal leases,” he said. “Greens Hollow coal is directly under priority habitat for sage course. To do an underground mine, they have to put in ventilation shafts and build roads and power lines.”

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