Thirty-six years ago the multidisciplinary study of conservation biology was developed to build a bridge between pure ecology and the practical issues of species and habitat conservation (Soulé & Wilcox, 1980). This discipline encompasses genetics, population ecology, wildlife management, social sciences and in particular the measurement and analysis of biodiversity and habitat. The distribution of plant and animal species across the globe recognizes no national or political boundaries, so the need for detailed mapping and analysis of geographic features, species distribution and natural resources was a primary need of this new discipline from its inception.
Geographic Information Systems deliver large amounts of information on a global scale for a particular application, both as data and as software applications. GIS allow for collaborative research and for individual research groups to tap into an array of resources developed often for other purposes and utilize them for specific research projects or practical applications. The development of information systems and methodologies capable of delivering the organization of complexity sufficient to satisfy the needs of conservationists was a necessity for conservation biology; it allowed the discipline to fulfil its promise of providing a scientific framework for decision-making in practical conservation.
Using GIS to Model Wildlife Corridors
Wildlife does not recognize the boundaries created by human activity. The creation of highways across the habitats of large, roaming mammals often results in significant deaths when, for example, bears attempt to cross highways which pass through their ranges. Specific crossing points can be built as part of a highway project, but where should wildlife corridors be placed to maximize their value? In a study to find the best approach to creating linkages between areas of the range of Black Bears where the Trans-Canada Highway passes through Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada (Clevenger, Wierszchowski, Chruszcz, & Gunson, 2002), GIS played a key part of the research. Suitability maps indicating the areas most likely to be selected by bears for crossing points were developed with GIS software. Several sources of data on bear movements were used to create and compare models to predict the most likely linkage points that would be used by bears, to minimize both construction costs and road-kill. This kind of successful research highlights the advantages of GIS models over the time-consuming and expensive process of collecting data in case-by-case situations.
Helping to Preserve Biodiversity Using GIS
Conservation biology places a major emphasis on the preservation of biodiversity and this in turn means that data on the distribution of endangered species and of suitable habitats for such species in of paramount concern to biologists working in the field. Like animals, plants also do not recognize man-made boundaries or borders. In a study of endangered tree species in Egypt (Salem, 2003), use was made of GIS systems to effectively overlay maps of the ranges of endangered plant onto maps of habitat areas. These areas included both those already declared as reserves and those only proposed as reserves at the time of the study. This research addressed a critical issue in biodiversity conservation, the ability to match conservation areas with the actual distribution of a wide variety of species within a target area. By using these GIS maps, botanists and wildlife managers can visualize and present suitable data to optimize the boundaries of reserves during their creation, so as to achieve the highest rate of biodiversity preservation in the complex negotiations necessary to balance social and economic needs with habitat and species conservation.
As the application of choice, GIS has a central role in analyzing the geographic distribution of endangered species, in measuring and monitoring biodiversity, and in identifying priorities for conservation management. It has become so widely established in plant conservation in particular, that habitat evaluation and monitoring is now be carried out with a high degree of accuracy and even rare, endemic species with highly limited habitats can be accurately monitored and assessed for conservation (Krigas, Papadimitriou, & Mazaris, 2012).
Organizations such as the National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara foster collaborative and technologically informed ecological research in which researchers make extensive use of GIS analysis and software to produce cutting-edge work in conservation biology. The NCEAS works primarily by integrating existing data-sets and models with GIS systems, to extract the greatest value from pre-existing diverse research which would otherwise not be accessible to other researchers in formats they can effectively work with (NCEAS).
Conservation biology spans the range from pure research to social and political activism to achieve the goals of biodiversity conservation. By relying on data assembled through GIS applications, the Nature Conservancy has developed a seven-step framework to develop specific plans for different regions (Groves, Jensen, & al, 2002). Given the limited resources available global for conservation and biodiversity preservation, it is essential to be able to identify ‘hotspots’ where urgent action needs to be taken, and this framework gives those working in applied conservation a valuable tool to achieve that targeted approach.
In the global picture, changes in economic activity need to occur that will foster conservation and conserve resources to minimize the impact of human activity on an increasingly fragile planet. Researches and educators are being challenged to take information systems to a global level to manage energy resources and embrace environmental sustainability as a core principle (Watson, Boudreau, & Chen, 2010). When all information systems become Geographic Information Systems then the challenges of conservation biology will be met, and overcome, to create a viable future for all the inhabitants of Earth.
Clevenger, A. P., Wierszchowski, J., Chruszcz, B., & Gunson, K. (2002, April). GIS Generated, Expert-based Models for Identifying Wildlife Habitat Linkages and Planning Mitigation Passages. Conservation Biology, 16(2), 503-514.
Drapera, D. A.-G. (2003). Application of GIS in plant conservation programmes in Portugal. Biological Conservation(113), pp. 337-349.
Groves, C. R., Jensen, D. B., & al, e. (2002, June). Planning for BiodiversityConservation: Putting Conservation Science into Practice. J BioScience, 52(6).
Krigas, N., Papadimitriou, K., & Mazaris, A. D. (2012). GIS and ex situ Plant Conservation. In B. M. Alam, Application of Geographic Information Systems.
NCEAS. (n.d.). Retrieved 11/17/2014, from National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis : https://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/
Salem, B. B. (2003). Application of GIS to biodiversity monitoring. Journal of Arid Environments, 54, 91-114.
Soulé, M., & Wilcox, B. (Eds.). (1980). Conservation Biology: An Evolutionary-Ecological Perspective. SinauerAssociates, Sunderland, Massachusetts.
Watson, R. T., Boudreau, M.-C., & Chen, A. J. (2010, March). Information Systems and Environmentally Sustainable Development. MIS Quarterly, 34(1), pp. 23-38.
About the Author
Professor David Goodfellow, B.Sc (Hon.I), Dip.Hort. (Kew), taught at Algonquin College, Ottawa, Canada for 25 years. He currently teaches an on-line course on the history of western society’s attitudes to the natural world.