Unmanned aerial vehicle-based rangeland monitoring: Examining a century of vegetation changes

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Rangelands comprise a large component of the terrestrial land surface and provide critical ecosystem services, but they are degrading rapidly. Long-term rangeland monitoring with detailed, nonsubjective, quantitative observations can be expensive and difficult to maintain over time. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide an alternative means to gather unbiased and consistent datasets with similar details to field-based monitoring data. Comparing summer 2017 UAV images with long-term plot measurements, we demonstrate that rangeland vegetation cover changes can be accurately quantified and estimate an increase in total absolute shrub/subshrub cover from 34% in 1935 to N 80% in 2017 in central Arizona.We recommend UAV image-based rangeland monitoring for land managers interested in a few specific and dominant species, such as the foundation species, indicator species, or invasive species that require targeted monitoring. Land managers can identify and continuously monitor trends in rangeland condition, health, and degradation related to specific land use policies and management strategies.

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