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R. Blew and M. Case - S. M. Stoller Corporation
The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was designated as a National Environmental Research Park (NERP) in 1975. The NERP program was established in response to recommendations from citizens, scientists, and members of Congress to set aside land for ecosystem preservation and study. In many cases, these protected lands became the last remaining refuges of what were once extensive natural ecosystems. The NERPs provide rich environments for training researchers and introducing the public to ecological sciences. NERPs have been used to educate grade school and high school students and the general public about ecosystem interactions at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sites; train graduate and undergraduate students in research related to site-specific, regional, national, and global issues; and promote collaboration and coordination among local, regional, and national public organizations, schools, universities, and federal and state agencies.
Ecological research at the INL began in 1950 with the establishment of the long-term vegetation transect. This is perhaps DOE’s oldest ecological data set and one of the oldest vegetation data sets in the West. Ecological research on the NERPs is leading to better land use planning, identifying sensitive areas on DOE sites so that restoration and other activities are compatible with ecosystem protection and management, and increasing contributions to ecological science in general.
The following ecological research activities took place at the Idaho NERP during 2005:
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The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Site was designated as a National Environmental Research Park (NERP) in 1975. The NERP program was established in response to recommendations from citizens, scientists and members of Congress to set aside land for ecosystem preservation and study. This has been one of the few formal efforts to protect land for ecosystem preservation and study and to protect land on a national scaled for research and education. In many cases, these protected lands became the last remaining refuges of what were once extensive natural ecosystems.
There are five basic objectives guiding activities on the research parks. They are to:
The NERPs provide rich environments for training researchers and introducing the public to the ecological sciences. They have been used to educate grade school and high school students and the general public about ecosystem interactions at DOE sites; train graduate and undergraduate students in research related to site-specific, regional, national, and global issues; and promote collaboration and coordination among local, regional, and national public organizations, schools, universities, and federal and state agencies.
Establishment of NERPs was not the beginning of ecological research at federal laboratories. Ecological research at the INL began in 1950 with the establishment of the long-term vegetation transect study. This is perhaps DOE’s oldest ecological data set and one of the oldest vegetation data sets in the West. Other long-term studies conducted on the Idaho NERP include the reptile monitoring study initiated in 1989, which is the longest continuous study of its kind in the world; as well as the protective cap biobarrier experiment initiated in 1993, which evaluates the long-term performance of evapotranspiration caps and biological intrusion barriers.
Ecological research on the NERPs is leading to better land-use planning, identifying sensitive areas on DOE sites so that restoration and other activities are compatible with ecosystem protection and management, and increased contributions to ecological science in general.
The Idaho NERP provides a coordinating structure for ecological research and information exchange at the INL. The Idaho NERP facilitates ecological research on the INL by attracting new researchers, providing background data to support new research project development, and providing logistical support for assisting researcher access to the INL. The Idaho NERP provides infrastructure support to ecological researchers through the Experimental Field Station and museum reference collections. The Idaho NERP tries to foster cooperation and research integration by encouraging researchers using the INL to collaborate, develop interdisciplinary teams to address more complex problems, and encourage data sharing, and by leveraging funding across projects to provide more efficient use of resources. The Idaho NERP has begun to develop a centralized ecological database to provide an archive for ecological data and facilitate retrieval of data to support new research projects and land management decisions. The Idaho NERP can also be a point of synthesis for research results that integrates results from many projects and disciplines and provides analysis of ecosystem-level responses. The Idaho NERP also provides interpretation of research results to land and facility managers to support the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process natural resources management, radionuclide pathway analysis, and ecological risk assessment.
The following sections describe ecological research activities that took place at the Idaho NERP during 2005.
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Scott Cambrin, Graduate Student, Herpetology Laboratory, Department of
Biological Sciences, Idaho State University (ISU), Pocatello, ID
Charles R. Peterson, Professor, Herpetology Laboratory, Department of Biological Sciences, ISU, Pocatello, ID
Idaho State University Graduate Student Research and Scholarship Committee
U.S. Department of Energy Idaho Operations Office
This project was designed to find the survival rates of rattlesnakes on the INL. A study of survival on the INL will determine what survival rates should be in a pristine sagebrush-steppe ecosystem. More detail is needed on neonatal rattlesnakes as they have been the hardest age class to calculate an accurate survival estimate. The main goal of this project is to determine survival rates at each den site and compare the three main dens to look for variation and potential causes of that variation.
