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The role of digital field inspections in controlling invasive species

May 11, 2022

From mussels to birds, hornets to fish, invasive species of every kind are wreaking havoc on the people, property, and other species of the ecosystems into which they migrate.

An invasive species is an organism that is not native to a particular area but, upon its introduction, multiplies so rapidly that it negatively affects the bioregion and causes ecological, environmental, and economic damage. From 1960 to 2020, the reported costs of US biological invasions were at least $1.22 trillion, while annual invasion costs increased from $2 billion in 1960–69 to $21 billion in 2010–20.1

Digital inspection platforms can be a key weapon in the fight against invasive species. With their versatile abilities to reliably collect and share value-rich location data and easily integrate with GIS, digital inspections can help field teams successfully and efficiently chart the location, number, movement, and growth of invasive species.

The siege has begun

Perhaps the most famous example of an invasive species is the introduction of rabbits to Australia – whose population was an estimated 600 million at their peak in the 1950s and continue to cost the country roughly $206 million per year.2  But you don’t have to look far to find notorious examples of invasive species much closer to home dramatically changing ecosystems across the US, including:

  • Zebra mussels. Zebra mussels are an invasive mollusk that have spread rapidly throughout the Great Lakes region and as far as California. By filtering out algae that native species need for food, zebra mussels are choking out native mussels. Power plants spend millions of dollars removing zebra mussels from clogged water intakes.
  • Asian carp. Voracious eaters, Asian carp have come to dominate entire waterways by out-competing other fish for food, causing serious damage to the native fish populations, endangering snail and mollusk species, and drastically changing river and shoreline vegetation.
  • Starlings. Introduced to North America by one Eugene Schieffelin who wanted to bring to the U.S. all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare,3 starlings now cause an estimated annual $800 million in damages to agricultural crops, compete with native bird species, and carry various diseases which may be transmissible to humans, other birds and livestock.4

Leaving wreckage in their wake 

An invasive species multiplies exponentially because it has no natural predators in the bioregion it penetrates, putting both the entire habitat and its other species at risk of serious, long-term harm.

In fact, invasive species are behind more than 50% of native species being classified as either endangered or threatened,5 and 42% of threatened or endangered species are at risk of extinction due to invasive species.6 In the Everglades, for example, pythons have become a major threat to the extinction of the native wildlife, of which they both eat and compete for food: a 2012 study found that, since 1997, populations of raccoons had dropped 99.3%, opossums 98.9%, and bobcats 87.5% while marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits, and foxes were effectively wiped out from the area.7

Invasive species can dangerously alter or destroy natural habitats by disrupting essential ecosystem functions. As we’ve seen, a new predatory species can upset the balance of the food chain in an ecosystem by destroying or replacing native food sources, reducing biodiversity. Plants can also be invasive, fundamentally altering the habitat for the worse when they displace native vegetation through competition for water, nutrients, and space.

Arming up

Controlling invasive species starts with accurately detecting and mapping their presence in endangered habitats, making field inspections the best weapon to formulate a comprehensive plan that minimizes damage. Fortunately, field inspections are now turbocharged by the current slate of innovative digital inspection platforms that have already transformed other industries like utilities and construction.

To get a true picture of the impact and spread of invasive species across habitats, field inspections need to track their location as accurately as possible – this means using precise and thorough tools that always reliably collect value-rich data. With a platform like Fulcrum, field researchers can deploy geotagged digital inspection checklists to log their findings, which can then be integrated with GIS data to precisely pinpoint sightings, spread and evidence of damage – this way, the specific location and magnitude of the problem can be thoroughly mapped out, constantly updated, and shared with stakeholders.

Concerned and affected citizens also have a duty to assist control efforts but, given their lack of expertise, may not be equipped to do so. That’s why Fulcrum has democratized the fight against invasive species by implementing a convenient way for the public to report sightings. With QR code access, anyone can report a sighting which can be seamlessly imported into the field inspection database so the most accurate and reliable picture of the threat can be drawn.

Field inspectors also benefit from the multimedia versatility of digital platforms. For example, with more than 610,000 registered boaters moving around its 15,081 lakes, Wisconsin’s team of watercraft inspectors are the first line of defense preventing further damage to the lake ecosystem from watermilfoil and zebra mussels.8 Digital inspection checklists would let them attach photos and videos that document their findings to be later shown to regulatory boards so that the proper resources are being distributed effectively to combat the issue.

Leverage, scale, and disseminate data

Easy-to-use across teams, devices, and habitats, digital platforms let field inspections scale up lightning-fast and quickly amass the data needed to begin control efforts. And once collected, field teams can leverage collected data in several ways, assured that it is current, consistent, and comprehensive.

Better data, of course, first widens visibility and understanding of the overall nominal growth and geographic expansion of an invasive species, providing a definitive top-down view of the problem’s extent so that any response will be better conceived and targeted.

In this way, the reliability of collected data can prove the worthiness of current control efforts, while just as able to unearth any of their problems so they can be adjusted. Either way, digital platforms inject an agile responsiveness to the solutions needed.

Sound data also makes for sound research and better solutions. If current solutions are failing to successfully control the problem, having access to reliable, error-proof data is the bedrock upon which you can make the case for funding further research and even control and eradication efforts.

Time to fight back

Digital field inspections, while simple to use, are deceptively powerful, having a flexibility to adapt to countless on-the-spot situations, regardless of industry or task. For this reason, digital inspection checklists have myriad uses, only limited by our imagination.

User-friendly, scalable, robust, and reliable geo-aware data collection, integration with GIS, accelerated and elevated visibility – exactly the qualities that field teams need in their inspection tools if we want to have a chance against invasive species.

Check our customer success story to learn how a natural resources client used Fulcrum in projects to improve water quality, restore ground cover and native vegetation, protect habitat, and rehabilitate erosion.


1 Economic costs of biological invasions in the United States – ScienceDirect

2 Economic and environmental impacts of rabbits in Australia – PestSmart

3 The effects of founding bottlenecks on genetic variation in the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in North America | Heredity (nature.com)

4 European Starling | National Invasive Species Information Center

5 Invasive Species in the United States – University of Maine

6 Invasive Species | National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org)

7 How have invasive pythons impacted Florida ecosystems? | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov)

8 Clean Boats, Clean Waters: Watercraft Inspections, Section2.pdf (uwsp.edu)