Satellites and pictures: New technology provides big-picture view of changing landscapesWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Historically, many land managers have used the hula hoop method to survey vegetation, animal populations and other range health factors by collecting data within measured areas of ground in key areas.
“Now, we have better science,” noted Gregg Simonds, vice president of ag operations at Ensign Group.
At the Ranch Sustainability Forum in Sheridan on March 9, Simonds introduced producers to new technology that incorporates photos, satellite imagery and on-the-ground measurements to model landscapes.
“We go out with four wheelers or drones, and we take pictures,” Simonds remarked. “Through mathematics, use of big data, probability analysis and decision trees, we are able to tie information from the photos in with information from the satellites.”
Objects, such as different kinds of vegetation, have unique spectral signatures that can be identified. Using those signatures, scientists can work with satellite images to determine which objects are on the ground over large areas.
“We get a cartoonish picture but of a huge scale. We add that to our visual capabilities, and we can see things in a simple form over a vast area,” he describes.
Satellite data can also be used to model areas over the last 40 years, diagramming how the landscape has changed.
“How much bare ground was over a given pasture in year one, and what is it now? What about after a rainfall?” he asked as an example, explaining that the technology can help to answer those questions.
To illustrate how the technology can help land managers, Simonds described a situation involving a riparian area with a popular picnic and fishing spot in Colorado. The same area was also used for grazing cattle, and the Forest Service became concerned that livestock were ruining the riparian landscape.
“The biologists at the Forest Service were beating up on the range people, and the range people were trying really hard to work well with the ranchers and the herder,” he said.
Using color infrared imagery from the satellite technology, experts were able to compare the area’s features from 1985 with those of 2009.
Simonds added, “Now, we can exactly quantify what area is uplands, what is riparian vegetation and the amount of willows present, and we can even look at the speed and velocity of the creek.”
In the photos from 2009, it was apparent that the number of willows had increased dramatically from 1985, which, in turn, attracted a large population of beavers.
“The reason the landscape changed is because there was a beaver dam that blew out,” he explained, describing how the scene could easily be attributed to the cattle by only looking at evidence from the ground.
Simonds noted that using the new technology, land managers can understand the body condition of the land to protect against regulations, answer questions about vegetation, the area, direct management and improvements, understand drought, manage allotments, design plans for species conservation and develop water security.
“We can see a tremendous amount of detail and richness in what’s going on,” he stated.
Working on another project at a ranch with over 3,000 acres and many miles of stream, Simonds used the new technology to review changes in stream banks and water flow over time. Satellite imagery and data revealed years with good vegetation and years with poor management.
“We could see exactly where, when and what changed,” he noted.
Using the data, ranch managers were able to adjust their management, significantly increasing vegetative functionality along the streambeds.
“We can take that to a meeting and have some ability to fight regulations,” he mentioned.
The information can also help create successful water plans and grazing schedules to ensure healthy vegetation across the landscape.
“How much ground cover we have can affect life function. If we have a lot of bare ground, we have flooding, and we take soil away. Then, we don’t get as much plant growth,” Simonds explained. “If we have good ground cover, sunlight and water come together to make plants.”
He argued that proper stewardship keeps plants in the ground, which controls water and carbon cycles in the soil.
“That allows the ground to be stable and allows for life to happen,” he said.
With data from advancing technology, Simonds said that land managers can get a better grasp on the big picture and make smarter choices about how they interact with the land.
Using image and satellite data, he remarked, “In one day, one person can record almost a billion times more information than the traditional method.”