Information from this project is important to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for several reasons: (1) it will produce actual survival rates for each den site and for different age classes for the rattlesnakes on the INL; (2) it will look at the causes of mortality over winter; and (3) it can be used in conjunction with two other projects to create a population viability analysis of the rattlesnakes on site, which will give a good indication on how these populations are persisting.
The objective of this study is to determine overwinter survival in neonatal rattlesnakes. Because rattlesnakes are relatively long-lived species and have been shown to have low mortality rates as adults, it was hypothesized that overwinter survivorship will be lower in neonatal rattlesnakes than in adults. Because animals with higher body conditions tend to store more energy, they can survive longer periods without food. It was hypothesized that neonatal rattlesnakes with higher body conditions will have higher survivorship.
Data were collected through 2005 from snakes returning to the den (Figure 9-1, Figure 9-2, Figure 9-3, and Figure 9-4). The snakes do not leave the den sites again until late spring, therefore, no results have been calculated.
Figure 9-1, Figure 9-2, Figure 9-3, and Figure 9-4 show brief summary results from the fall field season.
Future plans include intensive trapping in the spring and fall of 2006 and the spring of 2007 and analyzing the data to determine the survival (summer 2006 and 2007). Gravid females will be captured to perform a simulated hibernation study in the lab (summer 2006) and approximately two manuscripts will be submitted to peer reviewed scientific journals.
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Mike Ebinger, graduate student, Department of Forestry, Range, and Wildlife
Science, Utah State University, Logan, UT.
Mike Jaeger, Research Zoologist, USDA/APHIS/WS/National Wildlife Research Center, Predator Ecology Field Station, Logan, UT.
USDA/APHIS/WS/National Wildlife Research Center, Ft. Collins, Colorado.
Coyote depredation has been a persistent problem to the livestock industry in the intermountain west for decades. As a pest species, they can also pose problems to species other than domestic livestock, such as game and sensitive species. While current depredation mitigation programs are effective and clearly needed, a more complete understanding of how coyotes move and use space provides a more solid framework for managers to alter current techniques to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Therefore, advancing our understanding of coyote space-use and movement patterns is a crucial step in the management of this intractable predator.
Traditional methods for understanding space-use and movement patterns of coyotes (and other medium- to large-sized carnivores) have relied on VHF radio telemetry and quantitative techniques for home range estimation. This approach has been criticized due to the fact that home range estimation often does not examine meaningful hypotheses about an animal’s movements and behavior (Kernohn et al. 2001). Recent advancements in technology now provide the means to record fine-scale location data on coyotes at a rate (e.g., every five minutes) and volume (e.g., 12,000 locations/coyote/sampling period) that only a few years ago were unattainable. This new approach provides a unique dataset that allows for more meaningful investigations into coyote movement patterns and the internal anatomy of their home ranges.
The overall goal of this project is to better understand how coyotes actually move within their home rages, paying special attention to the temporal component of the dataset. The objectives for 2005 included:
Fifteen of the deployed collars were recovered from the courtship period (January/February) and 11 of 13 collars from the whelping period (May/June). This produced roughly 315,000 five-minute locations. Two transient animals were collared during the May/June phase which showed dramatically different space-use in comparison to resident animals. Transients covered a much larger area than residents and focus their movements in the interstices between established territories. As a result the fine-scale tracking shows the existence of territories where we were unable to capture animals (see Figure 9-5).
A new conceptual approach was developed to look at spatiotemporal patterns of movement paths. This approach is based on the hypothesis that coyotes employ a space-use strategy that is most easily described as “avoiding areas in their home range that they have recently visited.” To test this hypothesis, a raster based approach using the Interactive Data Language programming language and a newly designed statistic (i.e., index) was developed. The program compares the actual data (index summary for movement paths) against the same statistics for randomized datasets where the movement paths are “shuffled” in time but not in space. The large size of the data set prevents exact randomization tests (i.e., all permutations) and approximate randomization procedures are used to create a reference distribution.
Analysis is currently under way and should be completed midway through 2006.
