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Remote Sensing and GIS as tools for environmental management
What is Remote Sensing and GIS?
Remote sensing is the science of obtaining information about an object or area that you are not physically in contact with. It often describes interpreting and analyzing aerial or satellite-based images, but can also refer to wildlife camera traps, acoustic recorders, weather balloons, and telescopes.
A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer-based tool for creating, managing, analyzing, and presenting geographic data. GIS helps us better understand the location, spatial relationships, and distribution patterns of things we are interested in.
Why are Remote Sensing and GIS useful tools for environmental management?
Landscape patterns that may be significant for the management of wildlife or their habitats can be identified across large areas in a more cost effective way than relying on field work alone
The availability of archived imagery allows for the assessment of landscape and habitat change through time
The maps we create can easily and effectively convey important information to our clients and other project stakeholders
How does Fiera Biological use Remote Sensing and GIS?
1. Creation of land cover and habitat modeling to identify and prioritize sensitive or significant environmental features.
Current and accurate spatial data are critical for reliably mapping and assessing environmental features, and because of this, our Remote Sensing Specialists routinely create land cover inventories from air photographs or satellite imagery.
Existing spatial information, such as reported locations of rare or threatened species or key zones for wildlife, can also be obtained from a variety of sources.
Our team routinely uses these types of spatial data products to map the locations of sensitive habitats and species, as well as to model how changes in land use may impact the occurrence or movement of species. Land managers can then use this information to avoid highly sensitive areas, or to prioritize lands for restoration or special management.
2. Riparian habitat assessments
Riparian areas provide a multitude of ecosystem functions and benefits, including water quality improvement and flood reduction, but over the last century, the loss and impairment of riparian lands in Alberta has been significant.
In order to prioritize riparian areas for restoration and to track change in condition through time, Fiera Biological has developed a new and standardized GIS method to rapidly assess the intactness of riparian areas.
The first step in completing a riparian assessment is to identify the stream and lake shorelines of interest. This can be a single water body or an entire watershed.
The next step is to create a land cover classification, which is used to assess the type and extent of disturbance present within a 50 m shoreline buffer. We then determine the intactness of a stream based on how much disturbance is present along its shoreline.
The assessment results can be summarized and mapped for the entire watershed, or for an individual stream or lake. This information can then be used to target areas with lower intactness for restoration or conservation.
This novel GIS method allows us to effectively assess remote or inaccessible shorelines and to evaluate streams within watersheds spanning thousands of square kilometers. As of November, 2020, we have used this method to evaluate more than 32,700 km of lake, stream, and river shoreline in Alberta, and work is currently underway to do much more. For examples of our riparian assessment see the following links: Modeste Watershed Riparian Areas Assessment; Blindman River Riparian Assessment.
3. Wetland inventories and assessment of wetland condition
The provincial Wetland Policy aims to conserve, restore, protect, and manage wetlands to sustain the benefits they provide to Albertans. At present, this goal is elusive because the information that is currently available about the location, extent, and condition of wetlands is unreliable, incomplete, or out-of-date.
I’m often asked how to age tracks. The tracks in the photo below were made by the same foot of the same person wearing the he same boots, however one was made 3 weeks prior to the photo, and the other was made 30 seconds prior.
A simple trick used to help age a track is to compare the subject track to those just made by the observer, or to tracks of a known age.
Tracks erode or decay over time causing sharp edges and steep slopes to soften. Tracks in different substrates will age differently, as will those exposed to different environmental / weather conditions. Find or make a fresh track, then return daily to observe how it changes with age. Tracks made in wet clay followed by a long stretch of dry weather may age/decay/erode very slowly, but will show other signs of aging such as cracking and litter accumulation. Tracks made in snow may age/decay/erode very quickly depending on photo period, ambient temperature, wind conditions, and the type/condition of the snow itself at the time the track was made.
You can also use environmental events evident in the track, or not evident in the track, to help age it. For example if you know it rained yesterday, and the tracks you see have evidence of being rained in, you can deduce that the tracks were made before it rained.
Tracks made by some animals will age differently than others. Hard footed and heavy animals like a moose for example can make tracks that will last for years because they are capable of leaving an impression in hard and erosion resistant substrates due to their weight and the hardness of their hooves. The tracks of a soft-footed animal of similar size, like a bear for example, are likely to age/decay/erode faster than those of a moose, in the majority of substrates. A light and soft-footed animal like a snowshoe hare may make tracks that age very quickly in many substrate types.
