Inventory and Monitoring

The Regional Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) branch is designed to address the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) critical information needs and to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation strategies on national wildlife refuges across the Southeast. I&M assesses the status of NWRS lands, waters, and biota and provides monitoring support, expertise, and advice to refuges and partners in the face of accelerating climate change and threats from other environmental stressors. The primary purpose of the I&M is to provide information support management decisions at multiple geographic scales.

Learn more about the national I&M program.

Status and Needs Assessment

The regional I&M branch published a Status and Needs Assessment report (2.48MB) that summarizes information collected from 65 refuges located in the Gulf Zone. These data provide a broader picture of monitoring in the Gulf and helped to identify opportunities to coordinate and improve data collection, data management, and analysis. The most outstanding opportunities identified within the Southeast Region Gulf Zone are presented in this report with additional data and information included in the associated Appendices (2.10MB). For more information about this effort, please contact the I&M Branch chief, Janet Ertel.

Inventory and Monitoring Plans

The Refuge Inventory and Monitoring policy requires each refuge to develop and follow an Inventory and Monitoring Plan (IMP) that identifies surveys to be conducted in the next 10 to 15 years. These plans are step-down plans for refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plans and Habitat Management Plans.

The Inventory and Monitoring Plan documents the priority and selection of surveys to assess the status and trends of natural resources and the effectiveness of management conservation actions. IMPs also document resource needs and capacity challenges for refuges and can be easily revised to address shifts in priorities due to environmental change.

Search Inventory and Monitoring Plans in the Southeast.

Data Management

Regional I&M branch staff are developing, testing, and using a number of data management systems to help the NWRS accomplish mission goals and inform management decisions at all levels. Learn more about data management in the Southeast, or check out the complete list of conservation tools.

Monitoring Activities

Informed planning and resource management requires information about status, trends, and changes in fish, wildlife, plant populations, and their habitats. The National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) Inventory & Monitoring (I&M) Initiative and Southeast Region I&M Branch efforts are focused on both biotic and abiotic resources.

Coastal Wetland Elevation Monitoring

Sea level rise and its potential impacts to habitats and species are a concern for the refuges across the United States. Rising sea levels can lead to wetland loss, saltwater intrusion, habitat conversion, and inland migration of marsh and forested ecosystems. The average mean elevation of these wetland surfaces must increase to keep pace with the annual rise in sea level and land subsidence of organic substrates. Understanding rates of wetland elevation change and relative sea-level rise is important to help refuge managers answer critical questions and adjust management techniques for wetlands towards future conditions.

A biologist carefully takes a measurement in a grassy field.

Vegetation monitoring, Cedar Island NWR. Photo by Forbes Boyle, USFWS.

In the Southeast region, the I&M Branch initiated a Coastal Wetland Elevation Monitoring (CWEM) effort on 18 refuges within the South Atlantic geography in 2012. The overarching CWEM objectives are to observe impacts of sea level rise and change in priority habitats, determine rates of wetland elevation change and relative sea level rise, and forecast longevity of these habitats in refuges within the SALCC geography. This monitoring effort involves collecting surface elevation (surveying and rod surface elevation tables [RSET]), accretion, porewater salinity, and vegetation community data at permanent sites to provide data to refuge managers on the status of and trends in wetland conditions within refuges. The data collected will help managers make better ecologically-informed decisions with regards to conservation and management of wetlands on refuges.

A biologist carefully takes a measurement.

RSET measurements at Blackbeard Island NWR. Photo by Nicole Rankin, USFWS.

I&M is are partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), The Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service (NPS), the SALCC, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), and the National Geodetic Survey to accomplish many aspects of this project. Furthermore, the data collected from this project will be used in conjunction with similar data collected from RSET benchmarks maintained by the NPS, the NERRS, and USGS to better examine landscape-scale changes resulting from sea level rise.