A graduate thesis from this research will be completed in 2006. Continuation of the project beyond 2006 is contingent on future funding.
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Denim M. Jochimsen, MS student, Herpetology Laboratory, Department of
Biological Sciences, ISU, Pocatello, ID.
Charles R. Peterson, Professor, Herpetology Laboratory, Department of Biological Sciences, ISU, Pocatello, ID.
ISU Biological Sciences Department
ISU Graduate Student Research Committee
BBWI Bechtel and the INL-ISU Education Outreach Program
ISU Biology Youth Research Program
Transportation lies at the center of our society, linking destinations, and is ever expanding. A vast network of roads stretches across our landscape affecting ecosystem processes in myriad ways. Roads transform existing vegetation into a compacted earthen surface with altered thermal and moisture characteristics, and generate an array of ecological effects that disrupt ecosystem processes and wildlife movement.
Researchers have conducted surveys along roads in attempts to quantify the most conspicuous effect that roads impose on wildlife, mortality inflicted by vehicles. In reviewing the literature, it became apparent that rigorous studies concerning road mortality of snakes are scarce. Furthermore, studies tend to be focused in the southeast and southwestern United States, with only three studies conducted in northern latitudes.
However, northern temperate snakes possess several characteristics that
increase their susceptibility to road mortality. They migrate seasonally to
locate specific resources (Gregory et al. 1987; King and Duvall 1990) such as
refuge, mates, prey, and egg-laying habitat (for oviparous species). These
resources tend to be located in distinct habitats that are patchily distributed
across the landscape. Many large-bodied snake species make a loop-like migration
from a communal hibernaculum (overwintering den site) to summer foraging
habitats (King and Duvall 1990). Seasonal movements are defined by three
distinct phases: 1) egress, or rapid movement away from the hibernacula, 2)
stationary, or periods of short-distance movements associated with foraging,
gestation, or ecdysis, and 3) ingress, or long-distance movements toward the
hibernacula as described by Cobb (1994). The overlap of these movement corridors
with the road network may result in high mortality. Publications tend to report
numbers of fatalities according to species, but rarely explore the relationship
of mortality with season, sex, or age of individuals.
Road mortality of snakes is a conservation issue that needs to be addressed. Future research must question if this mortality has the potential to severely reduce snake populations to a level where reproductive output cannot replace road-killed individuals (Rosen and Lowe 1994; Rudolph et al. 1999). The adverse effects of roads can be minimized, but the correct placement of mitigation efforts is critical. Ultimately, this research seeks to identify landscape and road variable that are highly correlated with snake mortality. These correlations could then be used to identify area that may represent high risks for snake road mortality. Studies suggest that mitigation success is dependent on correct placement of efforts (Jackson 1999) by identifying high-risk sites.
This study was designed to address three objectives:
Presented general findings of this research at an invited symposium at the 2005 Society for the Northwest Vertebrate Biology / Oregon Chapter of the Wildlife Society annual meeting in Corvallis, Oregon. Investigator received the Les Eberhardt Award for the best student presentation.
Successful defense of Masters Thesis on June 15, 2005
Contributed an oral presentation regarding this research at the International Conference on Ecology and Transportation 2005 held from August 29 through September 2 in San Diego, California. In addition, the results of this research were published in the final proceedings of the Conference.
Roads fragment our landscape, altering natural flows and wildlife movement. The issue of vertebrate mortality on roads was first emphasized in the 1920s and the voluminous literature that has accumulated thereafter raised concern regarding species conservation. This concern has fostered a discipline known as “road ecology,” which seeks to understand the myriad effects of roads on living organisms. There have been numerous reviews and a recent text published on this topic, yet reptiles and amphibians tend to be underrepresented. A literature review was conducted to specifically address the effect of roads on these taxa. This review indicated that mortality of herpetofauna can be quite high in some areas, and that snakes tend to form a large proportion of road-killed reptiles and amphibians. In addition, there exist potential mitigation options if specific locations of high road mortality can be identified.
This review also identified the need for research (1) across a greater expanse of geographic areas, particularly in high latitudes, (2) that analyzes the factors influencing road mortality, (3) that investigates the links between mortality and population effects, and (4) that evaluates the efficacy of mitigation structures. These findings motivated the choice for the research for this thesis. Specifically, this study documents the magnitude of road mortality on snake species that occur in sagebrush-steppe habitat, provides insight into how susceptibility to this mortality differs among species as well as by sex and age class of individuals, and examines how different landscape variables influence road-kill aggregations.
