Wildlife Managment:  National Park Service Use of GIS to Manage Habitat for Species

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.

Cay Ogden
Wildlife Ecologist and T&E Coordinator
National Park Service, Intermountain Region


Brian Barns, Organ Pipe Cactus NM
Determining Foraging and Roosting Areas for Mastiff Bats (Eumops spp.) Using Radio Telemetry

Tracking bats as they zigzag through the night sky became the focus of a study to learn the roosting patterns, range and routes of a little-understood tropical species found in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona. Wildlife researchers wanted to know more about the history and habits of Underwood’s mastiff bat along the Mexican border, where the nocturnal creature faces increased threats 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 Mexico found that the species forages over wide areas of the Sonoran desert along the international border, averaging 37 square miles from rural to agricultural to semi-urban areas on a typical night. And for the first time, they learned from bats outfitted with radio transmitters that this species roosted in 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 three bats tracked for the study. The NPS and other agencies will use the maps 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 reserve 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

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Neal Darby, Great Basin NP
A Pilot Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Assessment of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Habitat in and Around Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Bighorn sheep are getting help from high technology, including GIS, as wildlife biologists try to prevent a symbol 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.

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Dr. Donna J. Shaver U.S. Geological Survey, Darrell Echols, Padre Island NS
Sattelite Tracking of Endangered Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles

Tracking sea turtles from space has helped researchers predict when and where these endangered creatures will lay clutches of eggs off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. The study used satellite telemetry and GIS mapping to follow 23 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that nested in or near Padre Island National Seashore, where wildlife biologists have spent more than 25 years trying to re-establish a turtle nesting colony. Researchers outfitted 23 of the turtles with radio transmitters 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 endangered species, researchers wanted to see how the turtles used their habitat and where they would lay successive egg clutches. The study also evaluated potential threats to the turtles in the national seashore and gulf. Researchers 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 improving protection of the nesting turtles and their eggs. The information also helped researchers evaluate experimental efforts to create a second nesting colony.

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Patrick Flaherty, Pinnacles NM
California Condor Viewshed Analysis

A GIS map has given researchers at Pinnacles National Monument a bird’s eye view of what endangered California condors will see from their release pen atop a ridge in New Mexico. The monument needed a way to deliver water and lead-free animal carcasses to the condors. Wildlife biologists also wanted to monitor the behavior and health of the 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 condors 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 socialize in the region for the first time in decades and help make the reintroduction 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

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Seth P.D. Riley and Denise Kamradt, Santa Monica Mountains NRA
Effects of Urbanization and Habitat Fragmentation on Bobcats and Coyotes in Southern California

Wildlife researchers found the unexpected when they studied how bobcats and coyotes cope with the loss of natural environment in and around the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California. Researchers had captured 50 bobcats and 86 coyotes, attached radio-collars and monitored their movements, entering their locations 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 populations. 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 lived in areas unspoiled by development. Researchers suspect that the relatively high survival rate may have resulted from the mild climate, plentiful prey, and absence of hunting and trapping. At the same time, rodent poisons and vehicle collisions caused a significant number of bobcat and coyote deaths, indicating the pervasive impact of humans and development on wildlife, even within the recreation area. Both species shifted their activity from day to night, particularly in developed areas, perhaps because fewer people are out then. And the animals ranged mostly in natural areas. Researchers concluded that they need to learn more about the requirements of carnivores in developing areas and educate the public on the need to protect nature 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.

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