|By Caroline Lupfer Kurtz
What percentage of Northern Goshawk nesting
habitat in northwestern Montana is on private or public land? Which species of reptiles,
amphibians, birds or mammals in the state are predicted to have fewer than 25,000 acres of
protected habitat? How intensely is a given forested area likely to be used by humans?
The answers to these and many more questions can be found in the wide-ranging work of
the Wildlife Spatial Analysis Lab at UM, part of the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research
Unit. The lab, directed by Roland Redmond, wildlife biology research associate professor,
focuses on projects that make innovative use of satellite imagery and geographic
information systems technology to provide a birds eye view of the state with regard
to land cover, species distributions and human population for managers in both the public
and private sectors.
One of the labs largest efforts to date has been the Montana Gap Analysis
Project, undertaken for the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey,
which is supporting similar projects in other states. The mission of the national Gap
Analysis Program is to promote conservation of biodiversity by identifying how land cover
and vertebrate species are distributed with respect to land ownership and management. In
this context, Redmond says, Gap refers to the identification of gaps in
current efforts to manage and protect vertebrate biodiversity.
For the past nine years, Redmond and a team of 14 researchers have worked to compile or
develop all the information needed to identify those gaps, including statewide maps of
land cover, terrestrial vertebrate distributions, and land ownership and management. It
was not a simple task.
First, image analysts stitched together satellite images of the entire state, each
color coded based on elevation and the spectral reflectivity. In a two-stage process, 50
different land-cover types were identified, including a variety of grasslands, forest
types, shrublands, riparian habitat and barren areas.
Another group of researchers integrated the land-cover map with detailed information
gleaned from the literature and some 50 reviewing biologists on the 425 species of native
terrestrial vertebrates living in Montana in particular, their habitat requirements
for breeding and foraging. The combined information was used to map the predicted
distributions of species in the state.
Finally, they overlaid the predicted wildlife maps with data on who owns the land and
how it is managed. This information was combined into four levels of stewardship.
Level-one lands, such as wilderness areas and national parks, are managed most intensively
for biodiversity, while level-four lands have no formal protection.
Redmond admits that the sheer amount of information compiled in the Gap dataset is
daunting, but he has several suggestions for its use.
One important application, he says, would be to help determine through objective
criteria which species are in trouble and deserve extra management attention
politics aside. Although the Montana Natural Heritage Program identifies 70 species of
terrestrial vertebrates that appear to bear watching, the Montana Gap data show that of
the 425 terrestrial vertebrate species living in the state, at least half live in
relatively unprotected habitat and/or are relatively scarce in numbers.
Finally, because humans are such a crucial factor for management, Redmonds group
has used a similar approach to predict human impacts on the landscape using census data
and road and trail maps. The intersection of predicted wildlife richness with predicted
human impacts can show where future conflicts are most likely to occur, he says.