GPS adding more precision to conservation
SOCIAL CIRCLE — Unless lost in Atlanta, Georgia residents may not consider using a Global Positioning System on an everyday basis. For wildlife biologists, however, GPS technology means completing conservation work faster, more efficiently and for less money.
The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978 but use has only been widespread in the last 15 years, after the technology was made available for civilians in the 1980s.
Originally created for military applications by the U.S. Department of Defense, the satellite-based navigation system is now helping wildlife agencies approach con- servation strategies for everything from eagles and bats to rare plants and prescribed fire with a new perspective.
“GPS technology has proven to be very useful in our annual aerial bald eagle nest-monitoring efforts,” said Jim Ozier, program manager with the GeorgiaWildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section. “By flying directly from nest to nest we are able to efficiently use expensive airtime to gather accurate data across the entire state.”
Linked to a network of 24 satellites, GPSworks in all weather conditions anywhere in the world 24 hours a day. There are no subscription fees or setup charges, making it a cost-effective alternative for wildlife biologists in the field. Hand- held devices have become a necessary addition for prescribed fire crews, which must often navigate through dense forest and disorienting smoke while working. The technology also helps researchers track changes in rare plant habitat such as mountain bogs.
In addition to locating and tracking existing habitat, GPS has other advantages.
“Potential new (eagle) nest locations can be entered into the GPS ahead of time and investigated along the route. And other items of interest that we observe along the way, such as pocket gopher mounds or rock outcroppings, can be marked for future reference,” Ozier said. “This system helps biologists easily coordinate their research, helping to eliminate time- consuming double work.”
University of Georgia graduate student Matt Clement has drawn attention this year for his work with bats in Georgia swamps. What most don’t know is Clement would be lost without his handheld GPS unit.
“Storing GPS locations helps you to return to the same place during future surveys,” he said. “This is especially important when a different person is trying to locate previously documented (bat) populations in the future.”
Wildlife Resources biologist Trina Morris works closely with Clement, conducting surveys for rare bats. She agrees that GPS is a critical tool for fieldwork.
“It is the best way to record accurate locations of populations of species of concern,” Morris said. “In the past, biologists would draw locations on maps by hand, and although often close, it’s hard to tell exactly where you are on a map when you’re in the field.”
GPS units are also important tools for working in unknown territory. Most new units include the ability to upload topographic maps of the areas users will be visiting, a helpful feature in remote places.
Despite the advances in hightech gadgets, field workers should have a backup. “There is always an error estimate with a GPS unit,” Clement said. “I can be at a tree on day one and then on day two be at the same tree and my unit will say the tree I am looking for is 20 meters away.
“That is why you have to use a combination of techniques to do fieldwork.”
“A GPS cannot replace a compass and paper maps,” Morris explained, “because sometimes it’s difficult to get a good signal in heavy tree cover or difficult terrain.”
Also, she said, electronic equipment is always subject to failure.
Georgia’s nongame wildlife license plates are a can’t-fail option for helping conserve rare bats and other nongame wildlife, native plants and natural habitats.
Thebald eagleandruby-throated hummingbird plates are available for a one-time $25 fee at county tag offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registrations and through online renewals (http://mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags).