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A Bird’s Eye View of Research

The College of Natural Resources is using drones in research activities to gather information from the air

At the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources (CNR), researchers have spent years studying animals and their habitats, analyzing their behavior for patterns, and working to solve problems. They examine ecosystems and the plant and animal species within them. They study fire burn patterns, forest health and management practices.

Typically, they are doing this work from the ground, relying on satellite imagery or aerial photographs from passing aircraft to see the bigger picture.

But new technology is allowing researchers in multiple disciplines to get a real-time, bird’s eye view of Idaho’s changing landscape.

CNR is now utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles — also known as UAVs, or drones — to gather information from the air. The new perspective is adding depth to research projects across the college.

Mapping Habitat from the Sky

UI professor Janet Rachlow in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences — along with researchers from Washington State University, Boise State University and Idaho State University — is using UAVs to better understand Idaho’s sagebrush habitat, and help the state’s pygmy rabbit population. The research is funded by a $341,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. 

Sage habitat is one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America, and this is a big problem for the tiny rabbit. Pygmy rabbits are sagebrush specialists; they rely on sagebrush for food, shelter and safety. 

“You can look at two plants next to each other, one will be browsed down to nothing, and the other is untouched,” Rachlow said. “We are interested in understanding and mapping the nutritional differences that cause such foraging behavior.” 

The team is using a quadcopter loaded with a camera to analyze the chemical properties and forage quality of sagebrush in east central Idaho. 

One of the goals of the project is to compare the maps created by the quadcopter with information collected on the ground and in previous flights to accurately determine how the rabbits choose where to live and what to eat. Once the team understands these differences, they can determine how to protect and restore the pygmy rabbit habitat with high quality sagebrush.

Janet Rachlow
Janet Rachlow, Professor

A Bird’s Eye View of the Range

Understanding Wildfire Behavior

UI professor Eva Strand in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Range Sciences and her team is using the perspective allowed by UAVs to better understand what affect livestock grazing has on wildfire behavior.

Working with several ranchers in Owhyee County in the Reynolds Creek watershed, the team identified multiple similar plots of land and applied different levels of livestock grazing to the plots. The team flew a drone over all the plots before the study began to obtain precise images of the types of wildfire fuel in the area, such as grasses, sagebrush and trees. Then grazing was applied. Some plots were left untouched, while livestock used other plots extensively.

Once the grazing was complete, the plots were burned with the help of the Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Department of Lands Rangeland Fire Protection Association. The fire was monitored for flame height, speed and burn patterns to determine if the fire behaved differently in areas where livestock grazing had occurred.

The UAV then took to the sky again, this time to capture images of what was left after the burn.

“Being able to see all of the plots from the air is a big advantage,” Strand says. “It is difficult to compare large plots when you are standing on the ground.  From the air we can really see the differences in how the fire has reacted to our grazing treatments, and what recovery looks like.”

Later flights are planned to determine long-term recovery: what plants grow back and how long it takes. The data is still being analyzed, but Strand said the research shows that when managed appropriately, livestock can be a useful tool to help reduce the fuel that is available to burn, and in turn reduce the severity of wildfires.

Eva Strand
Eva Strand, Assistant Professor

Inspiring the Next Generation of Native American Scientists

CNR’s work with UAVs also has educational components. In March 2016, the university received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help Nez Perce high school students from Lapwai develop a passion for science. In the summer of 2017, a group of 30 students will journey to the UI McCall Field Campus to learn about using UAVs for remote sensing and mapping. These skills will help students understand the ecosystem, including the forests and riparian systems that support traditional tribal fisheries.

After studying in McCall, the high school students will continue developing their science skills by studying local problems that could be solved with assistance from UAVs. In concert with that effort, the UI research team is planning a jobs survey to determine what types of science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers are available and needed within the community.

“We’re looking at working with students on how they have this really rich cultural tradition of being involved in STEM, and that they can use these skills and think of the kind of careers they can pursue, ultimately feeding back into jobs in their own community,” said Karla Eitel, the project’s lead researcher, an associate research professor in the UI College of Natural Resources and director of education at UI’s McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS).

The Nez Perce tribe faces an aging workforce, said Kay Seven, the tribe’s director of adult education and UI’s partner on the project.

“We need to encourage tribal members, Indian individuals, to go to school and pursue these majors that are needed for our departments,” Seven said. “Our past chairman, Silas Whitman, would often speak of the tribe’s need for chemists, hydrogeologists, fire ecologists and forest and fisheries biologists.”

This program will help the university better understand how to connect with tribal students in a way that is more meaningful. In turn, the students can learn how pursuing technical careers can benefit them and their community.

Article by Kim Jackson, College of Natural Resources

Karla Eitel
Karla Eitel, Assistant Research Professor and Director of Education, McCall Outdoor Science School


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