  • This year, project participants will continue to collect RSET, accretion, and porewater salinity data from all sites. Other project highlights include:
  • The Southeast and Southwest Regional I&M staff are working together to develop a multi-regional Coastal Wetland Elevation Monitoring protocol.
  • In summer 2016, vegetation monitoring was conducted at all sites, and the Resample Vegetation Report will be finalized in 2017.
  • In 2015 and 2016, static GPS surveys were conducted at most CWEM sites, and the Baseline RSET Benchmark Elevation Report will be finalized in 2017.
  • Partnership Poster highlighting the ongoing work between the Southeast I&M Branch and National Park Service Southeast Coast Network.
  • Baseline Vegetation Report of CWEM sites completed. This report summarizes data collected from each refuge within the geography in 2013.
  • Accomplishments and FY17 Plan for CWEM and vegetation monitoring. This long-term effort collects information on surface elevation, soil accretion, porewater salinity, vegetation composition and structure, soil chemistry, and benchmark elevation at permanent sites established in priority wetland habitats to provide data to managers on the status of and trends in wetland conditions within refuges.
  • Refuge Update Article, 2012.

For more information about the Coastal Wetland Elevation Monitoring program, please contact I&M Branch chief, Janet Ertel, janet_ertel@fws.gov.

Fire Ecology and Effects Monitoring

Two biologists measure vegetation height in the understory of an open pine stand.

Fire Effects Monitoring. Photo by USFWS.

The Service recognizes the importance and role of fire in ecosystems in the Southeast. The Southeast Region I&M Branch works closely with the National Fire Ecology team, NWRS I&M Initiative, and Southeast Region Fire Management Division to develop tools for monitoring and understanding fire ecology and management on refuges. Some of the current efforts include the development of Fire Atlases, Fire Management Species Profiles, and Fire Monitoring Plan/Field Guide.

Fire Atlases

A group of four attendees gather around a Service leader.

Fire Effects Monitoring Workshop, Carolina Sandhills NWR. Photo by Rob Wood, USFWS.

The Southeast Region I&M Branch and the National Fire Management Branch are working together to develop fire atlases for refuges across the Southeast Region. The objective is to develop parcel-specific fire occurrence and fire intensity histories based on 30-m Landsat Thematic Mapper imagery. A Fire Atlas is a spatial dataset of historical fire boundaries for both wildfires and prescribed burns. The resulting spatial and temporally explicit dataset will allow comparisons to be made between fire history and current habitat characteristics,. This data is useful particularly in reference to managing and restoring optimal conditions for listed or imperiled species, and species of concern for a refuge. To date, Fire Atlases have been developed for Big Branch Marsh, Sabine, and St. Marks NWRs. Current Fire Atlas projects include Grand Bay and Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWRs. For more information contact coastal ecologist Sue Wilder, sue_wilder@fws.gov.

Fire Management Species Profiles

In collaboration with the Southeast Region Fire Management Division, the Southeast Region I&M branch has developed Fire Management Profiles for several species including: Bachman’s sparrow, Henslows sparrow, Little bluestem, Wiregrass, Pine snake, Painted bunting, and Brown-headed nuthatch. The objective of the Fire Management Species Profile project is to identify habitat management objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, clearly communicate among habitat management professionals, and are firmly based in the best available science. Their use is intended to guide habitat managers in setting local objectives for habitat management in fire-adapted ecological systems. Fire management objectives are specific to habitat conditions in which maintenance and improvement, rather than restoration, of habitat condition is the goal.

For more information check out fire management species profiles in the reading room or contact coastal ecologist Sue Wilder, sue_wilder@fws.gov.

Fuel Treatment Effects Monitoring

A revised Fuel Treatment Effects Monitoring Field Guide and an Interim Fuel Treatment Effects Monitoring Plan have been developed and are currently available. The purpose of these regional documents is to provide technical and planning guidance on fuels treatment monitoring activities on refuges in the Southeast. The Plan serves as the regional monitoring plan, and the revised Field Guide provides information on field methods, sampling design, data collection, storage and reporting fuels treatment monitoring data. I&M Branch staff have been conducting Fire Effects Monitoring workshops across the region to train fire staff on the new Field Guide techniques. For more information contact botanist, Forbes Boyle, maxwell_boyle@fws.gov, or coastal ecologist Sue Wilder, sue_wilder@fws.gov.

