The Refuge System Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) initiative was established in 2010 to gather, analyze and disseminate scientifically rigorous biological data about national wildlife refuges. Todd Sutherland, a 17-year veteran of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the national I&M data manager based at the Natural Resource Program Center in Fort Collins, CO. Here are excerpts from a recent Refuge Update interview with him.

What are the main I&M databases that every Refuge System scientist should know and use?
ServCat (Service Catalog) and PRIMR (Planning and Review of I&M activities on Refuges). Both are available to Service staff via the Environmental Conservation Online System ( By the end of fiscal year 2015, there will be a new database module available to document species occurrence on refuges.

What kind of information does each database house?
ServCat is a customized data management system we retrofitted from the National Park Service. You use ServCat to describe, upload and archive final products such as reports, datasets, maps and custom tools you have developed. It not only protects the valuable information produced by refuge biologists, but it allows others to easily discover their “stuff.” PRIMR is a database that describes the myriad survey activities being conducted across Refuge System lands. For example, if you want to know which refuges are conducting surveys for the red-cockaded woodpecker, you can generate such a list from PRIMR and obtain the name of the lead biologist. The real beauty is that PRIMR is linked to ServCat, so you can also discover any products generated from surveys and review the protocol being used to conduct the survey.

Sara Vacek monitoring grassland vegetation at Morris WMD, MN
Biologist Sara Vacek monitors grassland vegetation at Minnesota’s Morris Wetland Management District. (Lauren Dennhardt)

Kanuti Refuge hydrologist Jasper Hardison
Hydrologist Jasper Hardison takes water measurements at Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. (Maureen Clark/USFWS)
What kind of databases existed before you came to this position?
There were a few database products, but not any used nationally. For example, the Alaska Region manages a species-occurrence database, but it is used primarily by refuges in Alaska. The U.S. Geological Survey managed bird point count and marshbird databases, which were used primarily by refuges in the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast Regions. What was missing was an information system designed to allow multiple databases to be integrated and made available Refuge System-wide.

Are all the data public?
No, by law, legally sensitive data such as endangered species locations or personally identifiable information (PPI) cannot be made available to the public. So it is necessary to categorize our data according to levels of access. For example, a document in ServCat might contain operationally sensitive information. This document can be classified as "internal only," which restricts access to the public but allows our staff to view the document. The public cannot directly access the database applications (PRIMR/ServCat), however, the data that reside in them are made available to the public through other mechanisms, such as Data.Gov. This is critical for collaboration with our partners.

In terms of data gathering, in what areas has the Natural Resource Program Center (NRPC) made the most progress since its inception in 2010?
Definitely ServCat. Not only is it used by refuge staff; other programs are starting to use it as well. We have tied ServCat into Department of the Interior efforts to support the President's Open Data Initiative. Our documents in ServCat are harvested and made available to the public via Data.Gov. We have over 30,000 records in ServCat and have a dedicated team in Fort Collins entering priority refuge documents such as management plans and annual narratives. The Southeast Region has also done an excellent job of describing their survey activities in PRIMR. Finally, we have worked with all regions and Ecological Services staff members to improve information regarding what endangered species occur on refuge lands.

In terms of data gathering, what are the most difficult challenges NRPC has faced since 2010?
Inconsistency in regional staffing and priorities. It is hard to change the culture of the Service and lead a system-wide effort. Field stations have fewer staff, and now they have I&M-related tasks to accomplish, too. The regions that have implemented a zone system and added staff to help refuges with I&M are doing well. Bandwidth is another issue. The Service and DOI have not done a good job of funding IT infrastructure. We build centralized database applications, but many remote refuges have extremely poor connectivity and are still expected to use our web-based tools. It is very frustrating for users to enter data with slow connections.

What are the data-gathering priorities over the next year or so?
We want all regions to have their stations describe their survey activities in PRIMR, not just the Southeast Region. The Pacific Southwest Region is developing workflows for documenting species occurrence on refuges. Documenting species occurrence on refuges is going to be the next big push for I&M.

How can employees in the field help meet those priorities?
Attending webinar training sessions offered by I&M, either regionally or nationally, is the best first step. These systems are easy to use, but training is key for ensuring consistency in these data across the system. Also, contact I&M staff if you have questions or suggestions as we roll out our systems. We are constantly tweaking these products to make them more user friendly and beneficial to end users. A national and regional I&M primary contact list is at