MSU ecologist will use Fulbright in Colombia on international conservation project
BOZEMAN – A Montana State University ecologist has been awarded a prestigious appointment that will take him to South America to work on a project to help countries meet conservation goals set as part of an international agreement.
Andrew Hansen, professor in the Department of Ecology in MSU's College of Letters and Science, has been awarded the Fulbright-Universidad Nacional de Colombia Distinguished Chair in Biodiversity and Sustainable Development. Awards in the Fulbright Distinguished Chairs Program are viewed as among the most prestigious appointments in the Fulbright Scholar Program.
Hansen said he is thrilled to have received the Fulbright, which will allow him to spend four months at the National University of Colombia in Bogata. There, he will analyze ecosystem data gathered by NASA that could help more than 30 countries keep their commitment to protect biodiversity.
"Most countries around the world signed onto the Convention on Biodiversity in 2010 that identified several conservation targets to be met by 2020, like expanding the protected area coverage and reducing forest degradation and increasing connectivity between protected areas," Hansen said.
Those countries are now developing conservation plans, he said, but they often don't have the information needed to analyze the current conditions of their ecosystem and evaluate the best way to achieve targets and implement their plans. At the same time, NASA has been producing sets of data that could provide that much-needed information.
Hansen is leading a project to get that spatial data into the hands of the policymakers in those countries so they can make informed decisions regarding conservation and biodiversity protection as set out in the convention. The project is a collaboration between NASA Earth Science and the United Nations Development Program, or UNDP, and includes some of the leading remote-sensing and conversation scientists, including the head of the United Nations Biodiversity Development Program who is a co-investigator on the study, Hansen said. Additionally, four labs are represented from the U.S., Canada and Australia.
"We have this extraordinary team to develop the science and work with the countries so they can apply science to this issue and UNDP then will be reporting success in 2020." Hansen said.
First, the project will focus on eight countries – Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Vietnam – that Hansen said were selected because of their involvement in several international conservation programs and because they are highly dedicated to meeting their conservation goals. After that, the researchers will turn their attention to the more than 30 remaining countries that are part of the agreement.
"It's been very interesting to be interacting with the representatives from these eight countries through three webinars and one face-to-face meeting," Hansen said. "Just in terms of pragmatics, it's remarkably interesting and challenging to work across this range of countries with this diversity of people and languages and cultures and scientific capacities."
Colombia is an ideal location for this work, he said, because the university has field stations at branch campuses around the country that have datasets that are important to the project. Hansen will compare the field station datasets with the ones NASA collected.
"The NASA satellite data layers are global layers, so they've been accuracy-assessed across many countries but not within individual countries in a scientifically valid way," Hansen said. "So, we'll be using the data from the field sites as 'truth' and then assess the extent to which NASA satellite data match those."
The data layers relate to forests, he said, and include canopy cover, canopy height and the time since the last disturbance. There are also data related to "the human footprint," that integrates population density, land-use change and transportation corridors.
"We're also merging those layers to identify forests that are the tallest, oldest, best forests for biodiversity and also have low human pressure – the 'best of the best' for biodiversity," he said. "The project is somewhat unique in doing this to get a higher-order product."
Another objective, he added, is to use the dataset analyses to work with scientists and land managers in each country to inform conservation planning, particularly connectivity between protected areas.
"As human pressure has built up in places around the world, the remaining natural habitats have become increasingly fragmented and converted to smaller patch sizes that are increasingly far apart,"
Hansen said. "If the wildlife within those smaller patches are not able to move between those patches and interact, that could lead to a change in genetics or population extinctions."
Hansen will be in Colombia from October to January 2019, where, he said, there are remarkable conservation scientists and ecologists.
"In addition to the university, there is the Humboldt Institute, a government-run biodiversity research center that is a globally known," he said. "As a consequence, there are a large number of conservation projects occurring in Colombia, so it's a real hotbed for next-generation conservation science."
He noted that Colombia is the world's second-most biodiverse country, the first being Brazil, with ecosystems ranging from the super-wet Pacific coastal forests to the top of the Andes and down into the Amazon basin.
"There are many indigenous people still living on their native lands," Hansen said. "So, in addition to modern cities and modern science, it has a strong agricultural community, an indigenous community and these diverse landforms and ecosystems."
He said that while he has been able to explore different types of ecosystems in his work, he hasn't had the opportunity to spend time in the tropical forest.
"Just like it's wonderful to get to know people and make new friends, it's wonderful to get to know new ecosystems because each one is so fascinating in its own right," he said.
"By getting to know several ecosystems, one then gets the opportunity to ask, 'What do they have in common? How are they different? Why? And, how should management strategies be crafted accordingly?'" said Hansen who teaches a course in comparing ecological systems.
Hansen has worked on other studies funded by NASA Earth Science aimed at solving resource management issues. One focused on the ecological conditions of six U.S. national parks. The other, NASA's Landscape Climate Change Vulnerability Project, was a five-year study that concentrated on the public lands in the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains and led to the book, Climate Change in Wildlands: Pioneering Approaches to Science and Management, which Hansen co-authored.
Hansen's research program at MSU has been "highly successful, generating $17 million in research and outreach funding," said Diane Debinski, head of MSU's Department of Ecology.
"His work on climate change and adaptation, land use change, large landscape conservation, protected areas, biodiversity, habitat fragmentation and connectivity has resulted in 70 peer-reviewed journal articles, three books, and 20 additional book chapters," Debinski said.
"This work will fill a critical gap in using spatial data to inform conservation decision-making," she said. "While one of the main products of this work will be actual maps, the proposed research will aid in putting MSU 'on the map' as an institution that is producing prestigious, cutting-edge conservation science."