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WVU researchers help create online conservation tool

With the help of two West Virginia University researchers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative now have a science-based, online tool to help prioritize and target fish habitat conservation.

Developed by local environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies, WVU and Critigen, a full-lifecycle Geospatial systems integrator, the Fish Habitat Decision Support Tool enables users to establish and rank conservation priorities, predict how species like brook trout will fare under various management scenarios, and evaluate long-term conservation benefits.

WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Designresearchers Todd Petty, professor of wildlife and fisheries resources, and Michael Strager, associate professor of resource economics, served as WVU leads on the project.

Petty led the analysis of fish-habitat and watershed-scale ecological models while Strager provided the tools to cumulatively analyze watershed connectivity and compare restoration alternatives with a ranking model.

“The completion of the web tool is the culmination of several years of research we initiated at WVU,” said Petty. “We believe that it can fundamentally change how we make conservation decisions as they relate to water resources and fisheries. This tool will allow us to plan restoration strategically at a watershed scale and predict the potential benefits of restoration to water resources.”

The tool can help in targeting aquatic resources from the Midwest to the Atlantic coast—nearly half of the continental United States. In the Northeast, it has been developed for brook trout in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, river herring and other anadromous fish in Atlantic coastal rivers, and winter flounder in Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay.

It also features a built-in “futuring” module that allows practitioners to create scenarios based on predictions about changes to key factors – such as development and climate change – that will help them determine whether a species will persist at a site as conditions change. Included is a module that lets users mix, match, and rank all of the other factors that might inform decisions to invest money on the ground, such as locations of other restoration projects that are underway, proximity to populations centers and information about upstream influences, such as acid mines.

Fritz Boettner, principal scientist for Downstream Strategies, said a range of partners are likely to use the tool because it incorporates data that has already been vetted by practitioners in the field and was developed using their input. He said Downstream Strategies and WVU worked closely with FWS and other partners to make sure the tool would be able to do what they needed.

“Over and over again we’ve heard from conservation planners about how hard it is to pin down project sites where you really get the most bang for your buck,” Boettner said. “The plan we outlined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service was to build something—not just tools, but also methods—that can assist planners in getting over that last hump from great information and local knowledge into effective on-the-ground work.”

The North Atlantic LCC, a forum for the Service and other regional partners to identify conservation priorities and develop the right science to address them, provided funding and guidance for fish habitat assessments along with the Atlantic Coastal Fish Habitat Partnership, Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture and The Nature Conservancy.

To access and use the Fish Habitat Decision Support Tool, visit http://www.fishhabitattool.org/

A webinar overview of the tool will be presented from 1-2 p.m. Wed., March 9. To view and participate, visit: http://northatlanticlcc.org/news/webinar-fish-habitat-decision-support-tool

-WVU-