08:23 PM

Defenders Uses Satellite Data to Monitor Changes to U.S. Wildlife Habitat

New Technique Detects Significant Loss of Habitat for Imperiled Lesser Prairie-Chicken


WASHINGTON (August 3, 2017)  Defenders of Wildlife issued a new report today that demonstrates how satellite data and cloud computing can swiftly detect habitat loss from energy development and agricultural conversion in endangered species habitat.

The pilot study, Monitoring Habitat Loss for Endangered Species Using Satellite Data: A Case Study of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken,” applied a new technique of using publicly available satellite and aerial data from NASA and the European Space Agency, coupled with algorithms developed by Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation, to the imperiled lesser prairie-chicken. The study calculated over 258,000 acres of habitat disturbance between September 2015 and April 2017  equivalent to about 195,000 football fields.

The report was released through Defenders’ new Center for Conservation Innovation, which uses data, technology and interdisciplinary approaches to pioneer innovative and pragmatic solutions to improve endangered species conservation in the United States, especially under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said:

“The Endangered Species Act is our most effective and forward-thinking wildlife conservation law. Yet, the act itself is under constant and increasing political attacks in Congress. Defenders of Wildlife established the Center for Conservation Innovation to demonstrate how the ESA can work more effectively, both for the species it protects and for property owners and other stakeholders. As a key part of that initiative, the Center for Conservation Innovation has developed a new and cost-effective way to monitor wildlife habitat. Ultimately, our technique can even help determine whether developers are complying with their ESA permits, thereby increasing protections for imperiled species and their habitats.”

Ya-Wei Li, vice president of endangered species conservation and director of the Center for Conservation Innovation for Defenders of Wildlife, said:

“Satellite images are increasingly being used to document widespread deforestation and other forms of habitat loss in other countries. But here in the U.S., habitat disturbances can be much harder to monitor, as individual development projects often have relatively small footprints. The problem is that the cumulative effects of thousands of small projects can cause “death by a thousand cuts” for endangered species. Historically, conservationists haven’t been able to get a good handle on the extent of those impacts. But we’ll help fill that gap by applying our technique to hundreds of endangered species in the U.S.”

Michael Evans, a conservation data specialist with Defenders of Wildlife said: 

“The algorithms we developed through the Center for Conservation Innovation allow us to analyze a massive amount of satellite data from NASA and the European Space Agency, all served up through Google Earth Engine. Our technique to automatically detect habitat disturbances offers a much more effective conservation solution than tasking an individual with going through such large data sets manually. In the coming years, we will apply our algorithms to monitor the habitats of a wide variety of species, including the greater sage-grouse and the dunes sagebrush lizard.”











Figure 5. The majority of Lesser prairie chicken habitat loss from 2015 to 2016 was from agricultural conversion. Total acreage converted was estimated using USDA cropland data with at least 90 percent confidence and at least 75 percent confidence in the classification of land cover.


The new report by Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation found that extensive habitat loss and disturbance has occurred in the range of lesser prairie-chicken in the 19-month study period between Sept. 1, 2015, when ESA protections for the species were removed by a court, and April 1, 2017. The habitat loss and disturbance include:

  • 8 new wind farms and 946 wind turbines built, with an estimated 164,895 acres of new habitat disturbance in the lesser prairie-chicken’s range.
  • 311 oil and gas well pads built that created a minimum of 8,950 acres of new habitat disturbance.
  • Energy development combined caused 173,845 acres of habitat loss or degradation.
  • Defenders’ algorithm for agricultural conversion identified between 85,000 acres (with 90 percent confidence) and 184,000 acres (75 percent confidence) of conversion from lesser prairie-chicken habitat to agriculture in 2016 alone.
  • Using the more conservative 90 percent confidence threshold, we estimate a minimum of 258,845 acres were disturbed from agricultural conversion and energy development in the range of the lesser prairie-chicken during the 19-month study period.

To help with habitat and compliance monitoring, Defenders recommends that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service post all ESA plans and permits, including Section 7 biological opinions and biological assessments, and Section 10 habitat conservation plans, online. Using these documents, we and other stakeholders can compare the authorized footprint of a project with its actual footprint based on remote sensing data and technology, and notify the appropriate wildlife agency of any potential violations. By embracing open data and technology, the Services and conservationists can enhance the ESA’s effectiveness and increase the number of recovered species. Defenders also encourages renewable energy developers to identify suitable, wildlife-friendly sites for wind and solar development through its “Smart-from-the-Start” program.




Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit Newsroom.Defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.