Introducing the NatureServe Network Modeling Centers

As stewards of the best empirical biodiversity data on the species and habitats of the Western Hemisphere, NatureServe network staff are keenly aware of how inadequate support for acquiring and managing that knowledge can limit the role and influence of science in decision-making processes.

But because the era of tightening local budgets is also one of advanced computing power, 14 U.S. network members and NatureServe have banded together to establish the NatureServe Network Modeling Centers (NNMC). The charge for this voluntary consortium is to guide the development of two products that enable network members and other partners to produce high-quality maps of modeled species distribution consistently and reliably.

The first of these modeled maps will show the potential distribution of a species protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Roughly equivalent to a modeled Section 7 map, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state regulatory agencies, and planning entities could plausibly use them in infrastructure development planning while increasing the levels of confidence about how and where proposed actions would modify the size or quality of on-site habitat. Because these maps will indicate only the potential for species occurrences without revealing any sensitive data, NNMC expects to produce as large a set of them as possible and distribute them widely without restriction.

The second smaller and more detailed set of modeled maps will show the places where federally listed species are known or highly likely to occur, along with places designated as critical habitat or recovery areas. This product will include only the areas with highest likelihood for a species to occur—and if all or selected known occurrences are historic or deemed unlikely to be extant or restorable, they could be excluded from the map. Accompanied by detailed tabular information on known occurrences, probability of occurrences, and relevant recovery plans or critical habitat designations, these maps will cover a smaller subset of species and circulate under subscription or licensing agreements to protect the sensitive data used in developing them.

The first order of business, of course, is the development of model standards, a task that two teams drawn from NNMC’s modeling centers—that is, programs that have volunteered to contribute capacity to the effort—will take up shortly. In addition to NatureServe staff, the preliminary participants will include representatives from

·       Alaska Natural Heritage Program

·       Alabama Natural Heritage Program

·       California Natural Heritage Program

·       Colorado Natural Heritage Program

·       Florida Natural Areas Inventory

·       Michigan Natural Features Inventory

·       Montana Natural Heritage Program

·       New Mexico Natural Heritage Program

·       New York Natural Heritage Program

·       Oklahoma Natural Heritage Program

·       Oregon Biodiversity Information Center

·       Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program

·       Virginia Natural Heritage Program

·       Wyoming Natural Heritage Program

In addition to these Modeling Centers, NNMC’s formal structure accommodates the involvement of two other levels of participation.

Participating programs are NatureServe network members interested in using Modeling Center products that currently lack the capacity to develop their own models.

Associates are out-of-network partners like invited university centers or institutes that can assist in developing species distribution or other biodiversity models. Associates’ participation requires sponsorship by a network member and agreement to the effort’s terms of reference.