BOISE — Scientists in Idaho are hoping drones can help them look at the sagebrush steppe from a new perspective.
They are using the unmanned aircraft to map wildlife habitats and gather information that will help monitor and protect the animals and birds that depend on the plants.
Jennifer Forbey, an associate biology professor at Boise State, said the program focuses on the habitat for sage grouse and pygmy rabbits, which rely on sagebrush for food and cover.
“For pygmy rabbits and sage grouse, not all sagebrush is created equal,” she said. “There’s certain species and subspecies that they like to eat or hang out under more than others, and we’re trying to assess that.”
In addition to allowing scientists to map a much larger area than what they could keep tabs on with ground monitors, drones are able to gather specific information, Forbey said.
The drones map how tall and wide sagebrush are, but also use sensors to record how much light they reflect – a hint toward the plants’ chemical makeup and and insight into whether they will be favored by Idaho’s often-picky native species.
“What our goal is is to see sagebrush like they see it, so in order to do that, we have to see it chemically and so we use sensors like multi-spectral cameras to assess that chemical quality,” she said.
The use of drones in Idaho is nothing new: Farmers are already seizing on the unmanned crafts to survey their fields and measure water content and even whether crops are ready to be harvested.
Similarly, biologists in the tropics have used drones to keep tabs on species diversity. But this is the first time the aircraft have been used to monitor the declining sage grouse population and their habitat, Forbey said.
The program is a collaboration between several universities, state and federal agencies. Forbey said the drone program was modeled after one that is finding success in Australia mapping eucalyptus trees.
“They have done it to assess quality of eucalyptus for koalas to feed on, so we just said ‘maybe we can try this with sagebrush and pygmy rabbits and sage grouse,’” Forbey said.
Idaho’s Sage Grouse Management Plan, adopted by Gov. C.L.”Butch” Otter last month, is aimed at halting the decline of the species’ population without getting it listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Forbey hopes the mapping will give scientists a deeper understanding of the sagebrush steppe and insight into how best to restore and protect the native species that live there.
“Instead of just saying ‘there’s a bunch of sagebrush out there,’ we can tell you something about the quality of the sagebrush that’s there,” she said.