Hydrogeomorphic (HGM) Analysis

HGM analysis is a three-step process used to evaluate riparian and wetland ecosystems and surrounding landscapes. HGMIt is used to identify options for restoring areas to their original functions, before human induced alterations, all within the context of landscape-scale conservation and species preservation. The HGM process is outlined below:

A wetland emerges from open water with shrubs in the foreground.

Cape Romain NWR. Photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS.

  • The first step in an HGM analysis is to evaluate the historic conditions of the land and its surroundings by studying the soil, vegetation, topography, hydrology, flora, and fauna.
  • The second step is to evaluate how the land has been altered through manipulation of drainage systems, topography, or vegetation communities, and how those changes have affected the natural ecological processes. Current conditions are assessed as well as each community’s resilience to change and potential for restoration.
  • The third step is to identify strategies for restoring an area to the historical condition within the context of the larger landscape. Common approaches might involve removal of invasive species or undoing human-induced changes to hydrology.

Visit the reading room for completed HGMs on NWRs. For more information about the HGM efforts in the Southeast region, please contact the I&M branch Chief, Janet Ertel, janet_ertel@fws.gov or download the HGM fact sheet.

Water Resource Inventory and Assessment

A shallow river running across rocks in front of a pine tree covered shore.

Cahaba River NWR. Photo by USFWS.

Water plays an incredibly important role throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). An accurate understanding of water quantity and quality is essential to identify the habitat needs of species and the threats they face on refuge lands. An accurate inventory of water resources allows refuge managers to prioritize the work of their staff. A water resource inventory and assessment (WRIA) is the first step to understanding the for a targeted water monitoring effort.

  • The WRIA effort includes a centralized database that allows employees to retrieve water resource information from across the NWRS.
  • The inventory component of the WRIA will gather existing information about each refuge’s water features and supply, water quality, water rights, water-related infrastructure, needs and threats.
  • The WRIA process also provides a written assessment including station-specific information that will guide water resource management for that individual refuge.

Search Water Resource Inventory and Assessments from refuges in the Southeast or download the WIRA fact sheet.

Amphibian Community Monitoring

There is growing concern about the worldwide decline of amphibian populations. The southeastern U.S. represents one of the world’s most diverse regions for amphibians. Amphibians are good indicators of ecosystem health due to their dependence on various wetland habitats and sensitivity to environmental stressors.

A young volunteer in a deciduous forest holding a wire trap.

Volunteer assisting with funnel traps at Roanoke River NWR, NC. Photo by Wendy Stanton, USFWS.

In 2013, the Southeast Region I&M Branch partnered with the National Park Service Southeast Coast Network to pilot the amphibian community monitoring protocol on Roanoke River NWR. Visual encounter surveys that incorporated dip-net techniques were performed, and Automatic Recording Devices (ARDs) were deployed at 12 sampling locations. The pilot was performed to estimate time, cost, and workload involved in performing amphibian community monitoring on refuges and were summarized in a two page report titled, Recommendations on Utilizing the National Park Service Southeast Coast Network Protocol on National Wildlife Refuges in the Southeast. Pilot Project: Amphibian Community Monitoring at Roanoke River NWR.

The 2013 monitoring activities at Roanoke River NWR detected amphibians from 17 taxa (species, genus, or family) including a possible documentation of the newly identified Atlantic coast leopard frog (Rana kauffieldii). Two specimens of this species were collected during March 2015 to confirm species identification with genetic testing.

During 2014 and 2015, vocal anuran baseline inventories were conducted at Swanquarter NWR and Mattamuskeet NWR, respectively. Download the final reports from Swanquarter NWR and Mattamuskeet NWR. To learn more about these projects, please contact I&M Branch terrestrial ecologist, Wendy Stanton, wendy_stanton@fws.gov.

Bird Monitoring

Many refuges were established to provide habitat for birds, and refuges are charged with managing, monitoring, and protecting these species. The Southeast Region I&M Branch is working with refuges and other partners on numerous bird planning and monitoring activities. Some of the current efforts include IWMM surveys and SEANET beached bird surveys.

Automated Radio Telemetry Stations

Metal antenna tower fixed to the side of a building.

