The Key Role of Community Science and Technology in Understanding ESA-listed Species

“Save the bees!” — whether or not you’re actively involved in conservation, by now you’ve likely heard the buzz around the issue of pollinator decline. Few pollinators, however, have experienced declines as dramatic as the rusty patched bumble bee — the first bumble bee listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), over the last 20 years the rusty patched bumble bee’s range declined by 87% and the number of known populations dropped to 12% of what had been recorded prior to the year 2000. These numbers are staggering, particularly in the face of further threats to the rusty patched bumble bee by legislation like the Poisoned Pollinator Provision within the Farm Bill that surfaced earlier this year, which Defenders helped defeat.

I am the newest addition to Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation as the GIS and Technical Computing Associate, and through this position I am becoming much more familiar with the rusty patched bumble bee and many other ESA-listed species. One of my first projects is a Defenders-led collaboration developing refined range maps for ESA-listed species. These maps are important because we need to know where species are most likely to be found so we can make better policy and management decisions about protecting their habitats and populations. For pollinators like the rusty patched bumble bee, that might mean knowing where to regulate the use of insecticides that harm the species; for land-based predators like the ocelot that could mean determining key regions to regulate urban development and protect wildlife corridors.

Meeting these mapping needs means ensuring accurate and up-to-date spatial data are available, especially as species’ ranges expand or decline. A key element of this project is using data from publicly available community science databases. Databases such as GBIF, iNaturalist, eBird, iDigBio, and CalBug all provide platforms for community science data upload and sharing, which has become an incredible tool in staying at the forefront of available species range data. Thanks to community scientists who choose to participate in these collaborative efforts all over the country, we are able to enhance the quality of our work and our understanding of many ESA-listed species.

Technology has progressed in tandem with the rise in community science data sharing. Packages in the statistical programming language R, such as spocc and scrubr, allow us to import datasets directly from community science databases into R, clean up any errors, and then immediately begin mapping.

For example, this little snippet of code that I wrote filters rusty patched bumble bee occurrence data by collection date and then shows a basic map of the remaining data points collected after the year 1980.

I am currently examining the available data for more than 100 ESA-listed species and looking at the results on plots resembling the one below to figure out if we have enough data to produce reliable range maps. In this plot, each dot represents the estimated range size and number of data points for a species, which helps us understand if there are enough data available to produce reliable range maps. How much data is enough depends on factors like a species’ range size. The Devil’s Hole pupfish only lives in Devil’s Hole, Nevada, so we can map that with just one data point, but the wider range of the rusty patched bumble bee requires a different statistical approach. Ideally, the wider-ranging species would fall in quadrant 1 on our plot, where their range sizes and number of occurrence data points are both large enough to produce accurate species distribution models, or SDMs. What we’re finding so far is that community science may be sufficient to provide data of the quality and quantity needed for good, refined range maps.

Refined range mapping can show species’ most updated ranges following major declines, informing policy and conservation management decisions with best available science as we work to ensure species, all the way down to small insects, can have a big voice in the nation’s capital. This collaborative work extends well beyond Defenders. With the support of community science, advances in data management and statistical programming, and continued progress within the refined range mapping community, Defenders can remain at the cutting edge of science and technology to benefit wildlife. This union allows us to help sensitive species like the rusty patched bumble bee have a renewed chance at protection, stability, and hopefully one day delisting from the ESA.