It’s all about habitat. Well maybe not all. But for the National Park Service, the future of thousands of plant and animal species depends on the preservation and restoration of wild places in our country. Habitat supports the California condor as it swoops over the Grand Canyon. It offers refuge to the desert tortoise that rests in its den at Joshua Tree National Park. And it quenches the thirsty roots of the prairie fringe orchid at Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. In all, the NPS manages some 84 million acres of public land for thousands of plant and animal species. Of those, hundreds are threatened or endangered by declining populations and/or imperiled habitat. In some cases, a species might survive only in a particular national park, making the protection of its homeland paramount.
As the NPS manages our parklands, it must answer a series of basic but crucial questions about the geographic relationships of species to their habitats. These spatial questions start with:
· Where is the species located?
· What is the extent of its habitat?
· What environmental factors affect that habitat?
Each of these questions will include a series of more refined issues. This is the realm of GIS. Generations of biologists have used hand-drawn habitat maps, aerial photos, and topographic maps to prepare their analyses. Now they are making the transition to GIS to improve the quality and timeliness of their work.
As we apply GIS technology to NPS land management, we are reminded that managing habitat for endangered species has some challenges unique from other species. For example, biologists might not reveal certain data to the general public, particularly if doing so would make a species vulnerable to poaching or harassment. Yet co-workers, researchers and other agencies might have a legitimate need for otherwise secure information. During a wildfire, for example, firefighters can protect a species if they know where it lives. Today, the use of GIS to manage habitat reflects a growing trend in the National Park Service, as staff at each park decide on the best approach for each species.
Tracking bats as they zigzag through
night sky became the focus of a study to learn the roosting patterns,
and routes of a little-understood tropical species found in the Organ
Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona. Wildlife researchers
to know more about the history and habits of Underwood’s mastiff bat
the Mexican border, where the nocturnal creature faces increased
from human population, tourism, industrialization and other changes in
land use. Using radio telemetry to track the bats, U.S. researchers in
a cooperative effort with the adjacent Pinacate Biosphere Reserve in
found that the species forages over wide areas of the Sonoran desert
the international border, averaging 37 square miles from rural to
to semi-urban areas on a typical night. And for the first time, they
from bats outfitted with radio transmitters that this species roosted
cavities carved out of saguaro cactus by woodpeckers. To illustrate the
habits of the bat, researchers put their data on GIS maps that show the
home ranges, the roosting areas and the typical routes used by the
bats tracked for the study. The NPS and other agencies will use the
to help them develop and improve long-term wildlife strategies for the
species. They also created an educational poster of their findings and
are translating it to Spanish for outreach at the sister Pinacates
and schools across the border.
Photo of Mexican Biosphere researcher, Juan Miranda of El Pinacate, locates a bat roost using radio telemetry. This mature saguaro has dozens of cavities used by several species of birds as well as the tagged Eumops bat.
Map showing the observed home ranges of all three bats that were tracked. Using radio telemetry and signal triangulation, the bats could be followed from the moment they left a roost until returning after hours of foraging.
Map of roosting area used by the tagged bats. Each bat used one saguaro cavity as shelter during the day, sometimes changing cavities after foraging at night. Quitobaquito is the closest dependable large water source.
Map shows a typical route used by the bats as they searched for food.
Photo of a Eumops bat caught and tagged at Quitobaquito Pond. After release, the radio signal was tracked by researchers from atop hills along the US/Mexican border
Bighorn sheep are getting help from
technology, including GIS, as wildlife biologists try to prevent a
of the West from vanishing from Great Basin National Park in Nevada.
Today, fewer than a dozen Rocky Mountain bighorn remain in the rugged Snake Range in and around the park, where hundreds of the majestic creatures once roamed. Early on, wildlife biologists tried to bolster the herd by adding bighorn sheep from other areas. Those efforts failed, and the herd continued to dwindle even after the creation of the national park in 1986.
In 2001, wildlife biologists used GIS technology to see if the loss of sheep habitat played a role in the herd’s woes. Using a GIS software program called ArcView developed by ESRI, researchers evaluated whether the herd had enough room to survive and grow.
