Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Drones to help pygmy rabbit research

Project will take place near Magic Reservoir in mid-January

A researcher holds a pygmy rabbit, a small species of rabbit that lives in areas dominated by sagebrush. Photo by staff files

    In mid-January, scientists from four universities will fly small, unmanned aerial vehicles over sagebrush habitat near Magic Reservoir to obtain information about the habitat needs of pygmy rabbits.
    The pygmy rabbit has been considered for listing as an endangered species since 2003, when the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project and several other conservation groups filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2010, the agency rejected the petition on the grounds that it did not have enough data to decide whether the species warranted listing, but a spokesman told the Idaho Mountain Express at that time that the rabbits’ sagebrush habitat was clearly shrinking.

I think it’s going to be really novel.”
Janet Rachlow
University of Idaho

    The U.S. Forest Service, the BLM and the University of Idaho have been jointly conducting research on pygmy rabbit habitat since 2003. According to a news release from the Salmon-Challis National Forest, pygmy rabbits are typically found in areas of tall, dense sagebrush cover, and are highly dependent on the plant to provide both food and shelter throughout the year. Their diet in the winter consists of up to 99 percent sagebrush.
    For about two days beginning Jan. 13, small drones carrying cameras will be guided over BLM-managed land west of state Highway 75 near Magic Reservoir. Those flights will follow similar flights from Jan. 6-10 in the Lemhi Valley near the town of Leadore.
    According to the news release, the goal is to capture high-resolution digital images that measure concealment of rabbits from predators and quality of food provided by the sagebrush.
    The robotic aircraft are hand-launched, weigh about 14 pounds and have a 7- to 9-foot wingspan. They fly parallel transects for 20-30 minutes at a time, and their cameras can capture a resolution of about 3 centimeters.
    The work is part of a collaborative research program conducted by the University of Idaho, Boise State University and Washington State University. The project aims to create maps of habitat quality that will be matched with patterns of use by the animals.
    “I think it’s going to be really novel,” said Janet Rachlow, an associate professor of wildlife biology at the University of Idaho. “I think it has the ability to take a better approach to understanding habitat quality.”
    Rachlow said the aircraft were used to take photos of summer habitat in June at both the Magic Reservoir and Lemhi Valley sites. She said matching those with the winter photos will allow biologists to better analyze the year-round needs of the rabbits.
    Rachlow said the area around Magic Reservoir is good, intact pygmy rabbit habitat, and can provide a model for habitat rehabilitation projects elsewhere in the state. However, she said, to create successful projects, scientists need to know how the rabbits use their habitat, including what priorities they place on food, cover from predators and protection from heat and cold.
“The aerial images we get will help us scale up from what individual animals do to what the whole population does,” she said.
Rachlow said project scientists will follow up on the flights by spending the next two years taking measurements on the ground.
    The drone flights will be conducted by the University of Florida Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Program. According to the Forest Service news release, the program has received a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration permitting low-altitude flights of small unmanned aircraft over unpopulated areas within one nautical mile of the ground-control station.
    Rachlow said the flights will also provide scientists with more information about how robotic aircraft can be used for other types of research. For example, she said, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game would like to use this method to count salmon redds—or spawning nests—in rivers.
    “A lot of biologists spend a lot of their time in small planes and helicopters,” she said, “and that’s dangerous.”
    Scientists will give a presentation on the research at the Sacajawea Center in Salmon on Tuesday, Jan. 7, at 7 p.m. Researchers will give a short presentation about their work in the Lemhi Valley and about application of drone technology for wildlife and natural resources. They will have the equipment for people to see, and will have several members of their team available to answer questions. The Sacajawea Center is two miles east of Salmon on state Highway 28.
Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress.com

About Comments

Comments with content that seeks to incite or inflame may be removed.

Comments that are in ALL CAPS may be removed.

Comments that are off-topic or that include profanity or personal attacks, libelous or other inappropriate material may be removed from the site. Entries that are unsigned or contain signatures by someone other than the actual author may be removed. We will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or any other policies governing this site. Use of this system denotes full acceptance of these conditions. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

The comments below are from the readers of mtexpress.com and in no way represent the views of Express Publishing, Inc.

You may flag individual comments. You may also report an inappropriate or offensive comment by clicking here.

Flagging Comments: Flagging a comment tells a site administrator that a comment is inappropriate. You can find the flag option by pointing the mouse over the comment and clicking the 'Flag' link.

Flagging a comment is only counted once per person, and you won't need to do it multiple times.

Proper Flagging Guidelines: Every site has a different commenting policy - be sure to review the policy for this site before flagging comments. In general these types of comments should be flagged:

  • Spam
  • Ones violating this site's commenting policy
  • Clearly unrelated
  • Personal attacks on others
Comments should not be flagged for:
  • Disagreeing with the content
  • Being in a dispute with the commenter

Popular Comment Threads

 Local Weather 
Search archives:

Copyright © 2020 Express Publishing Inc.   Terms of Use   Privacy Policy
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.