31 July 2020

Mapping Conservation using ArcGIS

Written by: Taylor Curtis

Communication is not emphasized in the field of science. The average education stresses results over how to communicate those results to the world. This is a skill that I argue is just as important as the science itself. Our work as scientists is not as effective if people do not understand what the results are saying. This summer as a Directorate Fellow for Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), I have been able to improve this skill by getting a chance to work in the program, Arc Geographic Information System (GIS).

Data visualization is one of the important tools biologists can use to help communicate ideas to the general public, as it helps simplify and break down numbers into something the average person can digest quickly. By organizing data through programs like GIS, I am able to contribute a bigger understanding of the hard work my office performs each and every day.

Through my project I have learned how to map areas where species under the Endangered Species act will be affected by construction. For a better understanding of this role, you can look at my last blog post where I describe the process biologists use in deciding if consultation through FWS is necessary. Once a consultation occurs, a document shared between the FWS and the proponent, is created summarizing the project and key factors making construction possible. Within this document, referred to as a biological opinion (BOs), there are areas of land that are deemed to have some particular type of effect. These effects are classified into 4 categories: temporary impact, permanent impact, conservation area, and restoration area. Temporary and permanent impacts are self explanatory. These are lands that will either have a short term impact, such as routes used for construction, and long term impacts, such as physical structures. Conservation areas are pieces of land acquired by the project proponent to offset their impacts to a threatened or endangered species. These areas generally support high-quality habitat for the species and are acquired and protected by the project proponent so that the species and its habitat cannot be impacted by future projects. On the other hand, restoration areas are pieces of land that need to be restored and monitored until it is deemed self-sustaining by targets determined by biologists, such as a certain proportion of native vegetation. By restoring this land, the proponents are adding new possible habitat for species potentially affected by their project. Below you can see the areas mapped through GIS by employees in FWS, past DFPs, and myself.


Conservation tracking system displaying projects entered by FWS Source: Emilie Lucinai  

To get a better understanding of how I get to use GIS this summer, let me take you through a specific project. Coto Meadows LLC Development project, located in the community of Coto de Caza in Orange County.  This project had potential effects on the federally listed coastal California Gnatcatcher. Outlined in the biological opinion were 10.77 acres of permanent impact, 1.89 acres of temporary impact, and 101.1 acres of conservation area. Using shapefiles given by the proponent I have been able to visualize each of these areas below. This data is entered into the conversation tracking system that is accessible to other biologists to understand the bigger picture of impact and protection of lands across the state. 


10.77 acres of permanently impacted Source: Taylor Curtis/Google Maps 


1.89 acres of land temporarily impacted Source: Taylor Curtis/ Google Maps 


101.1 acres of land used as a conservation easement Source: Taylor Curtis/Google Maps

This has helped build my communication skills as my work in GIS can help the impacts of complicated BOs quickly through visuals. It has also been added to a larger database that allows various biologists to communicate numerous projects. I am excited to use these skills past my internship and continue to improve my data visualization skills after this summer. I would like to thank the guidance of Emilie Luciani, a geographer at the Carlsbad FWS office. As I continue to improve my skills, I am grateful to have the chance to work with such a supportive staff, and Emilie is a crucial part.


Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office

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