"Top Down" Wildlife ConservationUASs Play a Key Role in Monitoring Habitat for an Endangered Species in Montana

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Despite being in its relative infancy, unmanned aerial system (UAS) technology has been making quick inroads into a host of applications: everything from creating 3D models of iconic mountains to damage assessment after natural disasters to crop management. In the northern Great Plains, that technology is being called upon in support of a program to reintroduce the black-footed ferret, a mammal whose very existence was doubtful as recently as a decade and a half ago. Part of a collaborative effort between academia, environmental conservationists, equipment manufacturers and the Ft. Belknap Indian Community, the program holds tremendous promise in helping pave the way for the ferret’s removal from the endangered species list. It is also serving as yet another example of the truly adaptable nature of UAS technology and the benefits it can provide.

Brink of Extinction
To understand the push to save the black-footed ferret, it’s important to understand how they reached the point of extinction. Native to most of the central part of the North American continent, ferrets, for whom the prairie dog is their primary food source, lost that source, first through the push to develop and farm the Great Plains, much later through the non-native plague, which decimated a huge portion of the prairie dog population. As went the prairie dog, so too went the ferret, according to Kristy Bly, senior wildlife conservation biologist with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

"Many in the 1950s believed the black-footed ferret to be extinct, though in actuality, a small number of surviving ferrets were found in South Dakota in the mid `60s," she said. "That led to them being listed as endangered and to a decades-long effort to bring them back from the brink. Efforts to breed them in captivity were largely unsuccessful, and in 1979 they were once again thought to be extinct. In 1981, however, a discovery of a small surviving population in Wyoming led to renewed optimism and a concerted effort toward black-footed ferret recovery."

That optimism proved somewhat premature as, in the mid-1980s, sylvatic plague, a form of bubonic plague carried by fleas, began to decimate existing ferret populations. By 1987 only 18 black-footed ferrets were known to be alive, making them the rarest mammal on earth. However, captive breeding efforts, first in Wyoming and later in Virginia, eventually proved successful raising the population to 120 and allowing the push for reintroduction to begin. Today 24 sites across eight U.S. states, Canada and Mexico– including one at Ft. Belknap–have active reintroduction programs in place.

Culturally Bound
Working to ensure the survival of the black-footed ferret stems from a certain sense of ethical responsibility–no one, after all, wants to see a species disappear from existence. For members of the Ft. Belknap Indian Community, however, it has another sense of urgency to it, one with important cultural ties, said Bly.

"Many Native American tribes ascribe magical powers to the black-footed ferret," she said. "That cultural significance is evident here at Ft. Belknap. Some of the elders used to adorn their regalia with ferret pelts during ceremonies and there are a number of documents showing that it was not unusual for tribal elders to be buried with those ferret pelts due to their significance. So there is a definite cultural connection at work here."

Mapping Progress
As mentioned, the overall success of the black-footed ferret recovery is linked to the availability of prairie dogs and proximity to their habitat. At Ft. Belknap, a once-vibrant prairie dog population was, by 2013, showing strong signs of recovery. To bolster its ferret reintroduction effort–indeed, to even ensure Ft. Belknap could obtain the necessary permitting needed to host an endangered species–a comprehensive assessment of their prairie dog colonies needed to be undertaken.

"The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has monitoring requirements that reintroduction sites must meet," said Bly. "In this case, criteria include the number of black-footed ferrets that are counted annually, the size of the prairie dog complex in which they are living, the density of prairie dogs within that complex, and more. A mapping effort like that requires two individuals driving or walking the perimeter of every colony and recording that active perimeter with a GPS unit, downloading that data into ArcGIS, producing a map and generating an acreage number."

Obtaining the necessary densities again involves personnel on foot, running transects through the colonies, counting the existing burrows and applying a formula that results in a density value. Such work can be not only physically demanding and time-consuming, it is also made more difficult by the fact that tribal lands are typically underserved in terms of funding for wildlife restoration projects and the labor to implement them.

"Many reservations don’t even have a biologist on board and a reliable funding source is rarely available for projects like ferret reintroduction," said Bly. "With that in mind, I was trying hard to think of ways to make obtaining measures of ferret monitoring and habitat monitoring more readily attainable. Little did I realize that a chance encounter at an airport would provide the answer."

Solution in Plane Sight
Call it fate, call it synchronicity, call it the spirit of the black-footed ferret at work. Whatever the case, one evening as Kristy Bly was headed back to Montana from a meeting in Denver, she had to change planes in Salt Lake City. While waiting at the gate for her connecting flight, she struck up a conversation with Ron Behrendt, owner of Behron, LLC, who was awaiting that same flight after attending a UAS conference in Orlando.

"We got to talking about what each of us did," said Behrendt, "and were quickly discussing how my company, with its specialty in remote sensing and GIS technology could help improve WWF’s ability to more efficiently map and log prairie dog burrows at Ft. Belknap. What Kristy was describing to me sounded like a perfect UAS-based application. Again, somewhat coincidentally, she had just been made aware of a new program within WWF that made funds available to demonstrate the usefulness of new technologies throughout the organization. She and I put together a proposal, submitted it and it was funded."

That proposal included use of a Sirius Pro UAS and MAVinci operating software–both offered through Topcon Positioning Systems. It’s important to note that, before UAS work of any kind could proceed, an FAA Certification of Authority (COA) was needed. Efforts to work through one prominent university to obtain the COA looked initially promising but fell through, prompting Behrendt and Bly to seek a solution elsewhere.