Automated Radio Telemetry Tower, Pea Island NWR, NC. Photo by Adam Smith, USFWS.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus) comprises a network of coordinated automated radio telemetry towers that track the movements of tagged animals throughout terrestrial and coastal environments. Launched in 2013, the MOTUS network has grown to more than 280 active receiving stations. The receiving stations listen around the clock for passing animals wearing a digital “nanotag” tracking device. Nanotags are lightweight, digital VHF radio transmitters that enable hundreds of individual animals to be monitored simultaneously on the same radio frequency. Each year, scientists from numerous universities and agencies deploy hundreds of nanotags for tracking migratory movements throughout eastern North America, including multiple species of seabirds, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, and bats. They count on tracking stations along the route to record passing animals. Receiving stations log tag detections in real time, and flying animals can usually be detected by the station up to 15-20 km away.

A screenshot of an interactive map of radio telemetry points.

Interactive map of automated radio telemetry stations and detections.

One of the key gaps in the MOTUS network is the South Atlantic coast, which is highly relevant to ongoing tag deployments. The Southeast Region I&M Branch has installed and maintains four automated telemetry receiving stations on coastal southeast refuges to contribute to this continental tracking network - Mackay Island, Pea Island, and Cedar Island NWRs in North Carolina, and Cape Romain NWR in South Carolina refuges. The installation of these stations represents partnerships between the Southeast Region I&M Branch, Migratory Birds (Southeast and Northeast regions) Programs, and Ecological Services Program.

Check out the interactive map showing the initial tagging locations of migratory animals detected by radio telemetry towers operated by the National Wildlife Refuge System. For more information about this project, please contact I&M Branch Quantitative Ecologist, Adam Smith, adam_d_smith@fws.gov.

For more information download the Motus Station on NWRs fact sheet.

Integrated Waterbird Management and Monitoring (IWMM) Initiative

A bright yellow flowering shrub.

Beggar's Tick was documented during IWMM vegetation survey, Pocosin Lakes NWR. Photo by Wendy Stanton, USFWS.

The IWMM Initiative is a joint effort among conservation partners located along the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, the states, Ducks Unlimited and other non-governmental agencies. The IWMM Initiative seeks to standardize and coordinate monitoring of migrating and wintering waterbirds and their habitats across the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways and to develop decision support tools informed by monitoring data to address management questions at local, regional, and flyway scales. The Southeast Region I&M Branch has been assisting with pilot data collection in the South Atlantic. This information is being used to validate the IWMM vegetation protocol which will be used to develop a decision support tool for land managers.

In 2015, the IWMM approach became a Service National Protocol Framework providing guidance for conducting inventories or monitoring surveys of waterbird habitat conditions and use at local scale in a way that will allow analysis of multiple sites from multiple regions in the Refuge System. For more information about IWMM, please contact the I&M branch Coordinator, Janet Ertel, janet_ertel@fws.gov; I&M Branch terrestrial ecologist, Wendy Stanton, wendy_stanton@fws.gov; or the North Carolina Migratory Bird project leader, John Stanton, john_stanton@fws.gov.

Seabird Ecological Assessment Network Beached Bird Surveys

A bright yellow flowering shrub.

Northern Gannet observed during a SEANET survey conducted on Pea Island NWR. Photo by Wendy Stanton, USFWS.

The Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) is a citizen science program conducting standardized beached bird monitoring on the Atlantic coast of the United States. These surveys provide baseline information about bird mortality and can help to detect mass mortality events due to oil spills, algal toxins, and disease outbreaks. In 2011, SEANET beached bird surveys were initiated in North Carolina by the Southeast Region I&M Branch and North Carolina Migratory Birds Field Office, and 17 new routes were established. The surveys consist of walking a beach segment once or twice per month and collecting data on environmental conditions, beach debris, and both dead and live bird sightings.

In 2015, the North Carolina Migratory Bird Office released the first newsletter, SEANET The Carolinas Edition. For more information about SEANET surveys, please contact the I&M Branch terrestrial ecologist, Wendy Stanton, wendy_stanton@fws.gov, or the North Carolina Migratory Bird project leader, John Stanton, john_stanton@fws.gov.

