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Map shows crucial habitat of wildlife

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CARLSBAD – Animosity among oil and gas interests and conservationist groups in southeastern New Mexico may begin to wane thanks to new technology.

The Western Governors’ Association unveiled a new high-tech wildlife habitat mapping project during Thursday’s winter meeting that levels the information gap between special interests.

“(We) hope to have this tool minimize the amount of conflict, or at least surprises,” said Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist with the Tuscon, Arizon-based Center for Biological Diversity.

New Mexico, along with the 15 other participating states, began the process of using mapping techniques from geographic information systems five years ago to document the land. Data has been compiled and is available to the public on a colorful map displaying wildlife habitat, wetlands and other valuable natural resources.

The Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, or CHAT, provides layers of data that rate the resources on a scale of one to six, from most to least “crucial.” Individual states determine those priorities based on their information about such things as the condition of the habitat and the individual species’ economic and recreational importance.

“It’s something that is designed to be a first stop, this is where you start,” said Joe Rassenfoss, communications director for the WGA. “It’s a real treasure trove of information.”

The southeastern portion of the Land of Enchantment has seen numerous habitat clashes throughout the years because the same land that’s home to endangered species such as the lesser prairie chicken and dunes sagebrush lizard also houses vast amounts of subsurface fossil fuels in the Permian Basin.

The Carlsbad Department of Development thinks CHAT may quell the amount of pushback from local environmental groups that it says inhibits progress.

“Historically the environmentalists have been overzealous, and many organizations have been extreme and not willing to compromise,” said Dave Sepich, president of CDOD. “If science is sound and it tells us it is safe, then let that be the guide instead of emotions. That has always been our position.”

The Energy Department provided a $3 million grant and individual states contributed the time of mapping specialists the past three years to help gather, organize and input the information, according to Rassenfoss.

The map can be found at westgovchat.org/map.

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