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Individual Highlight

Scientists Use Drone Imagery to Census a Rare Desert Plant

Photo of Researcher Kody Rominger, flying the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced drone, an economically priced quadcopter with a 12-megapixel camera, that was used to acquire imagery for the dwarf bear-poppy census.

Researcher Kody Rominger, flying the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced drone, an economically priced quadcopter with a 12-megapixel camera, that was used to acquire imagery for the dwarf bear-poppy census. Snapshot : Census and monitoring are fundamental to rare plant conservation but can be expensive, labor-intensive, and damaging to fragile habitats. USDA Forest Service scientists at the agency's Rocky Mountain Research Station and collaborators developed a method using drone imagery to census populations of the endangered dwarf bear-poppy in its desert gypsum badland habitat and model its fine-scale habitat requirements. The drone can carry out a census in two days that would take two botanists a month to complete on the ground, with virtually no impact to fragile soils and biological crusts.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Meyer, Susan E.  
Research Location : Region 4, Utah?
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2019
Highlight ID : 1557

Summary

Many endangered plants worldwide are specialists on unusual soils that support limited plant cover and species diversity. An example is the dwarf bear-poppy (Arctomecon humilis), which grows only on barren gypsum soils close to a rapidly expanding urban area, St. George, Utah. A clear understanding of its distribution and habitat requirements is key to managing for its survival in the face of urban development. Gypsum soils are so fragile that even foot traffic is damaging, so dwarf bear-poppy populations have never been adequately censused. With the "magic carpet" of drone technology, USDA Forest Service researchers can carry out a census in two days that would take two botanists a month to complete on the ground, with virtually no impact to fragile soils and biological crusts. The researchers and collaborators' first step was to obtain imagery at different altitudes to determine how high they could fly our Phantom 3 Advanced drone and still be able to identify poppies in the imagery. They chose 50-meter altitude for the census flights, but also obtained imagery at 15-meter altitude over smaller areas to check the accuracy of their identifications. Once the complex procedure of processing the imagery was complete, researchers used ARCGIS mapping software to scan systematically and mark poppies. When they checked the 15-meter validation imagery, they found that some plants marked as poppies at 50 meters were actually not poppies, and many more poppies were too small to see at 50 meters. The researchers corrected their estimates of total numbers based on the validation imagery. They were also able to use the census maps to examine poppy density on different surface types within the gypsum environment. They discovered that poppies prefer eroding slopes where gypsum is directly exposed, and are much less common on soils with dark lichen crusts. Their next steps will address two limitations of the current method: acquisition of higher-resolution imagery to increase accuracy and development of a machine learning approach to automate poppy detection in the imagery. Dwarf bear-poppy, and likely other rare plant species with distinctive morphology and color that are found in simple plant communities of open habitats, can successfully be censused using drone imagery. Census maps can be combined with habitat classification to examine fine-scale habitat requirements. Drone-based census will provide managers with distribution data over the entire species range, permitting them to better prioritize management activities. Drone imagery at higher resolution can also be used to carry out yearly monitoring with an image acquisition protocol that will be economical and user-friendly, so that managers will potentially be able to carry out these activities without expert assistance.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

 
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Utah Department of Natural Resources
  • Utah Valley University
  • Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan