Science, technology bolster USDA

RENO — USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the University of Montana and other partners have used Google Earth Engine to build a new interactive online map tool that, for the first time, combines layers of related data to better target invasive species damaging habitat and rangeland in western states.

The partnership is part of USDA’s ongoing Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) and presents geospatial data covering a 100 million acre landscape.

The new mapping tool is available at It currently allows farmers, ranchers, conservationists and other partners to analyze data on the encroachment of conifers and cheatgrass on key rangeland. Additional conservation data layers will be added in coming months that contain information for all 11 Western states.

The newly created tree canopy cover layer, developed by Michael Falkowski at Colorado State University, shows where conifers are degrading critical sagebrush-steppe across the range. NRCS and partners use the data to target the removal of invading conifers when the trees are young and more easily eradicated. Another layer already available provides an index of ecosystem resilience and resistance to cheatgrass based on underlying soil temperature and moisture.

Brady Allred, a rangeland specialist with University of Montana, developed the tool for SGI using Google Earth Engine, a platform for scientific analysis and visualization of geospatial datasets, both for public benefit and for business and government users. Allred said he is excited SGI will continue to build on the tool over time

“This is just the first step,” said Ray Dotson, NRCS state conservationist in Nevada. “SGI partners are in the process of adding more data layers of value to the application based on input from our partners.”

Public and private land managers can now use the free SGI map tool in planning where and how best to target available resources to achieve the biggest gains in the battle against invasive species.

“By focusing on such a large area, we are able to provide the big picture – a better view of what’s occurring across boundaries, so each effort supports the greater goal and helps reduce future threats,” Allred said.

Each data layer creates a visual representation of available research covering one of the threats targeted by the Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0 investment strategy, a four-year $211 million effort to help restore and protect sagebrush habitats in 11 Western states. The strategy guides conservation efforts through 2018.

“Bringing this data together in an easy-to-use online resource helps federal, state and private partners better target our work to restore and protect this vast landscape – supporting wildlife and rural economies in Nevada,” Dotson said. “This is another great example of how using scientific data and technology makes partnerships like the Sage Grouse Initiative more effective.”

Since 2010, NRCS has partnered with ranchers to restore and protect more than five million acres of sage grouse habitat through SGI. This work was part of a large landscape-level effort that led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude last year that the sage grouse did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Learn more about NRCS’ conservation efforts for sage grouse habitat. For more on technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit

Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $29 billion to help producers make conservation improvements, working with as many as 500,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect over 400 million acres nationwide, boosting soil and air quality, cleaning and conserving water and enhancing wildlife habitat. For an interactive look at USDA’s work in conservation and forestry over the course of this Administration, visit


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