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Disturbance automated reference toolset (DART): Assessing patterns in ecological recovery from energy development on the Colorado Plateau

April 15, 2017

A new disturbance automated reference toolset (DART) was developed to monitor human land surface impacts using soil-type and ecological context. DART identifies reference areas with similar soils, topography, and geology; and compares the disturbance condition to the reference area condition using a quantile-based approach based on a satellite vegetation index. DART was able to represent 26–55% of variation of relative differences in bare ground and 26–41% of variation in total foliar cover when comparing sites with nearby ecological reference areas using the Soil Adjusted Total Vegetation Index (SATVI). Assessment of ecological recovery at oil and gas pads on the Colorado Plateau with DART revealed that more than half of well-pads were below the 25th percentile of reference areas. Machine learning trend analysis of poorly recovering well-pads (quantile < 0.23) had out-of-bag error rates between 37 and 40% indicating moderate association with environmental and management variables hypothesized to influence recovery. Well-pads in grasslands (median quantile [MQ] = 13%), blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima) shrublands (MQ = 18%), arid canyon complexes (MQ = 18%), warmer areas with more summer-dominated precipitation, and state administered areas (MQ = 12%) had low recovery rates. Results showcase the usefulness of DART for assessing discrete surface land disturbances, and highlight the need for more targeted rehabilitation efforts at oil and gas well-pads in the arid southwest US.