The resulting GIS map showed the sheep still had plenty of room in general but barely enough to bear and raise their young. Bighorn ewes and their newborn need areas with plenty of grass and water during the spring lambing season. They also need open areas where they can spot mountain lions and other predators and escape pursuit over rocky slopes. One GIS map layer identified the southerly slopes where the snows melt early and provide grasses for forage. Another layer showed the availability of water, and a third identified types of vegetation that indicate open areas and offer protection from predators. From this information, wildlife biologists and fire managers are using GIS to plan remedies, such as prescribed burns and thinning of forests, to restore suitable lambing areas in hopes that the herd will one day thrive again in its historic range.
Areas of vegetation with minimal horizontal visibility that if managed would enhance or restore Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Habitat
Location and distribution of four categories of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep habitat (overall suitable, summer, winter and lambing habitat)in Great Basin National Park.
Tracking sea turtles from space has
researchers predict when and where these endangered creatures will lay
clutches of eggs off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. The
used satellite telemetry and GIS mapping to follow 23 Kemp’s ridley sea
turtles that nested in or near Padre Island National Seashore, where
biologists have spent more than 25 years trying to re-establish a
nesting colony. Researchers outfitted 23 of the turtles with radio
between 1997 and 2003 and then monitored their travels during and after
the nesting season. In the nation’s first study of its kind for this
species, researchers wanted to see how the turtles used their habitat
where they would lay successive egg clutches. The study also evaluated
potential threats to the turtles in the national seashore and gulf.
downloaded data gathered in the study into GIS maps. They used the data
to predict when and where four turtles would lay their clutches, thus
protection of the nesting turtles and their eggs. The information also
helped researchers evaluate experimental efforts to create a second
A GIS map has given researchers at
National Monument a bird’s eye view of what endangered California
will see from their release pen atop a ridge in New Mexico. The
needed a way to deliver water and lead-free animal carcasses to the
Wildlife biologists also wanted to monitor the behavior and health of
birds from a nearby observation post. At the same time, researchers did
not want to be in the line of sight of the six captive-bred condors as
they return to the wild. To solve the problem, the NPS collected visual
data and created a GIS map. Green patches on the map represented what
will view from their release pen. The map showed that condors would not
see a planned trail to the release pen and observation post. By making
themselves scarce, researchers hope the birds will learn to hunt and
in the region for the first time in decades and help make the
program a success in the monument starting in late 2003.
Condor Viewshed Analysis
Mt. Definance and N. Chalone Peak looking to the south
Pinnacles "High Peaks" looking west seen from the condor release site
Wildlife researchers found the
when they studied how bobcats and coyotes cope with the loss of natural
environment in and around the Santa Monica Mountains National
Area in California. Researchers had captured 50 bobcats and 86 coyotes,
attached radio-collars and monitored their movements, entering their
into a database displayed on GIS maps, using ArcView software developed
by ESRI. Researchers have long known that carving up natural areas with
roads, housing tracts and other development can threaten wildlife
Yet a study of these two species in the hills west of Los Angeles found
survival rates similar to those of bobcat and coyote populations that
in areas unspoiled by development. Researchers suspect that the
high survival rate may have resulted from the mild climate, plentiful
and absence of hunting and trapping. At the same time, rodent poisons
vehicle collisions caused a significant number of bobcat and coyote
indicating the pervasive impact of humans and development on wildlife,
even within the recreation area. Both species shifted their activity
day to night, particularly in developed areas, perhaps because fewer
are out then. And the animals ranged mostly in natural areas.
concluded that they need to learn more about the requirements of
in developing areas and educate the public on the need to protect
reserves and use rodent poisons sparingly and correctly.
Figure 1. Study Area map showing land-use classification of bobcat and coyote study area in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, California. The landscape within the study area was classified according to three land-use types: developed areas, altered open
Figure 2. Map showing bobcat and coyote telemetry locations (1996-2000) used in this study.
Figure 3. Home ranges (95% MCPs) of male and female bobcats relative to land-use in the Simi Hills region, Ventura County, California. Altered open areas include low-density residential areas, golf courses, and small vegetated patches or strips.
Table 1. Home range size and urban association of bobcats and coyotes in the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills.