Ellen Tsaprailis, November 2, 2021
Photo credit: Lindsay Ralph

Using Artificial Intelligence Tools to Protect Canadian Land with Conservation in Mind

With more than 700 species in Canada at risk of extinction, the aesthetic, economic and cultural value they provide could be lost. Carleton Biology Professor Joseph Bennett has received a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Alliance Grant of close to $1 million to develop tools and methods to help the government make more informed conservation decisions.

In year one of this five-year project titled, Prioritizing resources for conserving biodiversity in Canada, Bennett and his team—in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)—will produce user-friendly, artificial intelligence-based support apps for land acquisition, stewardship and monitoring, and develop methods that ensure the potential of these apps is fully realized.

“The first component of our work is designing apps to help them figure out where they want to buy new properties or make arrangements with land owners to protect land,” says Bennett. “We will also consult widely outside of our partner agencies to ensure that our tools are compatible with the needs and values of Indigenous land managers and local land trusts.”

Carleton University Biology Professor Joseph Bennett

These apps will help the agencies better take care of the properties chosen, but they also require a massive amount of information about the land to be able to make a significant impact on conservation. NCC’s Richard Schuster, Carleton Postdoctoral Research Fellow Jeff Hanson and Carleton’s Research Computing Services team, led by Andrew Shoenrock, have helped develop the online tools and make them more intuitive and user-friendly.

Bennett’s team—which includes Environmental and Interdisciplinary Science Professor Vivian Nguyen Biology Professors Lenore Fahrig and Steven Cooke, Schuster and Paul Smith (both of whom are Adjunct Research Professors)—will conduct critical research to help inform these conservation tools.

When deciding on buying land, agencies such as the NCC are looking at endangered species, the ecosystem, that Indigenous rights and values are properly accounted for as well as how to keep costs low and Bennett says that using artificial intelligence can help with the complicated decision-making process.

“These tools can help them optimize and figure out all the trade-offs they have to navigate. The map we are developing will give the desired output by entering the information you want and the map will change and highlight areas for the user,” says Bennett.

So far, Bennett and his team have nearly-completed apps on where to buy property, and how to take care of properties once they are purchased. Next year, a larger chunk of the funding will kick in and the team will head to the field to explore the issue of connectivity between the land and species that live there.

Bennett hopes the apps created will be used by more agencies and people interested in conservation. “I’d like them to be publicly used, publicly accessible and I would like our research to make useful change in Canada.

“Part of who we are is our beautiful nature and diversity of species. We want to take care of nature, which is like Canada’s own Sistine Chapel.”