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Researchers work to understand invasive plants in Idaho’s wildlands

Invasive plants are a problem across Idaho and the American West – species like cheatgrass not only steal water from native plants but become fuel for wildfire. Researchers have used satellite data to detect and map these species for decades, but satellite data are limited, said Megan Cattau, an assistant professor of human-environment systems in the College of Innovation and Design and director of the drone certificate program. Satellite data can be too coarse to capture detailed images of individual plants. It’s difficult to detect invasive species that are interspersed with native species.

Cattau and her Boise State team of graduate and undergraduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and research technicians used drones in a pilot study in an area south of Kuna, Idaho. The drones, which can fly on demand and collect finer imagery, are helping the team map invasive species like Russian thistle and bur buttercup as well as cheatgrass, using information about each species’ distinct growth patterns.

“We can’t combat invasive species if we don’t know where they’re located,” Cattau said. “Drone technology is allowing massive improvements in resource monitoring.”

The data she collects will have several applications, she said, including research into the interactions between invasive and native plants and invasives and fire, as well as management that aims to mitigate invasive species.

Her team is now working with the Idaho Army National Guard, the City of Boise, and the Bureau of Land Management to identify new study sites.

Cattau’s research is one of several GEM3 projects taking place at Boise State, University of Idaho, and Idaho State University. GEM3 (Genes by Environment, Modeling, Mechanisms, Mapping) is a $20 million statewide National Science Foundation EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) initiative to discover how genetic mechanisms predict organisms’ adaptations to changing environments.