The evolution of mapping habitat for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina): A comparison of photo-interpreted, Landsat-based, and lidar-based habitat maps

Remote Sensing of Environment
By: , and 



Wildlife habitat mapping has evolved at a rapid pace over the last few decades. Beginning with simple, often subjective, hand-drawn maps, habitat mapping now involves complex species distribution models (SDMs) using mapped predictor variables derived from remotely sensed data. For species that inhabit large geographic areas, remote sensing technology is often essential for producing range wide maps. Habitat monitoring for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina), whose geographic covers about 23 million ha, is based on SDMs that use Landsat Thematic Mapper imagery to create forest vegetation data layers using gradient nearest neighbor (GNN) methods. Vegetation data layers derived from GNN are modeled relationships between forest inventory plot data, climate and topographic data, and the spectral signatures acquired by the satellite. When used as predictor variables for SDMs, there is some transference of the GNN modeling error to the final habitat map.

Recent increases in the use of light detection and ranging (lidar) data, coupled with the need to produce spatially accurate and detailed forest vegetation maps have spurred interest in its use for SDMs and habitat mapping. Instead of modeling predictor variables from remotely sensed spectral data, lidar provides direct measurements of vegetation height for use in SDMs. We expect a SDM habitat map produced from directly measured predictor variables to be more accurate than one produced from modeled predictors.

We used maximum entropy (Maxent) SDM modeling software to compare predictive performance and estimates of habitat area between Landsat-based and lidar-based northern spotted owl SDMs and habitat maps. We explored the differences and similarities between these maps, and to a pre-existing aerial photo-interpreted habitat map produced by local wildlife biologists. The lidar-based map had the highest predictive performance based on 10 bootstrapped replicate models (AUC = 0.809 ± 0.011), but the performance of the Landsat-based map was within acceptable limits (AUC = 0.717 ± 0.021). As is common with photo-interpreted maps, there was no accuracy assessment available for comparison. The photo-interpreted map produced the highest and lowest estimates of habitat area, depending on which habitat classes were included (nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat = 9962 ha, nesting habitat only = 6036 ha). The Landsat-based map produced an estimate of habitat area that was within this range (95% CI: 6679–9592 ha), while the lidar-based map produced an area estimate similar to what was interpreted by local wildlife biologists as nesting (i.e., high quality) habitat using aerial imagery (95% CI: 5453–7216). Confidence intervals of habitat area estimates from the SDMs based on Landsat and lidar overlapped.

We concluded that both Landsat- and lidar-based SDMs produced reasonable maps and area estimates for northern spotted owl habitat within the study area. The lidar-based map was more precise and spatially similar to what local wildlife biologists considered spotted owl nesting habitat. The Landsat-based map provided a less precise spatial representation of habitat within the relatively small geographic confines of the study area, but habitat area estimates were similar to both the photo-interpreted and lidar-based maps.

Photo-interpreted maps are time consuming to produce, subjective in nature, and difficult to replicate. SDMs provide a framework for efficiently producing habitat maps that can be replicated as habitat conditions change over time, provided that comparable remotely sensed data are available. When the SDM uses predictor variables extracted from lidar data, it can produce a habitat map that is both accurate and useful at large and small spatial scales. In comparison, SDMs using Landsat-based data are more appropriate for large scale analyses of amounts and general spatial patterns of habitat at regional scales.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title The evolution of mapping habitat for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina): A comparison of photo-interpreted, Landsat-based, and lidar-based habitat maps
Series title Remote Sensing of Environment
DOI 10.1016/j.rse.2014.09.025
Volume 156
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Coop Res Unit Seattle
Description 13 p.
First page 361
Last page 373