GPS Adding More Precision To Conservation

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GPS Adding More Precision To ConservationUnless lost in Atlanta, Georgia residents may not consider using a Global Positioning System on an everyday basis. For wildlife biologists, however, GPS technology means completing conservation work faster, more efficiently and for less money.

The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978 but use has only been widespread in the last 15 years, after the technology was made available for civilians in the 1980s. Originally created for military applications by the U.S. Department of Defense, the satellite-based navigation system is now helping wildlife agencies approach conservation strategies for everything from eagles and bats to rare plants and prescribed fire with a new perspective.

“GPS technology has proven to be very useful in our annual aerial bald eagle nest-monitoring efforts,” said Jim Ozier, program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section. “By flying directly from nest to nest we are able to efficiently use expensive airtime to gather accurate data across the entire state.”

Linked to a network of 24 satellites, GPS works in all weather conditions anywhere in the world 24 hours a day. There are no subscription fees or setup charges, making it a cost-effective alternative for wildlife biologists in the field. Handheld devices have become a necessary addition for prescribed fire crews, which must often navigate through dense forest and disorienting smoke while working. The technology also helps researchers track changes in rare plant habitat such as mountain bogs.

In addition to locating and tracking existing habitat, GPS has other advantages.

GPS Adding More Precision To Conservation“Potential new (eagle) nest locations can be entered into the GPS ahead of time and investigated along the route. And other items of interest that we observe along the way, such as pocket gopher mounds or rock outcroppings, can be marked for future reference,” Ozier said. “This system helps biologists easily coordinate their research, helping to eliminate time-consuming double work.”

University of Georgia graduate student Matt Clement has drawn attention this year for his work with bats in Georgia swamps. What most don’t know is Clement would be lost without his handheld GPS unit.

“Storing GPS locations helps you to return to the same place during future surveys,” he said. “This is especially important when a different person is trying to locate previously documented (bat) populations in the future.”

Wildlife Resources biologist Trina Morris works closely with Clement, conducting surveys for rare bats. She agrees that GPS is a critical tool for fieldwork.

“It is the best way to record accurate locations of populations of species of concern,” Morris said. “In the past, biologists would draw locations on maps by hand, and although often close, it’s hard to tell exactly where you are on a map when you’re in the field.”

GPS units are also important tools for working in unknown territory. Most new units include the ability to upload topographic maps of the areas users will be visiting, a helpful feature in remote places.

Despite the advances in high-tech gadgets, field workers should have a backup. “There is always an error estimate with a GPS unit,” Clement said. “I can be at a tree on day one and then on day two be at the same tree and my unit will say the tree I am looking for is 20 meters away.

“That is why you have to use a combination of techniques to do fieldwork.”

“A GPS cannot replace a compass and paper maps,” Morris explained, “because sometimes it’s difficult to get a good signal in heavy tree cover or difficult terrain.”

Also, she said, electronic equipment is always subject to failure.

Georgia’s nongame wildlife license plates are a can’t-fail option for helping conserve rare bats and other nongame wildlife, native plants and natural habitats. The bald eagle and ruby-throated hummingbird plates are available for a one-time $25 fee at county tag offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registrations and through online renewals (

Georgians can also donate to the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff. Simply fill in any amount more than $1 on line 26 of the long state income tax form (Form 500) or line 10 of the short form (Form 500EZ). Contributions can be deducted from refunds or added to payments.

Both the programs are vital to Wildlife Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state funds for its mission to help conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats in Georgia. Visit for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).

For details on The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, a nonprofit advocacy group for Nongame Conservation, please call the Forsyth office.

How it works

** GPS satellites circle Earth twice daily, transmitting signals. Ground receivers calculate location through triangulation, comparing when the signal is sent with when it is received. Adding distance measurements from other satellites, the user’s position is determined and displayed on GPS units.

** Signals from at least three satellites are needed to calculate a two-dimension position (latitude and longitude) and track movement. Four or more satellites allow for 3D fixes: latitude, longitude and altitude. Details such as speed, trip distance, and sunrise and sunset times can be included once a user’s position is set.

Eyes in the sky

** About 12,000 miles up, 24 GPS satellites orbit at speeds of about 7,000 mph. Each is powered by solar energy, equipped with backup batteries (in case of solar eclipse) and fitted with rocket boosters that keep them on track.

** The satellites weigh about a ton each and span 17 feet, with solar panels out.

** The first was launched in 1978. The full system of 24 was reached in 1994.

** Each satellite is built to last about a decade. Replacements are launched as needed.

** The defense department’s name for the GPS system is NAVSTAR.