Conservation within an ever changing landscape

Atlanta currently covers an area larger than Massachusetts, with scientists expecting urban sprawl to increase exponentially in the coming years.

These predictions show urban development merging to create a corridor from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Roanoke, Virginia, and from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Charlotte, North Carolina by 2060. Elsewhere, the same pattern is happening from Baton Rouge to Pensacola; Dallas to Shreveport and Springfield, Missouri to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

To offset the impact of this urban development, land-use changes, climate change and sea-level rise in the coming decades, scientists from 20 state, federal and non-profit organizations have come together to form the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GCPO).

Through a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mississippi State University is co-host of the cooperative, which supports long-term conservation planning and design across 180 million acres in 12 states.

Mississippi State Professor Wes Burger, who is co-principal investigator for the cooperative, said studying the landscape is more than just considering the layout of the area. In conservation terms, landscape includes all of the species that call the area home.

“When we define landscapes, it’s a matter of spatial scale and not all species respond to changing environments at the same spatial scale,” Burger explained. “Black bears, for instance, use a lot of space, so when you evaluate their habitat, you must look beyond a single stand of timber and consider the entire Mississippi Alluvial Valley on both sides of the Mississippi River.”

The GCPO is interested in much more than black bears. There are more than 75 indicator species throughout the partnership’s area, which spans the East Gulf Coastal Plain, Ozark Highlands, Mississippi Alluvial Valley, West Gulf Coastal Plain and Gulf Coast. Bisected by the Mississippi River, these sub-regions are located in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

“The cooperatives define, design and deliver conservation that helps fish and wildlife species, communities and ecosystems adapt to climate change and other stressors at the landscape level,” Burger explained.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Interior rolled out a two-pronged approach to mitigate and adapt to the potential impact of climate change on the environment. This Climate Change Adaptation Strategy established eight climate science centers and 22 landscape conservation cooperatives, like the one co-hosted by Mississippi State, across the U.S.

While the climate science centers work with global climate-change models, the regional cooperatives use scaled-down versions for strategic conservation at the landscape level.

“Landscape conservation cooperatives are based on biological underpinnings or what we know about how species use the landscape,” Burger said.

From that knowledge, he said conservation management practices are designed, implemented and evaluated. Variables, like population size or viability, are then monitored to determine if these methods were delivered effectively.

“This continuous loop of improvement works in an iterative fashion as one process leads to and informs the next,” Burger explained.
The effects of the landscape conservation cooperatives were reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, and the findings proved the importance of a broad approach to conservation.

“The report reaffirmed the need for the nation to take a landscape approach to conservation, acknowledging that landscape conservation cooperatives serve a unique niche in helping fulfill that need,” said Greg Wathen, the GCPO coordinator who works with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

With that in mind, the GCPO centers its work on one massive, collaborative initiative with a focus on the future.

Building a Better World

Wathen helps lead the initiative to create a conservation blueprint of the entire Southeastern United States through the year 2060. Called the Southeastern Conservation Adaptation Strategy, the initiative partners six southeastern landscape conservation cooperatives and the Southeast and South Central Climate Science Centers. The team plans to deliver the first version of that blueprint at the 70th Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in mid-October 2016.

Todd Jones-Farrand, science coordinator for the GCPO, explained the strategy.

“Landscape conservation cooperatives are the mechanism for figuring out what is sustainable in a landscape and communicating that vision in explicit detail–how much habitat do we need and where do we need it to keep critters around for the long haul,” he said.

Conservation Planning Atlas

Mississippi State University is providing geospatial data and expertise to the Southeastern conservation blueprint through the GCPO’s Conservation Planning Atlas, a tool that helps land resource managers make scientifically supported conservation decisions.

“One of the common needs across the partnership is to have data accessible to users who either don’t have the skill set or budget to access a desktop geospatial information systems program,” explained Kristine Evans, geomatics coordinator for the GCPO and an assistant research professor at the MSU Geosystems Research Institute.

“It takes a long time with any software program to build up a skill set to actually use it,” she continued. “That’s a barrier for conservation managers who need that data to make decisions today.”

Evans, like Burger, is a co-principal investigator on the agreement designating MSU as co-host for the GCPO. She manages the atlas along with Mississippi State research associate Toby Gray.

“Before the atlas, land managers sometimes had to make decisions using outdated tools,” Evans explained. “We built a free, Web-based, user-friendly portal where conservation managers have quick and easy access to thousands of up-to-date conservation datasets and tools.”

