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Protect
wetlands through land use planning, acquisition and wetland protection laws.
Restore
wetlands to improve wetland health and function and by re-establishing destroyed wetlands.
Explore
wetlands by getting your feet wet and learning about their wonders.

Natural Heritage Inventory Overview

The Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory program is part of an international network of NHI programs. The defining characteristic of this network, and the feature that unites the programs, is the use of a standard methodology for collecting, processing, and managing data on the occurrences of natural biological diversity. This network of data centers was established, and is currently coordinated by, The Nature Conservancy, an international non-profit organization.

Natural Heritage Inventory programs focus on rare species, natural communities, and other rare elements of nature. When NHI programs are established, one of the first tasks facing the staff is to consolidate existing information on the status and location of rare elements. Before proceeding, the NHI program must determine what elements warrant "tracking" and which are more common. Similar to most states, Wisconsin biologists had a general idea of which species in the better-studied taxonomic groups (e.g., mammals, birds, and vascular plants) were rare or declining. For less-studied groups such as macroinvertebrates, the process of assembling the list of species to track and gathering the data were quite dynamic. Initially, NHI staff cast a wide net, collecting data on many species from existing sources (e.g., scientific literature, field guides, books, maps, and museum collections) as well as from direct contact with experts throughout the state. As more data were gathered, it was clear that some species were more common than originally thought and the NHI program stopped collecting data on them. Thus, the list of which elements are tracked, the NHI Working List, changes over time as species' populations change (both up and down) and as our knowledge about their status and distribution increases. This evolution continues today, with the NHI Working List typically going through several revisions a year. The most current Wisconsin Natural Heritage Working List for the State of Wisconsin as of this writing (dated December 2001) is available through the NHI office.

In general, there are two approaches to surveying biodiversity: (1) those focused on locating occurrences of particular elements, and (2) those focused on assessing the components of a particular area. The latter approach employs a “top down” analysis that begins with an assessment of the natural communities and aquatic features present, their relative quality and condition, the surrounding landscape pattern, and current land use and results in the identification of future species-oriented surveys. This approach, commonly referred to as “coarse filter-fine filter,” concentrates inventory efforts on those sites most likely to contain target species. It also allows sites to be placed in a larger, landscape context for more broad applications of ecosystem management principles.

The NHI methodology for organizing and storing data is actually a system of three inter-related data storage techniques: structured manual information files, topographic map files, and a computer database that integrates the various information. The computer component, known as the Biological & Conservation Data System (BCD), was developed by The Nature Conservancy for use by the Heritage Network. It is a sophisticated relational database management application built upon the Advanced Revelation application environment. Owing to the diversity and complexity of the information managed--from species taxonomy and ecosystem classification to real estate transactions--the system contains 36 database files and more than 2,000 information fields. The data in the Biological & Conservation Data System populate the NHI Geographic Information System.

Methods of Inventory

The following is a description of standard NHI methods for conducting NHI inventories. Any step may be modified, dropped, or repeated as appropriate to the project.

File Compilation: Involves obtaining existing records of natural communities, rare plants and animals, and aquatic features for the study area and surrounding lands and waters from the Biological & Conservation Data system, housed within DNR's Natural Heritage Inventory. Other databases with potentially useful information may also be queried, such as: forest stand/compartment reconnaissance, which is available for many public agency owned lands; the DNR Surface Water Resources series for summaries of the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of lakes and streams (statewide, by county); the Milwaukee Public Museum's statewide Herp Atlas; museum/herbarium collections for various target taxa; soil surveys; and the fish distribution database (by watershed, WDNR-Research).

Additional data sources are sought out as warranted by the location and character of the site, and the purpose of the project. Manual files maintained within the Bureau of Endangered Resources contain information on a variety of subjects relevant to the inventory of natural features and are frequently useful.

Literature Review: Field biologists involved with a given project consult basic references on the natural history and ecology of the region within which the study area is situated. This can both broaden and sharpen the focus of the investigator.

Target Elements: Lists of target elements including natural communities, rare plants and animals, and aquatic features are developed for the study area. Field inventory is then scheduled for the times when these elements are most identifiable or active.

Map Compilation: USGS 7.5 minute topographic quadrangles serve as the base maps for field survey and often yield useful clues regarding access, extent of area to be surveyed, developments, and the presence and location of special features.

WDNR wetland maps consist of aerial photographs upon which all wetlands down to a scale of 2 or 5 acres have been delineated. Each wetland polygon is classified based on characteristics of vegetation, soils, and water depth.

Ecoregion maps are useful for comprehensive projects covering large geographic areas such as counties, national and state forests, and major watersheds. These maps integrate basic ecological information on climate, landforms, geology, soils, and vegetation. As these maps evolve, they should become increasingly useful, even for relatively small, localized projects.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are increasing our ability to integrate spatial information on lands and waters of the state and are becoming a basic resource tool for the efficient and comprehensive planning of surveys and the analysis of their results.

Aerial photographs: These provide information on a study area not available from maps, paper files, or computer printouts. Examination of both current and historical photos, taken over a period of decades, can be especially useful in revealing changes in the environment over time.

Original Land Survey Records: The surveyors who laid out the rectilinear Town-Range-Section grid across the state in the mid-nineteenth century recorded trees by species and size at all section corners and along section lines. These notes also record general impressions of vegetation, soil fertility, and topography, and note aquatic features, wetlands, and recent disturbances such as windthrow and fire. As these surveys typically occurred prior to extensive settlement of the state by Europeans, they constitute a valuable record of conditions prior to extensive modification of the landscape by European technologies and settlement patterns.

Interviews: Interviews with scientists, naturalists, land managers or others knowledgeable about the area to be surveyed often yield information not available in other formats.

Analysis of Compiled Information: The compiled information is analyzed to identify inventory priorities, determine needed expertise, and develop budgets.

Meetings: Planning and coordination meetings are held with all participants to provide an overview of the project, share information, identify special equipment needs, coordinate schedules, and assign landowner contact responsibilities. Team development may be a part of this step.

Aerial Reconnaissance: Fly-overs are desirable for large sites, and for small sites where contextual issues are especially important. When possible, this should be done both before and after ground level work. Flights are scheduled for those times when significant features of the study area are most easily identified and differentiated. They are also useful for observing the general lay of the land, vegetation patterns and patch sizes, aquatic features, infrastructure, and disturbances within and around the site.

Last revised: Wed, 20 Jun 2012 17:20:57 CDT