Habitat Mapping

The NWRS I&M Initiative Strategic Plan and Blueprint identified the need for the NWRS to “Design, fund, and implement a strategic process for completing vegetative inventories and cover mapping, using the National Vegetation Classification Standard (NVCS) on all refuges.” Vegetation communities and habitat designations are unique from refuge to refuge, so processes must be developed to crosswalk locally defined habitats that have been identified in refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plans and Habitat Management Plans to standardized national systems such as the National Vegetation Classification Standard and Ecological Systems. In spite of the increasing need for a common language of ecosystem units to address refuge- and landscape-scale environmental threats to trust resources, there is currently not a ‘standard’ that has been applied to the NWRS.

Pitcher plants and lilies on the edge of the water.

Southern coastal plain nonriverine basin swamp. Photo by Forbes Boyle, USFWS.

The Southeast Region I&M Branch has proposed a process utilizing the upcoming LANDFIRE remap as a cost effective source for acquisition of spatial data products. LANDFIRE is a collaborative effort between the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service that provides national-scale, geo-spatial products that describe fire regime history, vegetation condition, and wildland fuel. A Habitat Mapping Working Group has been assembled in the Southeast to engage with LANDFIRE and provide refuge data and expert input to improve the accuracy of the habitat map for the Southeast region. This Working Group is composed of staff from Southeast Region I&M Branch, Refuges, and Fire Management Divisions. For more information, please contact Forbes Boyle, maxwell_boyle@fws.gov or Tim Fotinos, Timothy_Fotinos@fws.gov.

Invasive Species Monitoring

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is very concerned about the impacts that invasive species are having on fish, wildlife, and plants across the Nation. Invasive plants and animals degrade, change or displace native habitats and compete with our native wildlife and are thus harmful to our fish, wildlife and plant resources. The Southeast Region I&M Branch is working with refuges and other partners on invasive species monitoring activities. Some of the current efforts include Phragmites monitoring.

Phragmites Monitoring

A biologist standing in tall invasive reeds taking measurements.

Measuring effectiveness of herbicide treatments on phragmites. Photo by Wendy Stanton, USFWS.

Over the past century, the exotic and invasive common reed (Phragmites australis ssp. australis) has continued to encroach on fragile wetland habitat managed intensely for waterbirds and other Service Trust Species. Once established, Phragmites quickly takes over marsh communities. Intensive efforts have been focused to manage this plant, but no standardized monitoring has occurred. Sea level rise will exacerbate this challenge as the more adaptable Phragmites invade these stressed environments and out-compete the more specialized native plants. A pilot monitoring effort is currently underway on refuges in North Carolina. This pilot will provide treatment recommendations and develop a standardized protocol for rapidly assessing the effectiveness of actions used to manage Phragmites at acceptable thresholds and promote regeneration of native wetland plants.

Currently, there is a draft Herbicide Mixing Conversion tool available to assist refuges with herbicide mixing rates for glyphosate and impazaypr. To learn more about this pilot or to receive the latest version of the tool, please contact I&M Branch terrestrial ecologist, Wendy Stanton, wendystanton@fws.gov, or I&M Branch botanist, Forbes Boyle, maxwell_boyle@fws.gov.

Mobile Acoustical Bat Monitoring

A small group of fuzzy brown bats attached to the roof of a cave.

Tri-colored bats. Photo by USFWS.

Bats are integral to sustaining biodiversity of both simple and complex ecosystems in the eastern United States. Bats have been specifically identified as species of concern in many National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation and Habitat Management Plans and are otherwise recognized as a species group of interest on many refuge lands. Recent recognition of landscape level threats to bat populations and refuge-scale needs for baseline information on bat abundance and distribution has prompted refuges to start coordinated acoustical monitoring of bats.

Beginning in 2012, the Southeast Region I&M Branch started an unprecedented coordinated monitoring effort to provide baseline inventories of bat species on refuges and contribute to assessment of long-term changes in Eastern bat populations. The mobile acoustical bat monitoring (MABM) project includes survey transects at:

Each year from June to July, stations use Anabat SD2 detectors (mobile data logger) to log ultrasonic bat echolocation data collected via a roof-mounted microphone. Bat calls will be classified and summarized by species using the BCID Eastern USA software package. For more information about the MABM project, please contact I&M Branch terrestrial ecologist, David Richardson, david_richardson@fws.gov.