"We were very fortunate, at that point, to have connected with Donna Delparte, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Idaho State University," said Behrendt. "ISU has a solid program dedicated to unmanned aerial systems, so they saw this as an opportunity to not just help with the reintroduction effort, but also use it as a hands-on opportunity for graduate students within the program. Like the other team members, they are actively involved in the image analysis process, but they’re doing so from the perspective of prairie dog habitat and tying that to the ferret reintroduction. With them on board, after a few months, we were able to obtain the COA and move forward."

In putting together plans for WWF, Behrendt said that he looked for potential companies to partner with that already had the capabilities that they needed. He had met with Topcon representatives at the InterGEO conference in Germany, explained what was trying to be accomplished at Ft. Belknap and asked if Topcon had an interest in partnering with them. "Dave Henderson, Topcon director of sales for geospatial solutions, looked into it and came back with an emphatic `yes,’" said Behrendt. "So they actually supplied the Sirius Pro, the MAVinci software, and the manpower/expertise of Ed McCaffery and Simeon Kateliev for this project. They are a true partner not just a supplier."

Position Beats Timing
While the ultimate goal at Ft. Belknap is to inventory the prairie dog colonies to determine size, density, etc., the initial challenge was to determine if UASs are a viable way to do that. Flight plans for individual "dog-town" flyovers were input into MAVinci software, the Sirius Pro was hand-launched and work was underway. One of the aircraft’s key strengths became evident almost from the start.

"A distinct difference between the Sirius Pro aircraft and many other UASs out there, is its integrated GPS RTK which is used to acquire photos based on accurate location rather than on time, said Behrendt. "Using the Topcon system, we first drew a route around a dogtown, allowing for overlap — in this case we shot 75% forward lap and 65% side lap. With that data available, the software then calculated where–not when–each photo should be taken."

By comparison, he added, an aircraft taking photos based on time would have failed miserably at Ft. Belknap where windy conditions prevailed on most every flight session.

"There were times when the aircraft was going 10 to 15 mph in one direction and 40 to 45 mph in the other direction–quite a difference. Arbitrarily shooting a picture every two seconds would have dramatically overcaptured one way and undercaptured in the other. It’s a subtle difference but in this case it would have been the difference between success and failure."

Back to Earth Work
Much as it is with any scanning or aerial imaging operation, the real work begins with the downloading, manipulation and examination of the data. Post-processing at Ft. Belknap included an initial process of orthorectification, wherein individual frames from each collection effort (those varied from 120 frames to 640 frames) were electronically "stitched" together in order to identify and correct distortions in the image. With that process complete, ESRI’s ArcGIS was used to take the data collected by Bly and her team on the ground and merge it with the now-corrected photo/maps. With a new "Prairie Dog Colony" layer created, Behrendt was able to begin the identification process.

"The tools in ArcGIS allow us to automatically search for and identify the burrows indicating a prairie dog habitat," he said. "There are a number of different approaches that can be taken in that GIS analysis effort; we’ll try several and then choose the one that gives us the best results. As a fallback position, however, because of the high resolution of this imagery–3 cm pixel–we could have a person manually counting those holes and mounds. In either case, we’ll compare those numbers to the counts WWF got from walking the area and we will be able to correlate the success of the computer generated numbers."

WWF’s Kristy Bly expects that, because of the post-processing, inspection and evaluation time needed, the time-savings realized using the UAS approach will be fairly small. There will, however, be a host of other benefits that she sees as impactful on this project and perhaps others down the line.

"The real advantage to us is that we now have images in addition to the acreage totals," she said. "If we chose to do subsequent re-flights or even as we re-walk the area, those images can show us over time what the colonies are doing. In addition, if this proves promising–which it certainly looks like it will–we would love to use UAS approach to assess black-footed ferret populations using thermal imagery. There are a lot of applications; the science is there, we just have to find the best way to use it."

Starts With the Fort
Bly cites the ability to tap expertise on almost every level as being key to the project’s success to date.

"We were fortunate to have had the combination of Topcon, Behron LLC, ISU and all of their combined knowledge–as well as the many partners within each of those organizations– which allowed this to be the success I felt it could be and more. Having the talent of all those individuals plus the availability of the Topcon Sirius Pro was invaluable."

She added that, despite all the focus on technological advances, nothing could have happened without a landscape, without a willing partner, without ferrets on the ground, without a need to monitor that habitat in a more effective manner–considerations that all point directly to the Ft. Belknap community.

"Ft. Belknap is a real pioneering entity in wildlife restoration, already having a successful program to reintroduce Yellowstone bison, and being the first tribal land site to host a black-footed ferret reintroduction," she said. "In fact, they have already been asking if this technology can be put to use monitoring their bison herd, monitoring movements of bighorn sheep, and more."

Tribal President Mark Azure said that, while undeniably cultural in nature, their motivation for participating in the ferret reintroduction program is, at its heart, all about the land.

"We love coming out here and seeing bison or antelope or birds or prairie dogs, and want our children and their children to have the same experience," he said. "As tribal members, that appreciation is inside of us–it seems just natural. So, to have outside folks come to us and share those same feelings is a good thing. This was just one project but I already see so many potential uses for this technology down the line including mapping historical markers, tracking migration patterns of different animals, and so on. The possibilities, I feel, are endless, and we are grateful to have had this opportunity to get things started in that direction."

Larry Trojak of Minnesota-based Trojak Communications, is a freelance marketing content specialist. He writes extensively for the geopositioning, utility, aggregate processing, recycling, construction, and demolition markets.

A 1.674Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE