Collaboration aims to improve understanding of wildlife migration, reduce human impact

Posted: November 28, 2022

In an era where climate change, habitat loss, poaching and other human impacts put many species at risk, there is a need to understand how and where animals migrate and what they need to thrive. A new NASA-funded project—Room to Roam: Y2Y Wildlife Movements (Room2Roam)—aims to accelerate data analysis and coordination to improve wildlife management efforts across borders.

Migrating caribou
photo from National Park Service (Kyle Joly)

Led by engineers at The Ohio State University, the ambitious effort includes a regional network of partners in a major migration corridor of western North America—the Yellowstone-to-Yukon (Y2Y) region. Y2Y extends more than 3,400 kilometers from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the western United States to the Arctic Circle in the Yukon Territory of Canada.

The project was launched at a June 2022 workshop in Whitehorse, Yukon, where representatives of seven agencies and conservation groups in Y2Y met with project developers led by Ohio State Ecological Engineering Professor Gil Bohrer.

There, they shared stories of their wildlife conservation programs, priorities for using animal tracking data for research and applied management, and hands-on sessions working with their own data. The stories of those working in the region revealed many shared needs to make better use of animal tracking data through automated procedures.

Gil Bohrer portrait

The Room2Roam team will develop a common animal movement data archive for the Y2Y and build tools to improve wildlife management, evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas, assess migration and movement connectivity, and identify priority conservation strategies. The collaborative effort includes quantitative ecologists, application developers, data managers and outreach specialists, as well as those who will use the tools, such as wildlife and protected area managers, government and tribal agencies, and conservation groups.

“We all want to understand how animals are impacted by roads, identify when and where caribou calve and birds stop along migration, and whether these behaviors are changing over time," explained Bohrer. "Groups also need interactive maps to show communities what we are learning. [With Room2Roam], wildlife managers will have the combined expertise of our statisticians and modelers and the data resources of NASA, available with a few button clicks.”

Y2Y region map

Room2Roam leverages Movebank, an online platform that helps researchers and wildlife managers worldwide manage, share, analyze and archive animal tracking and other animal-borne sensor data. It is hosted by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in coordination with Ohio State, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the University of Konstanz. Movebank’s new interactive platform, MoveApps, allows groups to design and share methods to process and assess these data.

"An important part of increasing landscape connectivity is reducing the harmful effects of roads on wildlife,” said Annika Keeley, senior conservation scientist at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, a Room2Roam partner. “We hope to create a tool that will create a video animation of a set of—for example—elk movement data, that will show when, where and how frequently individual elk are crossing a highway. We will then be able to show decision-makers the hotspots where multiple animals tend to cross the road and help propose solutions.”

Supported by the NASA Ecological Forecasting Program, the project will continue through 2025, and the team plans to extend participation to more groups working in the region.

“In interviews with dozens of wildlife managers in North America, we found that most managers rely on contractors or graduate students to analyze animal tracking data, with results and management implications often not available until years after they were collected,” described Movebank program manager Ashley Lohr.

Delays between the time data are collected and when they lead to management decisions can mean the difference between identifying impacts in time to intervene—or after it’s too late to respond. Further, sharing data and results can be a challenge, slowing opportunities to gain knowledge from data and work together across boundaries that are not recognized by wildlife.

Tools developed by Room2Roam will offer opportunities to strengthen work in the Y2Y region, and to repeat the region’s successes in the world’s other iconic migration corridors.

Category: Research