As you can see, as with most aspects of tracking, there are a lot of variables to consider when aging tracks, and the answers sought are often not just in what we can see on the ground, but in our awareness of the environment, our knowledge of local species and region, and in the breadth of experience we bring with us.
It takes some practice, and even so, some studies suggest that the best even a very good tracker can do with reliable consistency is to classify tracks into either fresh, or not fresh.
The footprint above (posted to social media on May 25, 2020) is the footprint of a Snowshoe Hare in snow, photographed on March 24th, 2020, in Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada.
The track patterns of snowshoe hares are very recognizable, but most people haven’t looked very closely at the details of a single print, so when they encounter a print without a track-pattern, they may not recognize it. A snowshoe hare’s foot is fully furred making details hard to pick out in most conditions, but that in itself is a detail that can lead you to a correct identification. Though the toes may register as distinct appendages, a palm pad (interdigital or metatarsal) will never register clearly, nor a heel pad with snowshoe hare, so the lack of those feature is a good clue.
Another good clue is the toe arrangement in the tracks. Four toes will register in front and hind, and that is different than most rodents which register four toes in the front tracks, and five in the hind. In addition to the number of toes, take account of the symmetry of the arrangement in an individual print. Note how the toes are loaded all to outside of the foot.
The claws of snowshoe hare are thin, fine, and sharp. They don’t always register, but the first time you see them clearly register in a splayed print, you may doubt for a moment that you are looking at the print of a bunny, and think rather that it might be something more dangerous like a lynx, a wolverine, or a dragon.
Earlier I mentioned that snowshoe hare track patterns are very recognizable, so I’d better explain. Snowshoe hares are very consistent in their use of a bounding gait. I the gait the front feet land first, and then the hind feet swing around on either side, and register ahead of the front feet. The hind feet land simultaneously, side by side.
The most likely animal you may have difficulty distinguishing from snowshoe hare in the Edmonton area would be black-tailed jackrabbit. Jackrabbit are similarly sized and shaped animals, and so they leave similar tracks. Habitat is probably your best clue for distinguishing these two species. Jackrabbits prefer open areas where they can see predators coming and use their powerful speed to escape across open terrain. Snowshoe hare on the other hand like to stay in or near the forest where they can put rose bushes, deadfall and thickets between them and any predators. Another indicator is the frequency of off-set hind feet positioning. Where a snowshoe hare only rarely positions its hind feet off-set to one another, a black-tailed jackrabbit will frequently do so.
Team Profile: Shantel KoenigPh.D. Landscape Ecologist & GIS Specialist
Shantel started with Fiera in October of 2016, and brought highly valued capabilities in complex spatial modelling and statistical analysis. She came with a Masters in Geographic Information Systems, and completed her PhD a short while after settling in. Her graduate research focused on using Spatial Interaction Models (SIMS) to model metapopulations and analyze landscape connectivity. Since then, her experience creating Resource Selection Function (RSF) models for species at risk, processing and analyzing wildlife movement (telemetry) data, creating land cover classifications, and conducting habitat connectivity analysis using a variety of spatial modeling techniques has been invaluable. During her time with us she has published two peer reviewed research papers, one in the field of theoretical ecology, and another in the field of remote sensing, and contributed significantly to at least a dozen high profile technical reports. When Shantel isn’t in the office helping to make Fiera awesome, there is a good chance that she is riding a muddy bicycle somewhere really, really fast, playing electric base on a jazz or folk music album, or countering the stigma associated with having advanced statistical skills by posting images of her beloved cat, Ella.
The footprint above (posted to social media on May 12, 2020) is the footprint of a Rock Pigeon in snow, in Old Strathcona, Edmonton Alberta, on April 2nd.
Pigeon footprints are similar to game bird (like grouse and quail) tracks in general size, and in structure except for the length of the backwards toe (called a halux). Pigeons are perching birds, and as such, have a well developed, longer, halux to help them grip branches. The halux of a rock pigeon is roughly 1/2 to 2/3 the length of its lead toe, and it will register in most tracks. Birds that spend a lot of time on the ground like grouse and quail have a reduced halux less than 1/4 the length of the lead toe, and it may not register in the majority of tracks; when it does register, it may only be the tip of the claw that does.
The length and width of bird tracks is helpful for identification. Typical measurements of rock pigeon tracks are 6 cm long (include the halux & claws), and 4.5 cm wide.
Pigeons and grouse tend to leave an alternating (walking or trotting) track pattern. Other birds often hop, leaving a 2 x 2 track pattern.
Watch for bird tracks in snow, sand, and around puddles after a rain. Other birds that frequently leave tracks include ravens, magpies and other corvids, waterfowl, shorebirds, and robins.