MORAP

Aquatic Conservation Focus areas for EPA Region 7 – Part III

By Holly Mehl

This is my third blog covering EPA’s development of Aquatic Conservation Focus Areas for Missouri, performed in partnership with the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership (MoRAP) back in 2006.  Excitingly enough, these areas are now being used by the Missouri Department of Conservation and other organizations around the state to help them plan and implement strategies that best protect Missouri’s most vital aquatic ecosystems (see figure below).  The fact that this work isn’t just sitting on the shelf is something our assessment team is proud of and is the reason I wanted to write a series of blogs highlighting it.

In the previous two blogs I laid out what we were attempting to achieve with each component of the assessment’s conservation strategy and I described the planning and assessment units we used.  For this blog I will cover the methods we used to quantify human stressors at the different levels of the aquatic classification hierarchy.  Obviously, human activity affects the ecological integrity of freshwater ecosystems, so this was an important part of the analysis.  But this got me thinking about my own personal connection to streams and the vital riparian environments that surround them.

Urban Kansas City is where I grew up, but Missouri’s beautiful Ozark Highlands region is where my family camped in summer.  Since my parents were school teachers and had summers off, I probably spent more time exploring the wilds than the average city kid.  The cold clear waters of the Ozarks streams and the woods around them were my play places and where I learned to love nature.  Eventually this love and appreciation led to studies and career in environmental science and to my position as Ecologist at EPA.  It undoubtedly also influenced my decision to purchase land in Missouri with the specific desire of owning stream-front property.  I now own 30 acres of rolling grassland with a headwater stream.

Since something like 93% of all land in Missouri is privately owned, what people do with, or on, their land is of great concern in the conservation arena.  I ask myself all the time how I can help mitigate the stress continually brought to streams within this stream’s watershed, which has rolling hayfield hills and lots of grazing.  It stresses me to know that in the process of trying to help the situation (i.e., converting my fescue to native grass and therefore helping native wildlife), I probably have also compromised the health of the stream.  I had herbicide applied several times during dry periods and never close to my ponds or headwater – as spraying rules dictate – but I cannot be entirely sure there weren’t negative impacts in some shape or form.

Agricultural impacts, including the use of pesticides, were incorporated into our development of a Human Stressor Index (HSI), work predominantly performed by MoRAP.  Working in consultation with a team of aquatic resource professionals, MoRAP generated a list of the principal human activities (stressors) known to negatively affect streams, and from it assembled the highest resolution and most recent geospatial datasets for each.  Stressor statistics were developed for each of the 542 Aquatic Ecological System (AES) polygons in Missouri and correlation analysis was used to reduce this overall set of metrics into a final set of 11 relatively uncorrelated measures of human disturbance.  The table below lists these along with relativized rankings developed for each.  A rank of 1 means a relative low disturbance level while 4 is relatively high.

The HSI value derived for each AES is made up of three numbers:  The first number reflects the highest ranking across all 11 metrics and the last two numbers reflect the sum of the 11 metrics ranging from 11 to 44, so it allows us to evaluate both individual and cumulative effects of the various stressors at the same time.  For example, a value of 418 indicates relatively low cumulative impacts (i.e., last two digits = 18 out of a possible 44), however, the first number of 4 indicates that one of the stressors is relatively high and potentially acting as a major human disturbance within that AES.

Note: Taken from MORAP report (EPA definition of CAFOs uses concentrated not confined)

The map below shows the composite HSI values for each AES in Missouri.  As you can see, south central Missouri shows the least human impacts, which is where I grew up during the summer months – lucky me!

Much more went into the human stressor index development than what I’ve mentioned here, such as how exactly professional knowledge was used to assign weightings and rankings, but I’ve gotten at the main gist of it for now.  Most importantly, this information was incorporated into the larger analysis made up of several more components such as the percentage of public lands in an AES, or the amount of target species present.  All of this will be covered in my next blog.  Stay tuned for that one next month.  In the  mean time, let’s not get too stressed out people!

About the Author: Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Which One of These States is not Like the Other?

