For Wyoming researchers who study forests and wildlife, NASA is an unlikely tool

A group of researchers from the University of Wyoming are the first to use NASA technology to get a bird’s-eye view of wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

NASA’s mission is called Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation or GEDI, and it is based on the International Space Station. It uses a detection and ranging laser called LiDAR to collect three-dimensional observations of Earth’s forests. This data, combined with previously available images and data, has given scientists a better understanding of how wildlife interacts in our forests.

Caitlin Tan of Wyoming Public Radio asked UW principal investigator Austin Smith what fauna he studies.

Austin Smith: For our case, you know, the research I had done was based on forest species. And so, for example, these were forest carnivores such as Pacific Martins, Montane Red Foxes (which are a subspecies of red foxes that live in these colder mountainous environments), coyotes (we’re starting to see growing where they’ live in those mountainous and forested environments, especially during the winter), then common prey species like snowshoe hares and red squirrels.

Thus, among carnivores, they are all very mobile species, especially martens and red foxes. They need large home ranges, lots of space, their livelihoods depend on, and their survival depends on, those forest structures – and that’s for survival, reproduction, movement, and so on.

One of the problems that eventually arises is when we try to deepen our understanding at large expansive levels or landscape levels. For some of these species, we become limited by the data we have. It is often only two-dimensional information with a flat surface. So what kind of trees can there be, what canopy cover can there be, elevation, slope, all those sorts of things. And LiDAR, in its simplest form, can be flown on fixed-wing aircraft. People can also do this terrestrially where they are under forest canopy tops and somehow be able to map the three-dimensional structure under forced canopies. The problem ends up being that it can be on a small scale, where it covers very small areas, because it can be, especially in the past, expensive. It can be limited, once again, to large spaces. And so when we have these species that require large areas, it can be very expensive.

So in short, this project saw this opportunity to take these products and these measurements and everything that would come from the GEDI mission, which gives us three-dimensional information such as canopy height, vertical cover and complexity of the forest, which then we could essentially expand. And we had to do a bit of the modeling aspects and really couple that with other remote sensing information, like Landsat 8, which is a very common long-term series of satellites, that travel through space to collect forest pictures – continuous pictures of the earth. And we associate that with that, based on that three-dimensional information. And then we can actually predict, and then create, structured maps over a large expanse of areas that then give us that additional information, using vertical and horizontal coverage. And then we can apply that, to see if we can improve our understanding of these different predators and prey that live in these forest environments. If we could improve it, get a little more information on how they could use this landscape on a large scale.

Caitlin Tan: So just to make sure I understand, it sounds like what you’re saying is that this technology allows you to better understand species and understand where they are and where they occur in these regions. Would you say that is correct?

Wyoming Department of Game and Fisheries

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University of Wyoming

A forest camera trap caught this red fox in northwest Wyoming.

AS: Yeah. So for forest species that we sometimes get some sort of scale at which they occur, that was an additional piece to be able to add, to look at contributions to where those species occur. And some things are known. Like horizontal coverage and coverage in snowy environments. And often, multi-storey forest environments are really important for snowshoe hares; we have seen it throughout the literature. So it’s not necessarily something particularly new, but it was the possibility of being able to use this combination of GEDI and Landsat 8, both of which are also free products available to the public. So it’s the research that puts the tools in the toolbox of researchers and managers, and those are things that you can then add to ask additional questions at those larger, broader scales. So it’s great to see that this approach and these GEDI products are helping to deepen our understanding of the species.

CT: So, in the future, how do you plan to potentially use this technology? And do you think that could potentially start being applied to find answers to things that we don’t know yet?

AS: Yeah, so GEDI is still working on the International Space Station, but it covers the whole earth. It covers all of our forest environments, from tropical to temperate, and it provides us with a global expansion of information. Landsat and Sentinel and some of these other remote sensing products, and some from other missions, I think there are some outside of Japan, and then there are some outside of the EU that we can apply that and then work those products together. And then we can start applying that to other landscapes and other animal species. So, for example, maybe we’re descending into more tropical environments and using that to help with an assessment of orangutans or other tropical or temperate bird species, maybe some form of spotted owl. You know, these other landscapes where the information will be there, and then basically the same kind of methods can be applied. So we can be anywhere we want in a forest environment and hopefully the results can be very similar. And then we can evaluate the information for other species. So it’s really important.

Because it’s on such a large scale, to be able to map that information, it then allows us to look at large-scale disturbances, especially here in the West. In our western forests, we can start using it to assess forest fires or bark beetle outbreaks. GEDI’s overall mission, just for their application, is to hopefully improve their ability to characterize important carbon and water cycle processes, then in our case, the type of biodiversity, then the habitat, like deforestation and things like that.

Thus, GEDI as a whole is going to have great implications throughout the world. And then even for us here in the United States or really in North America, being able to focus on wildfires and bark beetle outbreaks, that will be very helpful.

Another thing we hope in the near future is to incorporate this information into the examination of animals fitted with GPS collars to see how the potential power of these maps of forest structures could help us characterize the relationships between the animal environment which vary in time and space. So as these animals move across the landscape, we can then assess whether they are perhaps selecting more or occurring more in the super dense forests? Or are they more on maybe less dense, but really tall forest stands or something? All kinds of different applications of how we can look at other metrics. It’s just going to take more time to play with these and see how we can apply them to our future species conservation, management and research.

CT: Is there anything else you would like to add at this time to share with the listeners?

AS: I hope I was able to capture the power of GEDI, especially when paired and used with other remote sensing platforms. We hope we can continue to move forward and apply this information and really better understand our forest species and forest habitats.

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