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Brendan M. Lynch
KU News Service
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Research underpins effort to map, preserve wildlife in American West

Thu, 01/16/2014

LAWRENCE — Along with global climate change, loss of habitat poses a prime threat to the well-being of Earth’s animals. As people farm and develop more land that once teemed with a range of species, biodiversity and animal populations suffer.

“The amount of reasonably intact landscapes available to provide habitat to wildlife has been decreasing slowly since frontier days and the settlement of the West,” said Mike Houts, a senior research assistant with the Kansas Biological Survey at the University of Kansas. “Cities, cropland, roads, oil and gas fields, mining, wind farms — all these developments chip away at available, suitable wildlife habitat. As remaining habitat shrinks, the importance of what’s left and making wise siting decisions increases.”

Now, a new push by the Western Governors’ Association aims to map crucial habitat in the Western United States. The project is dubbed CHAT, an acronym for Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool. The project’s development depended in large part upon technology honed by the Kansas Applied Remote Sensing program, a division of the Kansas Biological Survey. The web-based tool was launched in December at the WGA’s winter meeting. 

“The WGA CHAT is a general overview of which areas are important for the conservation of a state’s species of concern, game and recreational species, and large intact landscape habitats,” Houts said. “It’s a proactive tool for planners, developers and conservation groups to identify priority wildlife areas so that informed decisions can be made. Being a collaborative regional effort with state-specific priorities represented, this data provides a regional view so developers of cross-state pipelines or transmission corridors can plan the ‘route of least resistance’ across multiple states.”

The KU researcher said that the CHAT is a nonregulatory tool meant to inform and aid in decision making. If a proposed project could affect important wildlife habitat, information derived from the CHAT could help find alternative siting options to avoid or minimize those effects.

In 2001, the Kansas Applied Remote Sensing (KARS) program began a partnership with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) to provide GIS mapping and analysis support. This partnership led to the KARS program having a central role in the CHAT project that began in 2011 when KDWPT and the other state wildlife agencies began developing the framework and interstate cooperative relationships.

To create the assessment tool, KARS used cutting-edge software to provide geographic information system analysis, data processing and Internet data-sharing functions. While Houts coordinated with KDWPT to incorporate state priorities and objectives into the data analysis and processing, Jorgina Ross at KARS implemented secure online mapping services during project development. Jennifer Delisle and Bill Busby from the Kansas Natural Heritage Inventory program — also a part of the Kansas Biological Survey — provided valuable data and expert opinions used in the creation of the “Kansas Species of Concern” dataset. Indeed, each state involved in the process had its own goals.

“The hardest part of the CHAT process was probably trying to develop a methodology that was both consistent across the West to be considered a regional map and yet flexible enough to allow states to express individual priorities,” Houts said. “In the end, this objective was met with a standardized set of possible data themes and a one-to-six ranking of priority that was consistent across the range. Within this framework what rules were used to generate the one-to-six rankings reflect individual state regulations and priorities.”

Houts said the general public, policy makers, planners, developers and conservation groups could use the WGA CHAT to examine which areas are most vital to wildlife and which areas are less sensitive to development.

“It could be to identify a preliminary path of lowest impact for large or multistate projects, identify areas for increased connectivity between crucial areas, or more specific applications based on more focused data themes like Species of Concern or Large Natural Landscapes," he said. “Once a general region is identified in the WGA CHAT, users can access a state-specific CHAT layer like the Kansas Natural Resource Planner to get more specific information and then finally contact state officials for a final project review."

Houts hoped the new tool could be a boon to wildlife and responsible development in the Western United States.

“Wildlife basically needs two main things to survive,” he said. “First, a landscape that provides the necessary habitat parameters for the species to live, feed and breed in. Second, connectivity to other similar habitats so that individuals can move between patches as needed or disperse to other locations to interact with or start new local populations to promote genetic diversity. The WGA CHAT helps with both of these issues while helping developers find low impact locations for their projects.”

The WGA CHAT is available online.



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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: http://bit.ly/1awodaa Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.


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