Introduction to Unit 5: GIS for Ecological Management

This unit explores how GIS may be used to manage ecological resources. In June 1992, the United Nations and 178 governments adopted both the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Agenda 21 plan of action. This legislation has increased the importance of ecological management and means that ecological impact assessment is now an integral part of the planning process in many countries. This unit explores how GIS can be used to assist in these situations.

The unit consists of the following learning objects:

  1. Representing vegetation and animal distributions
  2. Understanding habitat – habitat suitability indices
  3. Assessing landscape patterns
  4. Scale in ecological management
  5. Ecological reserve design using GIS
  6. Modelling wildlife populations using GIS

‘Representing vegetation and animal distributions’ considers the sources of spatial ecological data and the methods for storing such data. A large body of ecological literature has used GIS to assess the habitat preferences of individual plant and animal species. For example, GIS might be used to see whether a moorland bird species shows a preference for upland or lowland sites or towards specific types of moorland vegetation, such as bracken or heather. The methods used to assess habitat in this way are considered in ‘understanding habitat – habitat suitability indices’. Many species do not prefer a single type of habitat, but rather respond to a complex patchwork of different types of vegetation. For example, a moorland bird species may require small patches of woodland as well as open heather. ‘Assessing landscape patterns’ looks at the way in which GIS can be used to assess the overall make-up of different types of habitat in a landscape. Many analyses that use spatial ecological data are affected by scale. For example, analysing ecological data using 50 by 50 metre raster grids may produce very different results to an analysis based on 250 by 250 metre grids. ‘Scale in ecological management’ examines this issue and methods for analysing patterns across many different scales.

One of the most commonly used methods for managing ecological resources is to set aside conservation areas such as National Parks or Game Reserves, where economic activity is prohibited or heavily constrained. Another important application area for GIS is to consider whether such conservation areas provide adequate protection for different ecosystems and how conservation areas fit in within the broader landscape. ‘Ecological reserve design using GIS’ considers the use of GIS for this purpose. ‘Modelling wildlife populations using GIS’ looks at how the population dynamics of a particular wildlife species and its migration between patches of suitable habitat can be modelled using GIS. Such modelling is useful when planning the reintroduction of a locally extinct species or when relocating individual animals from one site to another.

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