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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 people, property, and other species in the ecosystems they invade. This growing problem emphasizes the critical importance of controlling invasive species to mitigate their destructive impact.

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.

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.  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, 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, and 42% of threatened or endangered species are at risk of extinction due to invasive species. In the Everglades, for example, pythons have become a major threat to  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.

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.

Sign for mandatory inspections of boats for zebra mussels - the role of digital field inspections in controlling invasive species

Sign for mandatory inspections of watercraft to stem invasion of zebra mussels

Arming up

Controlling invasive species begins with precise detection and mapping in endangered habitats. Field inspections are vital for creating plans that minimize damage. Digital inspection platforms, recently enhanced, now play a key role in this process. These platforms have revolutionized industries like utilities and construction.

For a true understanding of invasive species’ impact, field inspections must accurately track locations. This requires tools that consistently gather detailed, valuable data. Platforms like Fulcrum enable researchers to use geotagged digital checklists for logging findings. These findings, combined with GIS data, precisely pinpoint locations, spread, and damage caused by invasive species. Consequently, the exact location and extent of the problem are thoroughly mapped, updated, and shared with stakeholders.

Citizens affected by invasive species also play a role in control efforts, despite their lack of expertise. Fulcrum makes it easier for the public to report sightings. The public can use QR codes to report sightings, which are then added to the field inspection database. This integration ensures the most accurate and reliable assessment of the threat.

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. 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 first enhances visibility and understanding of an invasive species’ growth and spread. This provides a comprehensive view of the problem’s extent, leading to more effective and focused response strategies. Reliable data collection validates the effectiveness of current control efforts. It also identifies any issues, allowing for necessary adjustments. This approach ensures that responses are both effective and adaptable to changing situations. 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.