By Jeffery Robichaud

Last year, accompanied by much fanfare (both positive and negative) the University of Missouri bid farewell to the Big 12 and moved to the SEC.  I won’t weigh in on the move with one exception.   In keeping with the geographical thread of this blog, I have never seen a map on which Missouri is considered to be in the Southeast part of the United States (the SE in the SEC).  In fact there was a day, back at the beginning of our country, when Missouri was considered the West.  Depending on which side of the Missouri River you lived, you found yourself either in “Barren Country covered with Efflorescent Salt” or “Very Fruitful Country” as depicted in a pre-Lewis and Clark map.

So now Missouri is the only one of our four states with a University not found in a “Big” conference (take that SEC!).  Just because they don’t belong to a “big” conference doesn’t mean they don’t have big data.  In fact we’ve worked with several organizations in Missouri that serve as great resources for those in the geospatial business.  Three such exist at the University of Missouri.

  •  MSDIS (pronounced Miz – Diz) is the Missouri Spatial Data Information Service, a spatial data retrieval and archival system at the University of Missouri.  They have a ton of cool data ranging from normal stuff like roads and waterways to cool stuff like locations of sinkholes and zebra mussels.  

   

  • Our friends over at MORAP, the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership, focus on coordinated approaches to projects with funding from multiple shared sources to minimize costs.  Holly Mehl, from EPA Region 7, has highlighted some of our joint work with MORAP here and here

 

  •  Last but not least, another site we frequently visit is CARES, the Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems.  CARES focuses on understanding human and natural systems through integration of social and natural sciences in a GIS setting, including such projects as the Community Issues Management mapper. 

So that concludes our round robin of some of the GIS sites found in our four States, which we started during bowl season and finished before March Madness.  You can check out our previous posts on Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas, and be sure to share with us your favorite GIS sites from KS, IA, NE, and MO (or elsewhere for that matter).  What is your go-to site for data?

Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.  In full disclosure, he lives in Missouri and will probably end up sending one kid to MU and one kid to KU.  Here he is with his Tiger fan at the last Border Showdown at Arrowhead Stadium (which Mizzou won handily).

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Aquatic Conservation Focus Areas for EPA Region 7 – Part II

By Holly Mehl

In November, I laid out the classification hierarchy – the planning regions and assessment units – used by MoRAP and our environmental assessment staff to identify areas on which to focus conservation efforts in aquatic ecosystems of Missouri (download here).  I explained how the Missouri analysis defined these areas at a more refined geographic scale (smaller areas) than for our other three states due to better data availability.  In the end, separate conservation plans were completed for Missouri’s 17 Ecological Drainage Units (EDUs) within which 158 Conservation Focus Areas were identified.  Our modeling showed these areas represent the broad diversity of stream ecosystems and riverine assemblages of species that exist within the state.  To give an exciting example, if each of the 158 areas were adequately protected, 95-100% of targeted species within the state would be protected as well.  Collectively, these areas represent occurrences of all native fish, mussel, and crayfish species in Missouri.  This is very important when you consider that Missouri is home to numerous species that live nowhere else (see pictures below). 

Without going into too much detail, for this blog I’ll talk specifically about what we were attempting to achieve with each component of our conservation strategy:

First, we wanted a separate conservation plan for each Ecological Drainage Unit (EDU).  Learn more about EDU’s from Missouri Department of Conservation here.  Endeavoring to conserve all EDUs is a holistic ecosystem approach to conservation since each one represents an interacting biophysical system and also because no single EDU contains the full range of species found within the state.   Second, we wanted to represent two separate occurrences or populations of each target species within each EDU.  Redundancy in the account of species that together determine each EDU’s distinct biological composition provides a safeguard for their long term persistence.  Our next objective was to conserve an individual example of each Aquatic Ecological System Type (AES-Type) within each EDU.  This helps ensure the wide spectrum of the diversity of distinct watershed types within each EDU are accounted for, including the varying successional patterns within ecosystems and dispersal capabilities of different species.