For more information download the 2012-2015 Mobile Acoustical Bat Monitoring Report summarizing the first four years of the project.

Vegetation Assessment and Monitoring

Plant communities face numerous threats from non-native species invasion to human development to climate change. It is important to monitor and evaluate changes in plant community composition over time. Some of the current efforts include Carolina Vegetation Survey plot establishment and Historic Vegetation Assessments.

Coastal Wetland Elevation Monitoring - Baseline Vegetation

In the Summer 2013, the Southeast Region I&M Branch performed vegetation monitoring in association with Coastal Wetland Elevation Monitoring sites on coastal refuges within the South Atlantic geography. During this baseline vegetation survey, permanent plots were established at all RSET sites. Using the Carolina Vegetation Survey (CVS) Level 5 protocol, staff set up three 10X10 meter plots per RSET site to determine compositional richness (i.e. number of species) across multiple spatial scales (smallest scale = 0.01 m²; largest scale = 100 m²), document tree and shrub density, and describe abiotic conditions within the plot. All of the data were archived in a standard format and entered into the CVS database. I&M Branch and refuge staff worked in cypress-gum swamp forests, pocosins, oligohaline marsh, and salt marsh wetlands documenting over 450 species occurrences.

A biologist takes measurements of grass in a square plot.

RSET station vegetation monitoring at Pinckney Island NWR. Photo by Forbes Boyle, USFWS.

The Baseline Vegetation Report is complete and summarizes data collected from each refuge site within the geography in 2013. For more information, please contact I&M Branch botanist, Forbes Boyle, maxwell_boyle@fws.gov, or I&M coastal ecologist, Nicole Rankin, nicole_rankin@fws.gov.

For more information download the Carolina Vegetation Survey Fact Sheet.

Continuous Forest Inventory (CFI) Data Analysis

A biologist kneeling in a muddy swamp takes samples.

Collecting soil samples at Roanoke River NWR. Photo by Forbes Boyle, USFWS.

Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge embarked on a new and intensive forest monitoring effort in 1999. Over the next eight years, the refuge established and sampled an extensive network of permanent forest monitoring plots (CFI). The refuge has recently teamed up with the Southeast Region I&M Branch and Louisiana Tech University to thoroughly analyze these valuable and complex data as well as evaluate the power of the CFI monitoring design. These monitoring data will provide a better understanding of long-term forest dynamics and habitat structure across the refuge. Permanent plots like CFI have greater power to detect changes in forest structure and composition (because of their static location) than the typical cruise data collected during forest inventories. These analyses will also inform area refuges about the value of CFI plots as part of a comprehensive forest management program. For more information about this project, please contact I&M Branch plant ecologist, Tim Fotinos, timothy_fotinos@fws.gov.

Contact

Staff are stationed strategically at refuge and partner offices across the southeast region to provide local, regional, and national coordination.

Janet Ertel, Inventory & Monitoring Branch Chief and Southeast Region Coordinator
Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS (662) 325-8679

Forbes Boyle, Botanist
Okefenokee NWR, Folkston, GA (912) 496-7366 ext. 224

Tim Fotinos, Plant Ecologist
Red River NWR, Bossier City, LA (318) 742-1219 ext. 104

Grant Graves, Hydrologist
Wapanocca NWR, Turrell, AR (870) 343-8695

Nicole Rankin, Coastal Ecologist
Cape Romain NWR, Awendaw, SC (843) 928-3264 ext. 211

David Richardson, Terrestrial Ecologist
North Mississippi Refuge Complex, Grenada, MS (662) 226-8286

Adam Smith, Quantitative Ecologist
Whitehall Forest, Athens, GA (706) 425-2250

Wendy Stanton, Terrestrial Ecologist
Migratory Birds Office, Columbia, NC (252) 796-2402

Sue Wilder, Ecologist
Southeast Louisiana Refuges Complex, Lacombe, LA (985) 882-2008

A map of the southeast showing the location of individual I&M employees.

I&M Branch Staff Office Locations, Map by USFWS.