Give me a drone where the buffalo roam

Photo: Susan Moran

Photo: Susan Moran

Last week we spent a couple of days at the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge Wind River Ranch.  It's a 5000 acre Fish and Wildlife Service property near Las Vegas, NM.  The Denver Zoo currently manages the property with a goal of studying how, after over a 100 years of overgrazing, degraded grassland can be restored .  The heavy lifters in this process are the buffalo (more properly called bison but we've all grown up with the former term).  The herd of 50+ buffalo keep the juniper and other bushes from migrating down from the hills, snarf the invasive weeds, and mitigate the erosion channels.  Beyond the bison, the staff can show some impressive results in restoring eroded washes.  In just a few years they have rehabilitated many of these lifeless gullies into willow-filled wetlands (see the book Let the Water Do the Work for their techniques).

So where to the drones come in?  A couple of ways.  First, the botanists are doing a very careful job of studying how the buffalo and pronghorn are bringing the flora back to a more resilient state -- and a state that should be more robust in the face of climate change.  However, they don't have good meso-scale data on the entire ranch.  That is between the fine-scale of hand counting and the too-coarse scale of satellite imagery.   Having 3 cm GSD (ground scale distance) NDVI imagery would be a real boon for them.  Second, while they generally know where the herd is located, actually finding it is a time-consuming project.  A UAV set up with first-person view (FPV) camera equipment could rapidly scan the ranch and find the herd so the biologists can keep a better track of where the animals are grazing.

Since this is Federal property, we would need to obtain a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA to fly it.  We've heard horror stories about getting FAA COAs but we've also heard that they are streamlining the process.  Hopefully you'll be reading a blog before too long about our success in this project.