Army Corps Website Protects Endangered Shore Species

By JoAnne Castagna, Ed.D.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has joined in the mounting chorus of experts who report that the environment’s health is at risk. The agency, whose mission is to monitor and manage threatened and endangered wildlife, reports that bird populations are plummeting at an alarming rate, and the health of our feathered friends is “a critical indicator of the health of the environment on which we all depend.”

One way the FWS is keeping an eye on threatened and endangered birds is by partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. They have collaborated to create a website that includes a geographic information system (GIS) that is serving as a user-friendly repository of information on threatened and endangered bird and plant species living along the New York and New Jersey coast. Scientists, decision-makers, and interested citizens can use this information to come up with joint solutions for protecting these species.

The website is called the Threatened and Endangered Species System (TESS): http://tess.usace.army.mil. Its purpose is “to provide a central point of data entry for surveys and site observations related to threatened and endangered species,” said Rose Dopsovic, GIS contractor, Army Corps, Mobile District, who is assisting the New York District.

Any agency with an interest in the monitoring and management of these threatened and endangered species can submit their observations to the website. Presently the website has data on threatened and endangered birds, including Piping Plovers, Common Terns, and Least Terns, as well as plants, including the Seabeach Amaranth.

The website is a user-friendly interface to the GIS, a computer-based information system and tool capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying locational information. It takes information from various sources, such as aerial photographs and electronic data, and combines these layers of information in various ways to perform analysis. It then produces electronic maps, reports, and charts that show the results of this analysis, which individuals can use to help protect the lives of these threatened and endangered species.

The GIS on the TESS website provides two ways for people to retrieve information about the species: electronic maps of the New York and New Jersey shoreline and a database of raw information. The website provides several seasons’ worth of habitat information.

Bird and Plant Habitats

Users of the system can see where birds are nesting and plants are growing each season. If they notice a change in these habitat locations from one season to another, this can prompt an investigation.

Robert Smith, acting regional endangered species expert, Army Corps’ New York District, who has personally conducted many sight observations and posted them to the TESS website, said, “Wildlife can change where it lives for a number of different reasons, including if a predator has entered a habitat or because a man-made project is in progress in the habitat area. In fact, the Army Corps is required to monitor and protect wildlife near any of its projects.”

Having several seasons’ worth of bird and plant habitat information also helps people find relationships between information.  “For example, we can see how a storm event affects the population of a species in a specified area by viewing the habitat before and after the event,” said Dopsovic.

The website can provide both qualitative and quantitative information. For example, after a storm event, a person can find out what types of habitats were chosen by species, and the number of young per nest, or the total change in population caused by a disaster.
Dopsovic said, “We can also track trends in habitats. For example, we are able to see if birds are more or less likely to nest in beach fill areas.” Beach fill areas are portions of the coast that eroded and were replenished with sand dredged from the ocean.

Having seasonal habitat information can also improve the quality of life for New York and New Jersey residents who want to visit the beach. Jeff Cusano, project geographer, Army Corps, New York District said, “Often we place fencing along the coast to protect threatened and endangered wildlife from being harmed from people visiting the beach. Usually when this is initially done a large area is fenced off, which can be annoying to the public who wants to visit the beach. Having seasonal habitat information helps us to monitor where these species are actually living and enables us to adjust were we have the fencing.”

In the near future, the TESS website will include more threatened and endangered species and may cover more of the Northeast’s coastal region.

Using GIS on a website “provides a great tool for managers to see what is going on with a click of a button,” said Smith. “If more of our partners and local groups adopt and use the website it will be a great benefit to all parties interested in the monitoring and protection of these species.”

Dr. JoAnne Castagna is a technical writer-editor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District.  She can be reached at joanne.castagna@usace.army.mil.

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