Mapping Land Cover

Qingmin Meng, an assistant professor in the Mississippi State geosciences department, is also developing much-needed datasets, which will soon be available on the atlas.

“In the conservation field, the newest land cover data products were developed in the late 90s or the early 2000s,” he said. “While some newer products may delineate between land use and land cover, most of the detailed data is outdated.”

Meng has configured a promising remote sensing method to digitally map land cover—the physical characteristics of the land, such as whether the area is forest, grasslands, marsh or something else—for very large regions, in high resolution.

“This will serve as a critical foundational layer for conservation work by giving conservationists and land managers access to accurate, updated images and a better understanding of the characteristics of natural resources, landscape ecology and the interface between natural conditions and human impacts over time and across space,” Meng said.


Conservation of Managed Land

In addition to the scientific support, Mississippi State also provides administrative support to the GCPO. In 2013, this support included overseeing a request for proposals targeting knowledge gaps throughout the region. Eight projects from approximately 80 submissions were selected. Two of these involve researchers from Mississippi State evaluating conservation in managed lands.

In the first, Ray Iglay, a research associate in the wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture department, serves as co-investigator on the evaluation of different land management techniques for plantation pine—a type of cultivated pine forest—to determine what conservation techniques result in the most biodiversity.

“The most exciting part of the research is identifying the gaps and doing the foundational work that will help us manage landscapes in the future,” Iglay said. “What can this study teach us that we need to know to better manage these landscapes to help these species of concern down the road?”
Iglay and principal investigator Rachel Greene, a research associate in the Mississippi State Forest and Wildlife Research Center (FWRC), are continuing the project established by the late MSU Professor Sam Riffell in 2013.

In the second study, Robert Grala, an associate professor of forestry, is working to identify conservation, cultural and economic benefits and perceptions of land management and how it matters to landowners in bottomland hardwoods, open pine stands and grassland habitats across the states involved in the GCPO.

The study, which includes Professor William Cooke, head of the Mississippi State geosciences department; Professor Kevin Hunt in the FWRC; and Jason Gordon, an assistant extension professor in the forestry department, aims to determine how these benefits and perceptions affect land management objectives and landowner actions. The team will also work to quantify the monetary value of conservation activities and ecosystem services to determine if and how landowners can be encouraged to change their actions.

What can landowners do?

There are many programs in place to help landowners contribute to conservation. For instance, fire is very important for certain ecosystems.

“Without fire or some sort of disturbance, we wouldn’t have open pine landscapes, on which many imperiled species rely,” Kristine Evans explained.

She recommends the following tools as resources for landowners. Each can be found online:

Maps that illustrate landowner conservation practice and preference at the landscape scale will be published to help inform and support future conservation practices. Researchers from the Duke University Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions are collaborating on the project.

While that work is underway, Scott Rush, a FWRC assistant professor, is trying to identify the bird species most closely associated with the attributes of open pine and salt marsh habitats.

“Two separate graduate students evaluated different indicator birds to determine ecosystem health and likelihood of restoration in specific habitats,” Rush said. “This research will help inform future conservation management practices.”

In one recent study, master’s student Taylor Hannah researched Bachman’s sparrow, red-cockaded woodpecker, brown nuthatch and northern bobwhite as metrics for evaluating the landscape attributes of open pine habitat.

Hannah determined the presence of Bachman’s sparrow and red-cockaded woodpecker were positively related to open pine habitat while the others were not.

“Taylor’s research will help the GCPO as they develop an open pine conservation management tool,” Rush said.

A Conservation Connection

Each project, process and role within the GCPO functions on a landscape level, and team members are acutely aware of the bigger picture. The cooperative connects the dots and keeps the conversation between multiple federal and state agencies and nongovernmental organizations moving forward in a unified direction.

In addition to Mississippi State University, GCPO partners include 10 state agencies, six federal and four nongovernmental organizations. It is a partnership in which MSU plays an important role, Jones-Farrand explained.

“MSU, as a neutral, intermediate partner, serves as a catalyst for collaboration between state and federal government and nongovernmental organizations,” Jones-Farrand said. “We wouldn’t be as far along as we are without Mississippi State in that role.”

For more information about the partnership, visit

By Vanessa Beeson | Photo by Russ Houston | Video by David Garraway