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December 6, 2022

From DNA-sampling robots and invasive species maps to genetic libraries and mosquito birth control, USGS scientists are hard at work building up ecological infrastructure for the nation.

What kind of infrastructure do you need to build resilient ecosystems? The first things that comes to mind might be greenways and wildlife corridors, such as a wildlife overpass across a highway or a fish ladder around a dam. But not all infrastructure is made of concrete. From computer code to networks of people, all types of infrastructure are important for supporting resilient ecosystems.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed by President Biden in November 2021, allocated to the Department of the Interior $905 million for Ecosystem Restoration and $1.5 billion for managing Wildland Fire. These investments aim to improve the functioning, resilience, and ecological adaptability of ecosystems. The Department of the Interior is responsible for managing many of the nation’s most majestic landscapes and ecosystems, and these investments will help ensure these ecosystems can survive and thrive now and into the future. Our job at the USGS is to conduct research and develop tools to ensure that ecosystem restoration and fire management is informed by science. A portion of the ecosystem-related funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is devoted to science that improves, restores, and connects ecosystems and culturally important lands, such as monitoring tools, field experiments, maps, and online databases.

USGS scientists are working on a variety of ecosystems projects supported by Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investments, covering issues including wildland fire, invasive species, resilient recreation, restoration of mined lands, and revegetation of ecosystems across the nation.

Here are ten USGS ecosystems projects that will enhance our Nation’s infrastructure:


1. A Landscape Network to Test Fire Management Strategies

Pronghorn in a grassland on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Five pronghorn are grazing on the rolling hills.

The risks of severe wildfires to people and ecosystems are growing as climate change drives harsher heat waves and record drought. Managing ecosystems for resilience to wildfire will be critical in the years to come, but we don’t play around when it comes to fire science. That’s why the National Innovation Landscape Network, a new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law-funded project, will make it easier to conduct new research to better understand fuels and fire behavior. Each node in the landscape network will be responsible for testing and evaluating new technology and supporting research into the effectiveness of fuel treatments to reduce wildfire risk and other management strategies.

This lab will be more than just a network of land used for fire research. It’s also a network of people: federal agencies, Tribal partners, and adjacent communities. The first landscape node in the network was established this year in southeastern Arizona and includes lands of the San Carlos Apache Reservation, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Saguaro National Park, Bureau of Land Management Districts and other local partners.

2. Wildfire Fuels Monitoring, With Lasers

Black and white laser generated image of a forest, with a few people in the middle
Terrestrial laser scans treatment monitoring plots were taken of ponderosa pine at the Piney Point section of the reservation. These new sampling techniques will be colocated with the robust traditional fire effects monitoring at San Carlos.

One of the first fire management tools being tested at the National Innovation Landscape node in Arizona is a technology called Terrestrial Laser Scanner Fuel Monitoring. These laser-based devices measure the size and shape of objects around them at high precision by emitting millions of laser pulses into the environment. As these scanners have become less expensive and easier to use, interest has grown in using them for vegetation management and fire science. Laser-based scanners combined with artificial intelligence can create a detailed 3D picture of vegetation structure within minutes, gathering valuable data that would otherwise require labor-intensive field surveys. The USGS is working with federal partners to establish pilot projects for using these laser scanners to quickly and repeatedly monitor fuel conditions and fuel treatment effectiveness.

3. A One-Stop-Shop for Invasive Species Data

Image: Biologists Remove Python from Everglades
This 16 1/2-foot python, being removed from the wild by USGS and NPS personnel, was captured in a thicket in Everglades National Park in May 2012. The python was equipped with a radio-transmitter and an accelerometer as part of one of the Burmese python projects led by USGS to learn more about the biology of the species to help in efforts to develop better control methods.

When you hear about invasive species, it’s usually about species that are already invading, often introduced long ago before scientists fully understood how invasive species can cause ecological- and economic damage. Today, we know that one of the most important ways to reduce this type of damage in the future is to detect introduced species before they become a problem. The USGS is leading several Bipartisan Infrastructure Law-funded projects to support a National Early Detection and Rapid Response Framework for invasive species.

