Pygmy Rabbits Landscape

The U.S. Geological Survey, Boise State University and the University of Idaho are partnering to use UAS technology to gather data on the landscape habitat of pygmy rabbits. Pygmy rabbits dig extensive burrow systems, which are also used by other animals. Loss of habitat is a direct threat to this species , which depends on big sagebrush, particularly mature stands of it. Both birds and mammals prey on pygmy rabbits, which are an important food for many of the other animals in its range. The rabbit’s habitat has become increasingly fragmented by development, agriculture, rangeland “improvements” for example, projects that replace big sagebrush with bunchgrasses and by fire.

The UAS approaches will help develop map data for cover, food and thermal landscapes for pygmy rabbits and eventually will be linked to the fitness of pygmy rabbits. The data generated will aid in land use decisions made by agencies for habitat conservation. The projects mission is to evaluate the quality of cover (e.g., concealment and transparency), diet (e.g., nutrients and chemical defenses), and temperatures across the landscape in support of wildlife habitat studies.

Remote sensing is an emerging approach to map habitat quality and predict how habitat quality influences wildlife (Starks et al. 2004, Anderson et al. 2010). For example, remote sensing has been used to explain how habitat features influence patterns of space use by large herbivores (Anderson et al. 2010). However, studies that directly link specific parameters of habitat quality, such as cover and dietary quality, to functional habitat use by wildlife are needed to identify, predict, and better manage quality habitats across landscapes. Our objective is to evaluate the use of Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) to remotely sense the quality of cover (e.g., concealment and transparency), diet (e.g., nutrients and chemical defenses), and temperatures across the landscape, and to overlay these attributes with remotely sensed movement and habitat use by wildlife.

Data will be used to develop and field-test spatially explicit models (e.g., mixed spatial regression models and hierarchical Bayesian models) depicting how cover, diet quality, and temperatures influence habitat use by pygmy rabbits. This approach is novel because it provides a multi-variate, multi-scale empirical link between theoretical predictions of the effects and interactions of multiple environmental stressors on the functional responses by pygmy rabbits. We envision developing these models through the use of existing technology in a new system and the development novel technologies that will expand the use of UAS in wildlife conservation.