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Analyzing Wildlife Habitat with Google Earth

Originally appears in the Winter 2009-2010 issue

Habitat loss is the most significant threat to wildlife around the world and a driving force behind the extinction of species. Most of the loss is due to the expansion of human activities into natural areas, such as the conversion of wetlands into agricultural fields, or the replacement of forests or grasslands with suburban development. Yet there is reason to be optimistic about the ability of individuals and communities to restore habitat for wildlife, especially in backyards, public green spaces and riparian areas along streams and lakes. Habitat loss and fragmentation are often the result of many small and seemingly disconnected decisions that, together, lead to major changes in landscape. By considering the larger ramifications of these small decisions and restoring wildlife habitat in schoolyards and local green spaces, we can increase the area of habitat available to local wildlife and create valuable links among remaining patches of high-quality natural habitat.

The imaging of landscapes by remote sensing, such as by satellite and aerial photography, is an important tool by which conservationists can monitor changes in landscape over time. Such images provide a wide-angle perspective as well as local detail for use in “analyses of water quality, ecosystem health, wildlife habitat, land-cover assessments and other land management issues.”1 For wildlife biologists, satellite images are useful in evaluating habitat quality and identifying key areas to target for the conservation of rare species. Satellite images can be obtained from a variety of government and non-governmental organizations; but Google Earth provides free access to satellite imagery. Students can virtually explore the world with Google Earth, as images are now available for most areas of the globe.

This article presents three classroom lessons for Grades 5-6 that help students understand conservation at a landscape scale. Part of a larger 12-week curriculum,2 the lessons are a cohesive sequence that has students using Google Earth to analyze land cover, classify and quantify habitat types and suggest ways they might improve their schoolyard wildlife habitat. In the first lesson, students consider the habitat requirements of large cats (Panthera) and use a variety of Google Earth tools to explore habitats of large cats at sites around the world. Large cats are chosen because they are rare, charismatic species that excite students and stimulate imagination. In the next two lessons, students analyze wildlife habitat in their schoolyard and in a nearby protected area, such as a state or national park. They learn the terminology of land-cover classes and make decisions about which classes apply to their schoolyard and protected area. Each lesson is framed by a focus question and begins with prior-knowledge questions that allow students to express their ideas and begin thinking about the new material in the lesson.

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Dawn Tanner is a PhD candidate in the Conservation Biology Program at the University of Minnesota. She created the Taking Action Opportunities (TAO) curriculum for environmental education with partnership and support from MN DNR/MN Project WILD, Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, Afton-Lakeland Elementary School and Afton State Park.