With each type of AES represented in our conservation strategy, and therefore hopefully protected, we next wanted at least one kilometer of the dominant Valley Segment Types (VSTs) for each size class (headwater, creek, small river, and large river) to be represented as an interconnected complex within each selected AES.  The assumption here is that environmental conditions will be represented to which species have evolved adaptations for maximizing growth, reproduction and survival.  It also represents a wide spectrum of the diversity of stream types within each EDU since the dominant stream types vary among AES-Types.  Further, it accounts for source-sink dynamics which is science of how variation in habitat quality may affect the population growth or decline of organisms.  Attempting to conserve an interconnected complex of dominant VSTs accounts for seasonal changes in habitat brought on by disturbances like droughts or floods.  For example, a headwater species during a prolonged drought may have to seek refuge in larger streams in order to find suitable habitat.

Darters, crayfish, and mussels have limited dispersal capabilities; they cannot move long distances.  We decided that three separate headwater VSTs should be represented within each Conservation Focus Area.  Including multiple headwater segments should account for multiple distinct spatial occurrences of headwater species as well as preserve several high-quality examples of key nursery habitats.

Lastly, many species require multiple habitats for foraging, reproducing, over-wintering, or for disturbance avoidance. We wanted to conserve at least a one kilometer of each priority VST and ensure connectivity of a wide spectrum of diverse habitats (riffles, pools, runs, and backwaters) so that critters could reach their choice habitat. 

My next blog entry in this series will cover the main steps we took to meet these objectives.  Stay tuned for that one.

About the Author: Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Aquatic Conservation Focus areas for EPA Region 7

By Holly Mehl

Last month I introduced Big Blue Thread readers to EPA Region 7’s Conservation Focus Area analysis developed in cooperation with the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership (MoRAP).  In three separate blog entries I summarized how we looked at ecological significance, threats and irreplaceability across terrestrially based ecological sections in order to arrive at conservation focus areas on land.  Since stressors operate on aquatic ecosystems differently than terrestrial, and because watershed boundaries need to be used as aquatic planning regions, an analysis for riverine ecosystems was done separately.

Aquatic Conservation Focus areas for EPA Region 7’s four states (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska) were defined at two resolutions based on data availability (a finer resolution assessment was possible for the state of Missouri because of robust aquatic species distribution modeling).  Today I’ll cover the more refined data analysis for Missouri and carry on with describing the courser methods we used for the other three states in a future blog entry.

Above is the final map showing freshwater Conservation Focus Areas in Missouri. The idea behind this analysis is that taking measures to conserve all of these locations represents an efficient approach to conserving the distinct species, stream types, and watershed types that exist within the state.  As both an ecologist and a Missourian, I find it comforting to know that our state resource managers now have this very exhaustive published research at their fingertips.

How did we do it?  Resource managers and biologists with detailed and extensive knowledge of the stream resources participated in conservation planning sessions in 2004.  Our goal for the aquatic assessment was to ensure the long-term persistence of native aquatic plant and animal communities, by conserving the conditions and processes that sustain them…” and then more specifically to “identify and map a set of aquatic conservation focus areas that holistically represent the full breadth of distinct riverine ecosystems and multiple populations of all native aquatic species.” Using data from the Missouri Aquatic GAP Project and other geospatial data, MoRAP identified and mapped riverine ecosystems that are relatively distinct with regard to ecosystem structure, function, and evolutionary history.  To accomplish this, a classification hierarchy was developed and used, shown below.

The Aquatic Subregions shown at the top are physiographic areas that account for differences in the ecological composition of riverine assemblages of organisms.  Each Subregion (i.e., Central Plains, Ozarks, and Mississippi Alluvial Basin) contains streams with relatively distinct structural features, functional processes, and aquatic assemblages in terms of both taxonomic and ecological composition. 

