The Gap Analysis Process and Importance

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A Gap Analysis consists of mapping three data layers — land cover, predicted distributions of vertebrate species, and a stewardship layer depicting both location and conservation status of protected areas. This data is then assessed to determine how much of a target species’ (plant or animal) habitat is in conserved areas.

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The Process

From this assessment, planning decisions can be made about whether further protection is merited.

Here’s a quick glimpse of the process.

  1. Map the LAND COVER of the dominant ecological systems
  2. Map and model SPECIES ranges and distributions
    (learn more about GAP Species Data)
  3. Map land STEWARDSHIP by mapping both location and conservation status of protected areas
    (learn more about GAP PAD-US Protected Areas Data)
  4. Conduct an ANALYSIS

The analysis step is the point at which we determine how much of a vertebrate species’ or a land cover’s distribution occurs in areas managed for the long-term maintenance of biodiversity.

To calculate this, maps showing the location of plant and animal habitats are overlaid with other maps that show where protected areas occur. If predicted plant and animal habitats are in the same place as protected areas, those animals are considered to be protected.

By the time the gap analysis process is completed, a valuable suite of map and data products has been assembled.

Products from a typical Gap Analysis include:

  • Digital land cover maps
  • Digital species habitat distribution maps
  • Digital protected areas maps
  • Identifications of “conservation gaps”
  • Identifications of species-rich areas
  • Downloadable datasets in multiple formats
  • Assessments of the conservation status of vertebrate species in the United States

Gap Analysis Importance

Information about the conservation status of common species – the purpose of gap analyses — is important for decision makers, planners, researchers, private interests, and others:

  • BIODIVERSITY: Protected areas (parks, preserves, etc.) have often been set aside without full understanding of their value to species conservation. As a result, many protected areas have little significance in terms of biodiversity, while many biodiversity-rich areas lack protection. Information provided by the Gap Analysis Project can help land conservation decision makers better match biodiversity goals to land protection programs and activities.
  • HABITAT LOSS: Human population in the U.S. is predicted to grow by 25% in the next 50 years. This population increase, coupled with our land consumption patterns, means that there will be significant decreases in habitat for other species. Efforts to target the most effective lands for biodiversity conservation can offset some or many of the effects of habitat loss.
  • CLIMATE: Accelerating climate change is elevating the importance of effectively targeted species protection efforts. For many species, warming climates could push them to the brink of extinction unless habitat migration corridors can be set aside. Gap analysis is critical to understanding where to focus such corridor planning.
  • ENERGY SITING: Renewable energy projects are growing, as solar and wind farms are planned and built across the U.S., often aided by governmental incentives. Gap analysis can inform this planning and siting work, helping energy projects to find the best balance between habitat conservation and much-needed energy production.
  • MANAGEMENT: Agencies and non-profits that manage protected areas often lack good information about the full range of species that might be present or could be encouraged on their lands. The Gap Analysis Project can provide tools to improve land management practices that support continued biodiversity.


Puerto Rico Habitat Map

This figure shows the habitat change for Puerto Rico’s Coastal blind snake from 1991 to 2003. The purple areas indicate the species distribution, the red circles show the areas with the greatest habitat loss. This species loss 8.5% of its habitat during the 12 year timespan.