Using Geospatial Tools

From Wildlife Science to Biofuels Inventory

Laurel James, master’s degree student working with Assistant Professor Monika Moskal in Moskal's Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Laboratory,  is using satellite GPS, remote sensing, and other geospatial tools to assess mountain goat habitat in Washington State.  James’ research is investigating whether a reduction in available habitat is a major factor in the reduction of the mountain goat populations on eastern Washington’s Yakama Nation reservation.  Her project is one of several other mountain goat studies underway in the Pacific Northwest by researchers from state and federal agencies. 

Mountain goats, ungulates belonging to the same order and family as antelope and cattle, live on remote crags and cliffs in Washington’s Cascade Range (there is also a small introduced population in Olympic National Park). The goats can survive in extreme alpine environments, keeping warm with their double coat of white fur and clinging to near-vertical rock cliffs with their cloven, padded hooves that grip slippery surfaces.  Mountain goats eat plants, grasses, mosses, and other alpine vegetation. During recent decades mountain goat populations in the Pacific Northwest have declined in some areas of their range — possible causes include predation, overhunting or illegal hunting, and changes in habitat that include a  trace mineral deficiency exacerbated by acid rain, global climate change, and increased contact with human populations such as backcountry hikers, skiers, climbers, and snowmobilers.

An enrolled member of the Yakama Nation, James spent almost 18 years with the Yakama Wildlife Resource Management Program, where she worked as a spotted owl crew leader and was the wildlife representative to the Yakama-BIA Interdisciplinary Team.  Says James, “My current research in the Mt. Adams region of the reservation uses GIS, GPS, and other remote sensing tools to monitor vegetation indices and analyze how mountain goats use their habitat.  The GPS-collared goats are tracked by orbiting satellites, and with data downloaded from the collars, the goats’ preferred habitat, migration routes, and home range can be determined. Vegetation indices are monitored by geospatial analysis of GPS data using NASA’s Terra Satellite, which flies a sensor that improves scientists’ ability to measure plant growth on a global scale.  Application of this knowledge will help determine fluctuations in available habitat, examine links between habitat use and vegetation indices, and pinpoint potential declining habitat conditions.”

After completing her master’s degree, James will transition into the UW’s NSF-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) PhD program on Bioresource-Based Energy for Sustainable Societies.  The IGERT is an interdisciplinary program incorporating the School of Forest Resources, the College of Engineering and the Department of American Indian Studies that hopes to create a new generation of PhDs in sustainable energy and to help develop local sources of renewable fuels.  Yakama tribal members are currently discussing options for sustainable energy, with plans including small-scale hydropower and wind energy projects. Phil Rigdon (’96), director of natural resources for the Yakama Nation, says, “The IGERT collaboration with the UW may help us produce energy from forest and agricultural wastes.”

James’ proposed PhD research will focus on biofuel inventory and assessment using geospatial tools.  She says, “Using geospatial tools to examine an individual watershed or forest variables such as biomass could produce data benefiting many disciplines, including forest inventory; fuels management, fire management, fisheries, water resources, and wildlife. The current challenge will be addressing these resources in line with biomass, wind, solar, and hydropower generation potential. These assessments are part of the UW IGERT's bioenergy work being completed this year in collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana.”

Says James “This program will bring my experience and education full-circle.”


Yakama Nation wildlife biologist Laurel James (left, with volunteer Michael Porter, center, and technician Terry Heemsah) outfitting mountain goats with radio collars to study seasonal habitat use and productivity.

Mountain goat habitat includes remote crags and cliffs in the Cascade Range.