Tech for Ranching

In 2019, the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) collaborated with the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group on a multi-year effort to better understand landowners’ attitudes and challenges with wildlife in Paradise Valley. A detailed report was produced and is available here. Recognizing the common need (and often pain) of livestock producers across Montana to co-exist with wildlife, the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group (UYWG) and MSU-Extension is now participating in a cooperative project to help local ranchers solve problems like livestock depredation, forage/space depredation and disease transmission using next generation AI and IoT technology.

Beginning spring 2021, preliminary field work using these tools will be conducted on eight Montana ranches to quantify direct and indirect losses of livestock and rangeland due to predation. In 2022-2025, strategies will be tested using both new technology (e.g. smart camera traps, collars, and drones) and old technology (guard dogs and range riders) to mitigate losses. During the same period, ranches will use the technology on their own terms (owning the data for themselves) to determine how it can be used to improve their bottom line.

The Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence are trillion dollar technology markets changing how people run anything from healthcare, homes, stores, factories, warehouses and cars. Often the media refers to such technology as being Smart. Smart Cars, Smart Homes, etc. Even conservation efforts are jumping on the bandwagon. And, farming, has cautiously been moving into the space. But it is rare to see ranching use cases that have successfully deployed IoT and AI to impact their bottom line.

Photography by Wes Overhold

Karakachan Guard Dogs

Some of the scenarios we are currently working on include:

Wildlife-Livestock Conflicts:

  • Livestock depredation (direct and indirect losses) by wild predators (e.g. wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions, and coyotes);

  • Livestock forage/space depredation by wild ungulates (e.g. elk, deer, feral swine, and wild pocket gophers, prairie dogs); and

  • Disease transmission between livestock and wildlife (e.g. elk, bison, bighorns, deer, feral swine, and mesopredators) such as brucellosis, tuberculosis, CWD, and pneumonia.

 

Secondary Benefits for Ranching Operations Include:

  • “Work from Anywhere” video monitoring of critical ranch operations

  • Location tracking of livestock, including but not limited to virtual fencing use cases

  • Security monitoring (e.g. poaching, tresspassing)

WHY?

Private working lands (65% of Montana’s 93 million acres) are more essential than ever in stabilizing land use, fighting climate change, and providing invaluable ecosystem services. Wildlife need the connected, open landscapes that are facilitated by private working lands (Gosnell, Haggerty, & Travis, 2007). However, across much of the western US, expanding wildlife populations, development, and land conversion places increasing pressure on private working lands by concentrating livestock and wildlife on a shrinking landscape, making conflict inevitable (Mosley & Mundinger, 2018; e.g., depredation, disease transmission, resource competition, etc.). These interactions disrupt operation, cause major agricultural losses, and substantial economic damage, which place owners of working land in opposition to wildlife and wildland protection (Harris, 2020; Macon 2020).

 

Minimizing wildlife conflicts is essential to both wildlife conservation and agriculture production.

                            

HOW?

 

Protecting livestock from predators and disease is a complex endeavor, and successful reduction of conflicts requires an analysis of the efficacy and economic efficiency of various techniques. The main goal of this project is to utilize developing technology within artificial intelligence (AI) that can be harnessed in modern, remotely deployed monitoring hardware, including trail cameras and unmanned aerial systems (drones), to provide proof-of-concept for its use in preventing wildlife/livestock conflict. We propose to evaluate if low-maintenance, scalable game cameras equipped with image recognition (smart cameras) and drones that use visual and thermal sensors can accurately classify images/thermal video and provide real-time alerts when animals that pose a risk are present on working lands. Real-time information on when and where wildlife is interacting with livestock would shift the focus of wildlife-livestock conflicts from compensation to prevention, which has major implications for production agriculture and wildlife conservation.

 

Future Needs: We seek to broaden the application of these techniques and to make them easy to integrate into a wide variety of management applications. Specifically, we hope to focus on:

 

  • Testing new smart cameras leveraging edge AI and internet of things (IoT) integrated devices on the ground and the latest in drone technology in the air (Beaver et al. 2020) to assess broad-scale adaptability and repeatability;

  • Characterizing thermal signatures for large land-dwelling mammal species and training models remotely (i.e., while deployed in the field), with particular emphasis on elk and grizzly bears; and

  • Integrating artificial intelligence and communication networks to streamline workflow for rapid, real-time multi-species detection and notification as compared to current technology;

  • Facilitating outreach to engage the broader community of landowners and managers in Montana with the study to provide peer-to-peer stakeholder knowledge exchange to successfully develop guidelines for adaptive and collaborative conflict reduction programs.

 

Where/When:

 

Montana, with focal sites in areas of concern related to grizzly bears, elk in brucellosis zones, and other select public and private lands where approval and focal overlap exist. Initial drone flights and deployment of game cameras will begin during the spring of 2021 to begin gathering machine learning data and establish protocol. Project research, data collection, and follow-up drone flights will continue in spring 2022

 

Expected benefits: Establishment of a reliable and cost-effective means to assess and manage wildlife populations in real time would provide a suite of practical benefits and a means of addressing further research questions for multiple species, including large carnivore-livestock conflict mitigation, feral swine control, disease surveillance, and ungulate monitoring.

 

Our vision is to empower a community of landowners, natural resource practitioners, and policy makers with the knowledge and tools necessary to develop a living methodology of effective and adaptive management techniques that will lead to stronger partnerships, more resilient ranches, and ultimately, better-connected landscapes.

 

 

Literature Cited:

Beaver, J.T., R.W. Baldwin, M. Messinger, C. Newbolt, S.S. Ditchkoff, and M.R. Silman. 2020. Evaluating the use of drones equipped with thermal imaging technology as an effective method for estimating wildlife. Wildlife Society Bulletin 44:434–443.

 

Gosnell, H. Haggerty, J. H., and Travis. W. R. 2006. Ranchland Ownership Change in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 1990–2001: Implications for Conservation. Society and Natural Resources, 19:8, 743-758.  https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920600801181

 

Harris, R. 2020. Literature review of livestock compensation programs: considering ways to assist livestock producers with grizzly bear conservation efforts in Montana. Western Landowners Alliance. Available online https://westernlandowners.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Review-of-livestock-compensation-programs-052620.pdf Accessed 8 Feb 2021.

 

Macon, D. 2020. Paying for the presence of predators: an evolving approach to compensating ranchers. Rangelands 42:2, 43-52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rala.2020.03.001

 

Mosley, J.C., and J.G. Mundinger. 2018. History and status of wild ungulate populations on the Northern Yellowstone Range. Rangelands 40:189-201.

5242 Highway 89 S

Livingston, MT 59047

upperyellowstone@gmail.com

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