Data were collected by conducting road surveys along a 183 km route on the upper Snake River Plain in southeastern Idaho from May through October of 2003 and 2004. Fifty-six total routes were conducted in 2003, traveling 10,248 km (6368 mi) and encountering a total of 253 snakes (0.025 snakes/km) over the six-month survey period; 93 percent of these animals were found dead on the road (DOR) surface. In 2004, 11 surveys were conducted between May 4 and August 28, traveled 2013 km (1250 mi), and encountered 35 snakes; all but one were dead. The road mortality of four snake species belonging to families Colubridae and Viperidae were recorded. However, the majority of observations belonged to two species with gophersnakes (Pituophis catenifer) comprising 75 percent of all road records, and western rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) comprising 18 percent of all road records. Repeated surveys of a short section indicated that very few snakes are able to successfully cross roads, even with low traffic levels.
Road mortality of snakes exhibited a bimodal trend, with an initial peak during spring/early summer (May and June) and a second peak in late summer/early fall (September), with peaks related to movement patterns of individuals. Specifically, road mortality varied seasonally by age and sex classes for both gophersnakes and western rattlesnakes. A greater number of adult male gophersnakes were encountered DOR in May and June, while the death of adult females did not exhibit a trend. A significant pulse of subadult mortality during the month of September was documented. The seasonal trends in mortality of western rattlesnakes differed from gophersnakes. Mortality of individuals peaked later than that of gophersnakes, during the month of June. The comparison of the monthly mean numbers of road-kills among groups was only marginally significant in June, and was attributed to a greater number of adult males discovered DOR than adult females.
The spatial analysis of the data indicated that the observations were clustered across the survey route. A logistic regression model was used to identify which landscape factors (distance to hibernacula, habitat type, percent cover, elevation, and road slope) influenced the spatial pattern of road mortality. Using Akaike’s information criterion (AIC) to evaluate the best model, road observations were positively correlated with percent grass cover within 10 m (32.8 ft) of the road, percent total vegetative cover within 10 m, presence of basalt piles, and mean distance to known hibernacula.
This research has raised several interesting questions which could direct future studies. Monitoring data from three of the largest snake hibernacula on the INL, indicated that western rattlesnakes were the most abundant snake species, comprising 50 percent of all captures at trapping arrays since 1994. However, the data collected during road surveys in 2003 and 2004 suggest otherwise. Are gophersnakes more susceptible to road mortality due to higher vagility, or are current monitoring efforts ineffective at estimating their populations? In addition, the positive association with grasses, which are mostly invasive cheatgrass and crested wheatgrass, suggests that habitat conversion may be increasing the likelihood of road mortality as opposed to sagebrush dominated areas. Furthermore, this research indicates that individuals may be more susceptible to road mortality during specific movements, such as mating or migration. Knowledge of predictable movements and their relationship with landscape features could help guide effective placement of mitigation efforts.
Amy D. Forman, Environmental Surveillance, Education, and Research Program, S.M. Stoller Corporation, Idaho Falls, ID
U.S. Department of Energy Idaho Operations Office
Shallow land burial is the most common method for disposing of industrial, municipal, and low-level radioactive waste, but in recent decades it has become apparent that conventional landfill practices are often inadequate to prevent movement of hazardous materials into ground water or biota (Suter et al. 1993, Daniel and Gross 1995, Bowerman and Redente 1998). Most waste repository problems result from hydrologic processes. When wastes are not adequately isolated, water received as precipitation can move through the landfill cover and into the wastes (Nyhan et al. 1990, Nativ 1991). Presence of water may cause plant roots to grow into the waste zone and transport toxic materials to above ground foliage (Arthur 1982, Hakonson et al. 1992, Bowerman and Redente 1998). Likewise, percolation of water through the waste zone may transport contaminants into ground water (Fisher 1986, Bengtsson et al. 1994).