One such effort is the development of a National Early Detection and Rapid Response Information Management System, a one-stop shop to collect and integrate information on invasive species efforts into an online system. In addition to providing data, it will include analytical support and data visualization in a user-specified dashboard and serve as a communications hub and facilitate data-sharing among users. This system will help ensure information exchange, program coordination, and integration among invasive species projects, providing long-term benefits for invasive species prevention and management across the nation.

4. A Map of Invasive Species Hot Spots

Cheatgrass invaded landscape
Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) invasion of sagebrush habitats after a fire in northwestern Nevada, U.S.A.

Hot-spot maps are one tool that will be part of the National Early Detection and Rapid Response Information Management System. Invasion hot spots are geographic locations that are most at risk of invasion by non-native species. Hot spots occur in places where initial introduction is likely and where climate, habitat, and land-use conditions also make it likely that introduced species will survive, become established, and spread. For example, an international port city could be a susceptible hot spot due to the potential for aquatic hitchhikers riding in the ballast water or on the hulls of the nautical traffic. An area recently burned in a wildfire might also fit the definition of a hot spot, with its bare soil ripe for new seeds to take root. By identifying and mapping invasion hot spots in the conterminous U.S., USGS researchers are developing tools to help managers prioritize where to direct resources to reduce the spread of species beyond their current boundaries.

While the mapping project is focused on susceptible habitats, a complementary USGS project seeks to identify those species globally that are at risk of becoming invasive in the U.S. These horizon scans will produce a list of potential invaders and the nature of their risk.

5. Robots to Detect Biological Threats in Rivers and Streams

Environmental DNA sampler in workshop
An inside look at an MBARI autonomous environmental DNA (eDNA) sampler that is normally in metal housing taking samples in streams to detect aquatic invasive species, pathogens, and parasites. This version weighs about 400 pounds, but future versions will be more portable.  

Another new project within the National Early Detection and Rapid Response Framework is the Rapid eDNA Assessment and Deployment Initiative and Network, or READI-Net, which tests for DNA fragments in the water known as environmental DNA, or eDNA. Scientists from the USGS and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute are working together to design a new, lightweight robotic eDNA sampler that can monitor for the eDNA of potentially invasive species and pathogens in rivers and streams without constant support from researchers. But designing and programming the robots is only part of the infrastructure needed to make READI-Net a success. The robots will collect lots of data that must be managed, analyzed, and distributed, so the USGS READI-Net team is also working on tools to process and validate all of those data and turn them into useful products for the public and decision-makers.

6. A Lending Library for DNA

Biologist collecting water samples for environment DNA analysis
Scientist collects water samples from pond near brecchia pipe uranium mines for environment DNA analysis.  Data will be used to evaluate the presence of various species.

Once collected, eDNA samples can identify potentially invasive species that may not have been noticed yet and serve as an important reference for other researchers who are building tools to detect specific invasive species. That’s why USGS scientists are developing a Genetic Material Repository and sharing network. It will work like a library, storing and providing information on samples that can be borrowed within network. Instead of books, this library will lend out DNA. Much like a library, researchers need a cataloging system to keep track of samples, so the research team will be partnering with other USGS infrastructure projects, including READI-Net, and other institutions, such as the Smithsonian, to build and maintain a computerized database to store, track, and share genetic material.

7. Mosquito Birth Control to Protect Hawaiian Forest Birds

Image: Amakihi Honeycreeper
During the past decade populations of this honeycreeper have begun to rebound at lower elevations on most of the main Hawaiian Islands, in spite of high prevalence of infection with avian malaria. Natural selection for resistance to avian malaria is the leading explanation for this rebound and recent genetic studies indicate that these populations are genetically distinct from their higher elevation counterparts.

The colorful honeycreepers that make their homes in the forests of Hawai‘i are in crisis. Hawai‘i was once home to more than 50 species of honeycreeper, but only 21 remain today, and more than half of those are federally threatened or endangered. The greatest threat to the honeycreepers today is avian malaria, spread by the tropical southern house mosquito. Historically, birds that lived in cool, high-elevation forests were safe from malaria, since both mosquitos and the parasite that causes malaria require warm temperatures, but climate change has increased temperatures at higher elevations and put forest birds at greater risk.

