Using Interactive Maps to Help Endangered Species Recover
Everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of endangered species recovery, the picture we need is a map that displays both the good and bad actions that affect the species. Interactive maps seem to be everywhere in our online lives; however, their potential hasn’t been fully leveraged to further endangered species conservation in the U.S.
The Endangered Species Act requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to have recovery plans for all listed species. However, these plans are usually long and unwieldy static documents, which can make it difficult to achieve real progress towards a species’ recovery because the landscape and conditions change over time. The Act also requires federal agencies to consult with the FWS about proposed actions that “may affect” a listed species or its critical habitat. However, these decisions are usually made in isolation from the bigger picture and thus can result in a “death by a thousand cuts.” For example, federal agencies may receive separate authorizations for different projects that each harm only a few individual animals; however, when added together these impacts can result in significant population losses for the already imperiled species.
Defenders believes that by using online maps, we can improve how wildlife agencies recover species, including how they draft and implement their recovery plans, and the way they work with other agencies. Because many of these decisions are difficult for the public to understand, online maps can help us better see our tax dollars at work. To test this idea, we asked a team of graduate students from the University of Maryland to create an example of a multi-layered, interactive map for the Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens). Their prototype demonstrates the power of interactive maps for improving endangered species recovery.
The user can easily select certain data layers to see where the animals are in their recovery area, and what threats to them are nearby. This functionality can be used to support management decisions, such as selecting new sites for relocating prairie dogs. A manager could look at each threat layer, including locations of past wildfires, to identify the least vulnerable habitat patches. This process can be repeated for many other threats and recovery actions. Take a look at the example below: The blue outline shows the recovery areas for the Utah prairie dog and the yellow shows the species’ current range. The densely clustered red points show previous wildfires. Relocation sites for prairie dogs should avoid areas that are likely to experience intense fires.
This map can also be a powerful tool for wildlife advocates, public watchdogs, and even the wildlife agencies themselves. For example, it can integrate non-spatial data, like the annual monitoring reports that are meant to protect species in the face of development. Habitat Conservation Plans are supposed to balance the harm done to a species (also known as “take”) with specific conservation and restoration actions (mitigation). Using this tool, you can view the data compiled from 12 years of monitoring reports for the Iron County Habitat Conservation Plan. These reports provide information concerning the maximum number of prairie dogs that can be harmed, the actual number of individuals harmed, the number of acres of prairie dog habitat lost or replaced, and the number of animals trapped or replaced. Typically these numbers are buried in a sea of paper. However, when they are collected online and put into the context of a map, we can uncover the full story. In this case, the data reveals a potentially concerning trend—nearly twice as much habitat has been lost than replaced (see graph below). In years when the acres of habitat loss outnumber replacement, the Utah prairie dog’s habitat is actually reduced! Future versions of this tool could make it possible to create such charts and perform other data analysis directly from the map.
The increasing power and accessibility of online spatial tools can revolutionize the protection and recovery of endangered species. Defenders has already started to use interactive maps to further our conservation mission. We initiated the Conservation Registry to track and map conservation, restoration and wildlife projects across the U.S. The Registry acts as a synthesis tool to bring together often isolated data from groups ranging from small organizations and individual landowners to state and federal agencies. Our goal is to make it easier for officials, landowners and others to make informed decisions, inspire collaboration, and provide context and effectiveness for conservation work. Last year, Defenders used satellite photos to reveal unauthorized oil and gas development in habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard, one of the rarest lizards in North America.
Both the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have also recognized the growing potential of spatial tools for species recovery. NOAA’s Recovery Action Mapping Tool, which is in the final stages of development, will track recovery actions for Pacific salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. The FWS’ Information, Planning, and Conservation (IPaC) decision support system is a conservation planning tool for streamlining the environmental review process. Anyone can use it to explore the landscape and help site projects in a way that minimizes conflicts with natural resources.
Defenders is working the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to further develop the power of geospatial tools as demonstrated in the Utah Prairie Dog example. If more spatial data can be collected and stored in the recovery planning process for a species, it can lead to a single, diverse, and helpful recovery map. Unfortunately, gathering all of the necessary data is a big challenge. There are large gaps in the types of data available, especially for low-profile species like amphibians. When data does exist, it can be hard to find and access. This was a major obstacle that the University of Maryland team identified. A significant investment of time and money is needed to collect and compile both the spatial and non-spatial data relevant to the recovery of each species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Defenders is advocating for funding for the Service to construct an electronic database containing the best available geospatial data on listed species in the United States and to ensure the database can be easily used by all federal agencies and the public.
To learn more about this project, see the final report: Using Spatial Data to Improve Recovery Under the Endangered Species Act.
Consultants Assessing the Recovery of Endangered Species (CARE) team:
Kimmy Gazenski, Rachel Lamb, and Robb Krehbiel from the Sustainable Development & Conservation Biology (CONS) graduate program at the University of Maryland-College Park.
Martha Surridge is the Senior Conservation Planner for Defenders of Wildlife