In semiarid regions, where potential evapotranspiration greatly exceeds precipitation, it is theoretically possible to preclude water from reaching interred wastes by (1) providing a sufficient cap of soil to store precipitation that falls while plants are dormant and (2) establishing sufficient plant cover to deplete soil moisture during the growing season, thereby emptying the water storage reservoir of the soil.
The Protective Cap/Biobarrier Experiment (PCBE) was established in 1993 at the Experimental Field Station, INL to test the efficacy of four protective landfill cap designs. The ultimate goal of the PCBE is to design a low maintenance, cost effective cap that uses local and readily available materials and natural ecosystem processes to isolate interred wastes from water received as precipitation. Four evapotranspiration (ET) cap designs, planted in two vegetation types, under three precipitation regimes have been monitored for soil moisture dynamics, changes in vegetative cover, and plant rooting depth in this replicated field experiment.
From the time it was constructed, the PCBE has had four primary objectives
Specific tasks for the PCBE in 2005 included maintenance of the study plots, continuation of the irrigation treatments, and collection of soil moisture and plant cover data. The data will be analyzed according to the four major objectives listed above and analyses will focus on long-term cap performance. The PCBE has one of the most complete, long-term data sets for ET caps, which makes it a model system for studying ET cap longevity. Long-term performance issues that will be addressed with the PCBE include changes in plant community composition, species invasion, and changes in soil moisture dynamics as the caps continue to age and the biological communities associated with the caps continue to develop.
One supplemental irrigation treatment was completed on the PCBE in 2005. Fifty mm (1.97 in.) of water was applied to the summer irrigated plots once every other week from the end of June through the beginning of August for a total of 200 mm (7.87 in.). The fall/spring supplemental irrigation treatment was initiated in late September. Half of the fall/spring irrigated plots received 200 mm (7.87 in.) of water during a one week period. Irrigation on the other half of the fall/spring irrigated plots could not be completed due to a failure of the deep well. Repairs to the deep well and the completion of the fall/spring irrigation were scheduled for April of 2006. Soil moisture measurements were collected once every two weeks from beginning of April through mid-October. Vegetation cover data were collected throughout the month of July and into August.
Soil moisture and vegetation data collected in 2005 were archived. Soil moisture data were compiled and summarized, and soil moisture profiles were completed for each cap, irrigation and vegetation treatment. Historical vegetation data on the PCBE were reorganized and reformatted in 2005. Data files were reorganized such that multiple, duplicate files were reconciled and archived in one location and vegetation data within those files were reformatted to be more accessible and easier to use for future data analysis on the PCBE, specifically for analyses pertaining to vegetation community development and associated changes in landfill cover performance.
Initial data analyses from the 2005 soil moisture data indicated that the wetting front from the spring infiltration event was quite variable among soil only caps. On the ambient and summer irrigated subplots, the spring wetting front ranged from 0.8 m (2.6 ft) to 1.6 m (5.3 ft) in depth. The wetting front reached the bottom of the soil only caps on all of the fall/spring irrigated subplots, indicating that the soil only plots are failing under fall/spring irrigation. The spring wetting front extended through the biobarrier on two of the ambient subplots plots and on all of the fall/spring irrigated subplots within the shallow biobarrier plots. The wetting front reached the bottom of two of the fall/spring irrigated subplots under fall/spring irrigation. On the deep biobarrier caps, the spring wetting front did not extend below the biobarrier on any of the subplots even under the fall/spring irrigation treatment. The spring wetting front reached the flexible membrane liner on all of the subplots of the RCRA caps regardless of irrigation or vegetation treatment. Figure 9-6 shows representative soil moisture profiles for soil only, shallow biobarrier, and deep biobarrier plots under fall/spring irrigation in 2005.
Over the ten-year study period, a widespread cap failure occurred in response to the fall irrigation treatment of 2003; this failure was especially apparent during the natural spring infiltration event of 2004. This marks the first event of this type under the experimental treatment conditions. Although some fall/spring irrigated caps, especially the soil only caps, failed again in response to the spring infiltration event of 2005, other caps, primarily the deep biobarrier caps, performed very well in response to the infiltration event.