With the help of funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the USGS is collaborating with federal, state, and local partners to develop an innovative strategy to protect Hawaiian forest birds from malaria that has been described as “mosquito birth control.” This kind of birth control isn’t a pill or a shot. Instead, it takes advantage of a naturally occurring process. Most mosquitos carry bacteria called Wolbachia in their reproductive tracts which can interfere with mosquito reproduction. If males and females carry incompatible strains of these bacteria, eggs laid by the female won’t hatch. By introducing male mosquitos with incompatible Wolbachia strains, managers can limit mosquito populations and the spread of malaria to honeycreepers. USGS scientists’ objectives include sequencing the DNA of naturally occurring Wolbachia in mosquitoes that have invaded Hawai‘i and developing next-generation genetic sequencing tools to regularly screen thousands of mosquitos. This genetic infrastructure will allow managers and researcher to implement and monitor this mosquito and avian malaria control technique.

8. An App to Help Restore Mined Lands

Red Mountain, Colorado
Intensely altered propylitic rocks (red and yellow) in the Red Mountain mining district, overprinting the regional, propylitically altered igneous rocks (grayish-green), peaks at top of image. View to west.

Another ecosystem restoration goal of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investments is restoring native vegetation and mitigating environmental hazards on mined federal and non-federal lands. That’s a big project with a lot of moving parts. The USGS is building a web application to help managers get a handle on all the key information they will need to help mined lands recover and minimize risks to vulnerable communities. The app will bring together national data for mined lands throughout the United States pertaining to the assessment of hazards and associated risks in an accessible online format. It will allow stakeholders to evaluate and prioritize remediation sites, consider the impacts of climate change, and monitor effectiveness of projects. To begin, USGS scientists are working on the proof-of-concept by gathering existing data from the Colorado River Basin and building a beta version of the app. The beta application will provide users with the ability to compile mined-land characteristics with other information useful in hazard assessment or remediation prioritization, like vegetation, climate, population demographics, and topography.

9. A Pollinator DNA Collection from Thousands of Flowers

Image: Native Bee Pollinates Native Flower
A macrophotography image showing a native bee pollinating a native flower. 

While some USGS scientists are using eDNA to detect pests and pathogens, others are using a similar approach to keep tabs on a vulnerable and valuable group of animals—pollinators. Pollinators are critical for sustaining healthy ecosystems and human communities, but many pollinator species have declined in numbers. USGS researchers typically measure pollinator biodiversity with traditional methods like traps or visual observations, but eDNA sampling has potential as an alternative way to monitor pollinators without having to watch or handle them. In May, scientists from across the USGS launched a project to investigate the use of pollinator eDNA left on flowers, part of a larger effort funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to assess ecological resilience of restored grasslands. When a pollinator such as a bee or butterfly visits a flower, it may leave eDNA behind from shed skin, hair, or body parts, or from excretions like saliva. In the first phase of the project, scientists are sampling over 1,500 flowers from eight states. The study will identify which plants best support pollinators, information that will help managers decide which plants to use for restoration efforts.

10. Uncovering Secrets of the Sagebrush Ecosystem

person bent over on barren ground over looking a lake and mountains. A jute net covers the foreground.
A USGS scientist spreads moss fragments for a study to test the restoration potential of moss, an important component of biological soil crust. A jute net, foreground, helps stabilize the moss fragments as they adhere to the soil.

The sweeping sagebrush landscapes of the West are also a focus for ecosystem restoration under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Sagebrush ecosystems are habitat for more than 350 species but are susceptible to fire, invasive grasses, and other disturbances. USGS scientists are conducting research to help managers restore sagebrush ecosystems that are resilient to these threats. One of these research projects narrows in on the biological soil crusts hiding beneath the feet of iconic animals, like greater sage-grouse and pronghorn, and in the spaces between the eponymous sagebrush plants.

Biocrusts are made up of organisms that live on the soil surface, such as lichens, mosses, fungi, algae, and bacteria, forming a living carpet that fills in the gaps between plants. They occur all over world but are most common in arid landscapes like the sagebrush steppe. Biocrusts were included in some of the earliest descriptions of sagebrush vegetation, but today, biocrusts are rarely included in studies of sagebrush ecosystems. This project aims to fill that gap and understand the role that biocrusts can play in the restoration and maintenance of sagebrush.

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