Planet's June 2022 monthly mosaic of the grasslands and farms located in Sheridan County, Wyoming. © 2022, Planet Labs PBC. All Rights Reserved.
Curious Planeteer working to make the Earth's changes visible, accessible and actionable.

How the State of Wyoming is Using Planet Data to Preserve Western Rangelands


The sagebrush biome of the Western U.S. covers approximately 150 million acres, touches 13 states, and is home to 350 rare, threatened, and endangered species. But, this rich ecosystem has seen dramatic degradation and loss of sagebrush grasslands. A main culprit? Invasive species. 

In Wyoming, invasive grasses change the way the sagebrush ecosystem works, altering forage availability for wildlife and livestock and increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires, according to Dr. Brian Mealor, associate professor at the University of Wyoming and director of the Sheridan Research and Extension Center and the Institute for Managing Annual Grasses Invading Natural Ecosystems (IMAGINE). These invasive grasses are estimated to impact more than 50 million acres of rangeland.

“One of the challenges we have is being able to understand the distribution and severity of these [invasive] species across a landscape that is often remote, rapidly changing, and difficult terrain to get people into — being able to determine basically where the ‘bad guys’ are, and where the ‘good guys’ are, and doing it in a way that is dependable, consistent, and scalable to an extent that is meaningful and useful in these big landscapes,” explained Dr. Mealor.

Wyoming created IMAGINE, a diverse partnership of State and environmental agencies, to devise and implement more efficient and effective strategies for mitigating the negative impacts of invasive annual grasses on the sagebrush ecosystem. While this is important for the environment in and of itself, it also reduces adverse effects on landowners, recreationists, and state economies.

With 60-plus million acres in the state of Wyoming, the IMAGINE team turned to remote sensing to augment their ground data collection, leveraging Planet’s satellite data. “There’s no way that we’d have enough manpower to cover all of the ground. Satellite imagery gives us a first cut to figure out where we have issues, and how to begin to address that at a very strategic level,” said Ian Tator, statewide terrestrial habitat manager for Wyoming Game & Fish.

“At Planet, people are willing to roll up their sleeves, be very realistic about what’s happening, and try to evaluate and develop a product that’s going to help the state of Wyoming,” Dr. Mealor continued. “It’s a commitment that I’ve seen from the Planet team at a vastly different level from some of our previous partners — a willingness to put things through their paces to make sure that we are coming up with the best approach that combines our ground data with Planet’s satellite data and the technical expertise of the two teams. We’ve been really excited about this cooperation.”

Dr. Mealor said, “The tempo and cadence of Planet data collection were able to detect a signal of reduced target invasive annual grass cover significantly from one year to the next, where some of the other remote sensing imagery products did not show that change in plant cover at all. That really encouraged us to dig in more and see how we can refine this moving forward.” 

Slade Franklin, technical services manager with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, seconds Dr. Mealor’s sentiments, “We’ve talked about imagery for years. We looked at different tools, but to actually see the potential of fluctuations over a period of time on annual grasses and understand how climatic changes or environmental changes impact the movement of the invasive annual grasses — that was the aha moment.” 

Dr. Mealor says they’re on the path to using Planet’s satellite imagery to distinguish among individual species of grasses that some trained professionals in the field might have a difficult time differentiating. He said, “The success story is we’ve got momentum. We’re probably trying to do one of the most difficult tasks you can do with remotely sensed imagery in this iteration of the project.” 

Coming down the pike, Franklin sees an opportunity to plan treatments based on what the landscape needs are rather than just individual landowner and land manager needs. Dr. Mealor believes through use of Planet’s imagery they can expand IMAGINE’s reach outside of Wyoming to help other Western states wrangling with issues of invasive grasses. He says, “I think Planet is going to make us more efficient and more effective at scale.” 

Want to learn more about tackling invasive grasses with satellite data? Join Dr. Brian Mealor at Planet’s Explore23 Conference in Washington, D.C. on April 12-13th as he shares best practices for how his office uses Planet’s satellite data to benefit Western Rangelands. Be sure to register today to secure a spot!