Cows don’t seem to be busy most of the time. They are raised to spend their days in the fields, to provide milk or meat, or to produce more cows. When students at UC Santa Barbara ecologist Doug McCauley’s lab stared attentively at the satellite image of the image of herds of cattle at Point Reyes National Seashore, it was kind of “far side” funny.
“There were about 10 students involved in the project who discovered cows from space – not typical student research and always amusing to see in the lab,” said McCauley. They could tell the top view of a cow from the top view of rocks or the top view of other animals, he added.
“In about eight months, we received more than 27,000 annotations from cattle on 31 images,” said Lacey Hughey, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who holds a PhD. Student at the McCauley Lab at the time and the leader of the cow census. “It took a long time.”
However, all of the weird cow counts had one serious purpose: to measure the interactions between wildlife and farm animals where their areas meet or overlap. About a third of the United States’ land cover is grazing, and where that grazing is adjacent to wild land, concerns about predation, competition, and disease transmission must arise.
Such is the case at Point Reyes National Seashore, a scenic combination of coastal cliffs and grassland, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. As part of a nationwide species restoration plan, native tule elk were reintroduced to the park’s designated wilderness area in the 1990s, but did not stay in their little corner of paradise for long.
“Some of them actually swam over an estero and started this herd – known as Drake’s Beach Herd – near the pastoral area of the park that is leased to ranchers,” said Hughey, lead author of A Joint Study with the University from Nevada, Reno, which appears in Biological Conservation magazine. Cattle fences don’t stop moose either, she said; You can easily cross or break through them to get to pastures. The situation was also unique in that Drake’s Beach moose live in the area year-round, thanks in large part to the stable climate, so the grazing pressure on the land is constant.
Where’s the beef?
“So we asked ourselves how moose and cattle coexist in this landscape.” Said Hughey. “The story between moose and cattle is actually quite complex. We know from other studies that moose and cattle can be competitors, but they can also be intermediaries. We also didn’t know very much about which habitats moose preferred in this part of the country Park and how the presence of cattle could influence an elk’s decision to spend their time in one place over another. “
Researchers set about answering these questions with two large sets of data generated by the park – GPS tracking data from necks of necks and field-based transect surveys of the moose. What was missing, however, was information about the cows.
“We knew quite a bit about where the moose were, but we had no information about where the cows were other than that they were in the fences,” she said. Knowing the exact number and location of cows in relation to the herd of elk would be necessary in order to understand how both species interact in a pastoral setting.
“Because the moose data was collected in the past, we needed a way to get information about cattle populations from the same time period. The only place we could get was archived, high-resolution satellite imagery,” Hughey said. Hence the satellite cowspotting.
Your conclusion? Moose have grown accustomed to cattle at Point Reyes by generally avoiding cow grazing and choosing separate feeding sites on the occasions when they occur concurrently. Taken together, these results suggest that moose choose their habitat in ways that “diminish”[s] the potential for pasture conflicts with cattle, even in cases where access to feed is restricted. “
Not only does satellite imaging help shed light on the ecological relationship between cows and moose at Point Reyes, but it can also define their areas of overlap – an important consideration when assessing disease risk, the researchers said.
“There is a very worrying disease that has been found in the elk herd and also in livestock called Johne’s disease,” Hughey said. The bacteria that cause it can linger in the environment for more than a year, she added. Although cows and moose rarely share space at the same time, there is still a theoretical risk of transmission in this system.
According to the researchers, the satellite imaging technique is also widespread in other areas of the world where livestock and wildlife areas intersect.
“The conflict of livestock and wildlife is a major challenge in a number of different contexts in the United States and beyond,” said McCauley. “It was surprisingly difficult to figure out exactly how these wild animals share space with pets.”
These new methods, he said, “will have a transformative impact on understanding how farm animals use wild land – and how wild animals use pasture land.”
Next stop: Kenya and Tanzania.
In collaboration with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Microsoft AI for Good, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Twente – and thanks in large part to the data generated by UC Santa Barbara students on cow tracking – Hughey and colleagues train you Algorithm to recognize and identify animals in the plains of East Africa such as wildebeest and of course cows.
Research in the work was also contributed by Kevin T. Shoemaker and Kelley M. Stewart at the University of Nevada and J. Hall Cushman at the Smithsonian Institution
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