Soil moisture data will be closely compared with vegetation cover data to determine possible causes of the cap failure. Continued irrigation and soil moisture measurements will be critical over the next few years to gauge whether cap failure under fall irrigation will continue to be a regular event, or whether the cap failures in 2003 were a random and reversible occurrence. As the caps continue to age, more specific differences in performance of various cap designs are becoming apparent, especially under the fall/spring irrigation treatment. The emerging differences will be closely documented and continue to be assessed to determine which cap designs will best withstand climate variability in the future.
Soil moisture and plant community composition and cover were still experiencing important changes in 2005, as evidenced by the cap failures in response to the fall irrigation treatment and summer infiltration event. The PCBE should continue to be monitored at least until cap failure occurs on the fall/spring irrigated caps consistently or until the caps recover and the ecological and soil moisture parameters stabilize and long-term fluctuations can be characterized.
Additional recommended research for the PCBE includes studies pertaining to long-term maintenance issues such as plant community change, response to fire, invasive plant species, erosion, and the role of soil microbiota in cap function. Research on specific uptake parameters and soil moisture distributions associated with native vegetation species will also be useful in optimizing water use by native vegetation, allowing cap revegetation plans and species recommendations to be designed specifically to address various capping issues.
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Anne-Marie Hoskinson, Ph.D. Student, University of Minnesota, St Paul, MN.
Thesis writing was supported by National Science Foundation grant # DGE-0440517.
Recent attempts to understand biodiversity may be inadequate for conservation management because they focus on just one species or population and because they are more concerned with the processes influencing biodiversity than the patterns of biodiversity. The research that has been done on biodiversity patterns is often weakened by inferences not supported by empirical or experimental results or results are extrapolated from small scales to large. This study contributes to our knowledge of biodiversity patterns in three important ways: (1) by empirically investigating the presence and nature of scale dependent biodiversity patterns; (2) by contributing an empirical foundation for scale-specific investigations of processes on patterns in biodiversity; and (3) by developing a model that tests the sensitivity of biodiversity patterns to processes thought to cause those patterns. These aspects were investigated using the method of additive partitioning on a long-term vegetation data set from the sagebrush steppe of Idaho, USA. Understanding the patterns of biodiversity, and forming an empirical basis for understanding the processes that cause and maintain those patterns, is fundamental to biodiversity conservation.
The objective of this study is to use additive partitioning on long-term vegetation data from a sagebrush steppe to test for scale dependence in vascular plant species diversity.
This research was conducted as part of a doctoral program and has been completed.
The method of hierarchical additive partitioning to address three sets of questions relating vascular plant species to the space they inhabit: how species diversity patterns develop in space, how land use affects spatial and temporal diversity, and how species diversity, functional groups, and space are related. First, to develop the explanatory and predictive power of species-area relationships (SARs), additive partitioning was applied to vascular vegetation diversity (richness, Simpson’s, and Shannon’s) on data collected over 50 year from a large region of sagebrush-steppe in Idaho. The power form of the SAR described this pattern well. Species subgroups varied in their match to the log-log SAR. Shrubs derived most of their diversity at the smallest extents, while forbs and perennial grass diversity have strong regional components. Next, diversity among land use types were compared and used the results of hierarchical partitioning was used to distinguish among possible drivers of those differences by comparing diversity components of common and rare species between land use types. It was concluded that land use, not environmental heterogeneity, was the stronger driver of spatial diversity pattern differences between the two regions. Finally, partitioning to regional productivity in order to determine whether species diversity within functional groups was as important to maintaining productivity as the number of functional groups themselves. It was determined that species diversity within perennial grasses mattered more at the regional extent than did diversity within shrubs. From this work, four main conclusions were drawn: (1) conservation efforts must be targeted to specific taxonomic groups in order to preserve a region’s total diversity, (2) land use changes affect diversity patterns and should be considered in effects of land use planning on diversity concerns, (3) species, productivity, and space are related in complex ways, underscoring the need for explicit links between ecosystem ecology and landscape ecology, (4) additive partitioning with significance testing is shown to be a powerful and simple tool for both ecologists and land use planners who need to describe spatial and temporal patterns of species diversity. Additive partitioning can be used with sampling designs limited in extent or scope, and its usefulness is not constrained to particular taxa or biomes.