Embedded within Aquatic Subregions are Ecological Drainage Units (EDUs) which account for the geographic variations in taxonomic composition of fish, crayfish, mussels and snails.  MoRAP found that the EDUs have assemblages of organisms with relatively similar ecological composition within a given Aquatic Subregion, such as reproductive and foraging strategies and also physiological tolerances.  They also found that taxonomic composition of assemblages in any given EDU is relatively distinct due to evolutionary processes such as differences in colonization history.

MoRAP used multivariate cluster analysis of quantitative landscape data to group watersheds into distinct Aquatic Ecological System Types (AES-Types), the next level of the classification hierarchy.  The AES-Types represent finer resolution variations in climatic, geologic, soil, landform, and stream character.  Missouri’s AES-Types comprise 38 smaller subdrainages, which can be thought of as riverine “habitat types.”  Each individual AES is a spatially distinct macrohabitat, however all individual AESs that are structurally and functionally similar fall under the same AES-Type.

Finally, each individual segment of stream from the National Hydrography Dataset is a spatially distinct habitat, but valley segments of the same size, temperature, flow, gradient and geology (through which they flow) all fall under the same Valley Segment Types (VST), the final level shown above.  They account for the linear variation in ecosystem structure and function that is prevalent in riverine environments.  Each distinct combination of variable attributes represents a distinct VST and have been consistently shown to be associated with geographic variation in assemblage (of species) composition.

I know I threw a lot at you and in my next blog I’ll continue explaining the methods behind our development of the Aquatic Conservation Focus Areas.  Stay tuned next month, but in the meantime, visit MoRAP’s website for a more detailed description of everything that went into creating the classification hierarchy that was so inherent in doing the aquatic assessment.

About the Author: Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Lending a Critical Eye to Ecosystems – Bringing it all Together

by Holly Mehl

In my last two blogs I talked about our effort to develop Conservation Focus Areas for EPA Region 7, and one of the steps (Ecological Significance) for developing the Ecological Risk portion of our terrestrial assessment.  As a reminder the diagram below explains how all of the different pieces of our analysis fit together. 

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Ecological Significance is derived from two metrics, percent conversion and opportunity areas.  To arrive at Ecological Risk, we need to combine significance with threat.  Threats were calculated as the sum of three indices: development land demand; agricultural land demand; and potential toxic release impacts.  The first two represent conditions that could lead to conversion of natural land cover to a modified land cover (urban or agriculture), while the third represents known potential sources of anthropogenic (man-made) toxics.  The document itself  provides a lengthy description regarding the weighting of various parameters and rankings which arrive at the final grid where the lowest threat areas were assigned a “1” and the highest were set at “6.”  These threats were then combined with significance to derive an Ecological Risk layer. 

Irreplaceability is final metric that is necessary in developing the Conservation Focus Areas.  Irreplaceability values for each assessment unit within ecoregions were developed using software called C-Plan (Pressey et al. 1994).  Irreplaceability is defined as “the likelihood that a given site will need to be protected to achieve a specified set of targets, or conversely, the extent to which options for achieving these targets are reduced if the site is not protected.”  For targets we used Abiotic Site Types (which ensure representation of important habitats), the highest ranked Opportunity Areas, and areas of high vertebrate richness.  Again, all of the specific details can be found in the final document

Terrestrial Conservation Focus Areas were then derived from combining risk and irreplaceability.  As shown below, Conservation Focus Areas are those areas (depicted as 30 x 30 meter pixels) which have both high Ecological Risk and high Irreplaceability.

In general, the more natural ecoregions such as the Ozark Highlands, Nebraska Sand Hills, Flint Hills and Cross Timbers and Prairies have more focus areas, whereas areas that are heavily agricultural had fewer.   You can access and download a variety of shape files (included both ranked Conservation Opportunity Areas and all Conservation Opportunity Areas) from our analysis here.  Simply click on the folder labeled public, then the folder labeled EPA Region 7.   Stay tuned in November when I will talk about how we developed Aquatic Focus areas.

