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CSS Promotes Information Sharing Among Wyoming Conservation Partners

Sage Grouse photo
Greater sage grouse are among Wyoming's many wildlife resources.
While traveling Interstate 80 through southwestern Wyoming, you might look around and conclude there's not much going on in sagebrush country. But hidden from immediate view is a landscape undergoing rapid change and development. Mineral reserves are plentiful in Wyoming. The Green River Basin contains the largest trona ore reserve in the world. Approximately 15 million tons of coal are mined annually. Finally, enough natural gas is extracted each year to heat more than 4 million homes. This part of Wyoming is also home to some of the nation's best wildlife resources including elk (about 40,000), pronghorn (upwards of 100,000), mule deer (100,000), greater sage grouse, and a variety of fish and other non-game species. Added to this mix are more than 1,700 family farms and ranches supporting 225,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep.

Enter the Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative (WLCI), a partnership of federal, state, and local governments, including the USGS, which strives to assess and enhance aquatic and terrestrial habitats while facilitating responsible development. The WLCI is made up of multi-agency teams that facilitate different aspects of the WLCI mission. One such team is the Data and Information Management Team (DIMT).

Led by Natalie Latysh of the USGS Core Science Systems (CSS) Mission Area, the DIMT promotes information sharing among WLCI partners by guiding development and use of effective data management practices. Through monthly meetings, the DIMT works to promote data sharing among WLCI partners and helps expose the benefits of thoughtful and methodical data management.

One way that CSS is aiding the DIMT in its data and information sharing is working with researchers at the USGS Fort Collins Science Center (FORT) in Fort Collins, CO, and with WLCI's many partners to provide a network of commercial and open source tools.

At the forefront of this effort is ScienceBase, a data cataloging and collaborative data management framework that provides an information "portal" for USGS and partner agency managers and scientists to search for, assess, and acquire relevant data. ScienceBase is used by multiple science projects throughout the country like the Upper Colorado River Basin, the Southern California Multi-hazards Demonstration Project, and the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Rather than building stovepipe solutions, ScienceBase uses successes from each project to build a system relevant and useful for all.

As for the staffing behind many of these efforts, CSS has set itself apart from traditional computer science organizations by seeking out research scientists from a variety of backgrounds. Abby Benson graduated from California State University, Fullerton, with an MS in Biological Science. Her master's research focused on ground squirrel demographics on prairie dog colonies and she has participated as a technician on a range of ecological studies. By including scientists with broad backgrounds in its cadre of information professionals, CSS can provide informed insight into data management from the perspective of research scientists as well as computer scientists. Robust knowledge of the on-the-ground research process leads to better understanding of the data being collected and, therefore, better assistance with the management of that data.

Recently, a unique opportunity arose for Abby to go out into the field and assist with data collection for the WLCI. Researcher Pat Anderson at FORT needed assistance with a vegetation study associated with sage grouse. In the late 1990s, land managers had applied treatments to different areas in southwestern Wyoming meant to improve wildlife habitat. Treatments included herbicide application and mowing to reduce and remove sagebrush. As far as anyone knew, no one had yet gone back to those remote sites to test whether or not this approach was effective in developing the structure and abundance of forbs and grasses that would increase wildlife usage of these areas. Pat designed a rigorous scientific study to assess the vegetative composition in those areas as well as in control sites. Abby was invited to participate on Pat's vegetative assessment team for two weeks in July. Days out in the field are usually 10–14 hours long and the weather can be fickle, especially with the convective thunderstorms that roll over the landscape bringing heavy rain and lightning. Still, the sheer number of hours spent working outside afforded the possibility of glimpsing rare events such as seeing an elusive pygmy rabbit in the wild. With the full support of CSS, Abby was sold!

Multi-agency partnerships provide a unique opportunity to accomplish goals that would be unreachable via any other method. Although trying to get everyone on the same page can be a difficult task, with the help of ScienceBase and other commercial and open source tools offered by CSS, collaboration and consensus can truly become a reality. CSS is pioneering the use of cutting-edge tools combined with a multi-talented workforce to help ensure that USGS science underpins resource decision making.