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Robert P. Breckenridge, Manager, Ecological Science Department, Idaho
National Laboratory, P.O. Box 1625, Idaho Falls, Idaho
Dr. Maxine Dakins, Associate Professor, Environmental Science, University of Idaho, 1776 Science Center Drive, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
This research was part of a laboratory-directed research and development (LDRD) project titled “Development of the Scientific Basis for Landscape Management of Federal Lands.”
Monitoring vegetative cover in vast, semi-arid ecosystems is a difficult task that is often expensive, requires large amounts of time in the field and presents safety hazards. This task is made more difficult as there are not enough resource specialists or funds available to conduct quality ground surveys to support restoration activities.
Resource specialists managing sagebrush-steppe ecosystems are concerned about vegetation condition and habitat losses due to drought, fire, and land conversions. Vegetative cover data provide important information relative to ecological structure and processes such as nutrient cycling (Carroll et al. 1999, Pyke et al. 2002), soil development, and desertification (Mouat and Hutchinson 1995). Improved methods are needed to monitor these habitats to ensure quality data are available in a timely manner to make resource management decisions.
The INL, in conjunction with the University of Idaho, is evaluating a novel approach for monitoring biotic resources on western lands using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as a quick, safe and cost effective method. We established seven macro field plots, each with four 12 m2 (3 x 4 m [9.8 x 13.1 ft]) subplots on the INL west of Idaho Falls, Idaho in areas with varying vegetative types and amounts of cover. In this project, we used two types of UAV platforms, fixed wing and rotocopter. Each UAV was equipped with cameras to collect still frame and video imagery to assess cover in sagebrush-steppe ecosystems.
The purpose of our project is to evaluate the feasibility of collecting imagery with a UAV and processing the imagery to estimate total percent cover and percent cover by selected type (shrub, forbs, grass, dead shrub, litter and bare ground), and compare the accuracy of results from these approaches to standard field methods.
The fixed wing UAV is an APV3 RNR aircraft with about a 3-m (9.8-ft) wing span that flew using an autonomous navigation system and carried an 8 M pixel, full-size camera and video feed and flew 76, 152 and 305 m (250, 500 and 1000 ft) above ground level (AGL). Due to concerns during turning operations, the plane could not be flown below 250 ft AGL The rotocopter is made by Miniature Aircrafts and is a X-Cell model that carried a 4 M pixel micro camera and flew between 10.7 - 15.2 m (35-50 ft) AGL. Because of its size, the fixed wing UAV was capable of collecting many more images over a much larger area during a single flight. The main limitation for collecting imagery was camera storage capacity and navigation system battery life. The rotary UAV is capable of flying at a much lower level and has the potential to collect better imagery. However, it has limitation with fuel capacity (i.e., air time), requires a more skilled pilot, has landing location limitations, and weather condition restrictions (mostly winds).
Vegetative cover was evaluated in the field using a point frame method with 50 percent of each subplot read. The imagery from the UAV’s is being evaluated using the processing software Sample Point being developed by the Agriculture Research Service (Booth et al. 2005). Sample Point lays a grid (typically 10 x 10 lines) over an image with its size and alignment adjusted to best fit the Sample Point frame. Three different observers trained together to learn the software and calibrate their observations. An evaluation of how the three sets of results compare against each other and the field data is currently ongoing and will be reported in the literature in the near future. Data from both the field and sample point evaluations are being compiled into a database that will allow for comparison of accuracy between the two UAVs and field methods and among observers.
Evaluation of vegetative cover is an important factor for maintaining the sustainability of many biotic resources; especially those associated with sage grouse populations. Vegetative cover is a critical indicator evaluated during ecological restoration activities (Pyke et al. 2002). Improved methods for assessing cover at the life form level that are accurate and cost-effective could revolutionize how biotic resources are monitored on vast area of western lands. Natural resource managers and specialists may be able to use UAV approaches to address some monitoring tasks when either people or funds are limited for conducting surveys of these lands.
Sincere thanks to, Mark McKay and Matt Anderson the main UAV pilots, Randy Lee (INL), Anthony Piscitella and Katherine Schoellenbach (students) for assistance in reading imagery, Terry Booth and Sam Cox (USDA-ARS) for developing and assisting in using Sample Point and Dr.’s Jerry Harbour, Steve Bunting, Lee Vierling, Don Crawford and the Stoller-ESER Program for technical guidance and assistance.
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