About the Author:   Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Lending a Critical Eye to Ecosystems Part 2 – Ecological Significance

By Holly Mehl

Last week I posted my first blog which talked about a project we worked on developing Terrestrial Conservation Focus Areas within Region 7. These areas were developed to provide an additional tool for decision makers to help in prioritizing ecological resources. Today, I want to share a little bit about of the technical side using some maps to demonstrate how we combined each of the different layers to arrive at the Conservation Focus Areas. In an effort to be as simple as possible, I’m going to really just skim over things, but I would encourage you to check out the report for the entire methodology.

Today I will share the first step, the creation of an Ecological Significance layer. To develop this we looked at the percent conversion of ecoregions from historical vegetation (original land cover) by abiotic site type (yes this is a mouthful). The actual methodology is quite complicated but you can think of it as how much natural vegetation is still around. Areas that are currently crop, barren land, urban or water represent areas of significant conversion. For example a reservoir would represent 100% conversion since it used to be a stream valley, while a grassland might exhibit 30% conversion if a third of the area is now covered with trees. You can get an idea of what this looks like by comparing the two figures below (the big gray area in the second Figure is St. Louis, MO).

The layer of percent conversion by abiotic site type (again, for exact details, read the methodology in the report) was combined with the Opportunity Area analysis previously conducted by the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership (MoRAP). Opportunity Areas are places which are located at least 75 meters into the interior of a patch of natural landcover and which are at least 75 meters away from a road. Think of them as undisturbed areas, with the largest areas receiving a “1” and the smallest areas receiving a “5.” The two layers (percent conversion and ranked opportunity areas) are then combined, as shown below, to produce a measure of Ecological Significance

To me as an ecologist, the Opportunity Areas by themselves have so much value because they point out places on the landscape where development land demand is relative low so the opportunity to pursue conservation management is greater. Because they are defined as natural or semi-natural land cover patches that are away from roads and habitat patch edges, I figured I could look at these polygons in a GIS to see where I might want to purchase land in Missouri. In my mind it would be most attractive to pitch my tent as far away from roads as possible!

In my next post I will discuss how we came up with threats, as well as how we combined Threats and Significance to arrive at Ecological Risk.

About the Author:Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Lending a Critical Eye to Ecosystems Part 1 – Getting Focused

By Holly Mehl

A few years back, we put together a nice analysis of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska’s most critical (i.e.,ecologically valuable) areas.  As ecologists know, ecosystems do not adhere to the administrative boundaries of our states, so the actual analysis extended out into ecological regions that overlie those states like South Dakota, Arkansas, Colorado and Minnesota.  Together with MoRAP – the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership, based in Columbia, Missouri – we identified geographic areas of focus, Conservation Focus Areas, which would also be of use to management programs and agencies.  Our goal was that our state and local partners would use our assessment as another tool in helping to define priorities for conservation at whatever scale was appropriate for them.

The work that went into this project started in 2001 and culminated into a finished work in 2009 entitled, Development of Conservation Focus Area Models for EPA Region 7(Diamond et al).  This effort was incredibly involved, so I’ve decided to try and highlight the methodology and approach over several blog articles, first focusing on our terrestrial assessment then switching to our aquatic assessment since different approaches were used for each. 

Before I get in to the details of the terrestrial assessment next week, it helps to have a general idea of how we approached the assessment.  The flow chart below provides a quick overview, and shows how two items, Irreplaceability and Ecological Risk, were combined to identify Conservation Focus Areas.  I’m oversimplifying but Irreplaceability can be thought of as how rare (in terms of biology and landcover) a particular place is in an area, while Risk is the chance that an area might be threatened because of the encroachment of development or because of how ecological significant it is. 

 

What is neat about this analysis is that each component by itself is a uniform, continuous, relatively fine-resolution data layer that can be used for refined priority setting or individual project review, depending on what is needed by the user.   For example, even before the final report was finished, EPA’s water enforcement staff were able to use the Ecological Significance data layer (on the left side of the diagram) to help them select proposed projects for a wetlands mitigation case.  Next week I will explain how each of the layers above were derived and provide access to the shape files and data layers.  If you just can’t wait that long, give us a comment in the comment field below and we can share them with you earlier. 

About the Author:   Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.