In this study, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a quick and safe method for monitoring biotic resources was evaluated. Vegetation cover and the amount of bare ground are important factors in understanding the sustainability of many ecosystems. Methods that improve speed and cost efficiency could greatly improve how biotic resources are monitored on western lands. Sagebrush steppe ecosystems provide important habitat for a variety of species including sage grouse and pygmy rabbit. Improved methods of monitoring these habitats are needed because not enough resource specialists or funds are available for comprehensive on-the-ground evaluations. In this project, two UAV platforms, fixed-wing and helicopter, were used to collect still-frame imagery to assess vegetation cover in sagebrush steppe ecosystems. This paper discusses the process for collecting and analyzing imagery from the UAVs to 1) estimate percentage of cover for six different vegetation types (shrub, dead shrub, grass, forb, litter, and bare ground) and 2) locate sage grouse using representative decoys. The field plots were located on the Idaho National Laboratory site west of Idaho Falls, Idaho, in areas with varying amounts and types of vegetation cover. A software program called SamplePoint was used along with visual inspection to evaluate percentage of cover for the six cover types. Results were compared against standard field measurements to assess accuracy. The comparison of fixed-wing and helicopter UAV technology against field estimates shows good agreement for the measurement of bare ground. This study shows that if a high degree of detail and data accuracy is desired, then a helicopter UAV may be a good platform to use. If the data collection objective is to assess broad-scale landscape level changes, then the collection of imagery with a fixed-wing system is probably more appropriate.
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