Glitch puts animals at risk

Glitch puts animals at risk

BY DONNA YOUNG

The existence of 99 protected species was jeopardized when a programming error went undetected by the Pennsylvania Conservation and Natural Resources Department for nearly 16 months.

The Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory system tracks 1,255 rare animals, plants and ecological communities. County, state and federal agencies use it to tell if proposed development projects could harm or disrupt threatened or endangered species and their habitats.

Developers must submit an inquiry to the conservation department for processing through the PNDI system when they apply for a construction permit.

If the system identifies a conflict, developers must resolve matters through the Pennsylvania field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or one of the commonwealth's fish and wildlife offices. The agencies review the issues and negotiate with developers to modify projects if necessary.

But from April 1999 to August 2000, PNDI was not properly identifying areas of conflict. As a result, the state issued development permits for locations where threatened and endangered species live or travel. PNDI processed 13,113 inquiries during the period when it was not working correctly.

Sign of trouble

Carole Copeyon, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species specialist, said she suspected a problem with the system when the number of project review requests her office received dropped sharply.

'Our office, which only has three endangered species specialists, does about 1,500 field reviews a year,' Copeyon said. 'During that 16 months, I only got about four or five calls for species on our list. I knew something had to be wrong.'

There are 17 species in Pennsylvania listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered. Most of Pennsylvania's protected species are on the state's rare species list.

Copeyon said the state's Fish and Boat Commission, Game Commission and Forestry Bureau also received fewer calls about possible conflicts during the 16-month time period.

Copeyon's suspicions were confirmed when a Pennsylvania Transportation Department employee alerted her to a potential conflict.

The transportation employee had attended an environmental awareness training seminar Copeyon taught. As part of the seminar, Copeyon took class members to a known bog turtle habitat. The federal government officially deemed the bog turtle as threatened and endangered in 1997.

Weeks after the seminar, the transportation employee was reviewing a road construction site that the PNDI system identified as having no conflicts.

The construction site, however, was the same location where Copeyon had taken her class to see the bog turtle habitat.

'At that point we started really questioning the system,' she said. 'We decided it was time to do our own investigation. We started sending through sample inquiries and found many of them coming up as negative when we knew they should have shown a conflict.'

The state traced the system problem back to a series of events during the spring of 1999.
In April 1999, the PNDI data manager, who oversaw the system, left his position and the state did not replace him.

Jean Fike, ecologist and PNDI coordinator, said the state had put a freeze on filling the position.

The PNDI project is a partnership between the conservation department and two nonprofit organizations: the Nature Conservancy and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

The state funds the project, but there are only two Forestry Bureau employees now working with the system on a part-time basis, according to officials.

At about the same time the data manager left, the state moved its database from a mainframe system to a Web application. The state contracted with Transfer Technology of Harrisburg, Pa., to design the app.

The app resides on a 733-MHz Dell PowerEdge 2300 server with 128M of RAM.

Last-second effort

Just before the system went online, Fish and Wildlife and the state's Fish and Boat Commission sought to increase the buffer zones for 99 high-risk species.

Brett Brillinger, operations forester, said the PNDI system extracts data from the Nature Conservancy's biodiversity database (BCD), which has positive values for latitudinal and longitudinal information.

'In the transfer process the data coming out of BCD was corrupted,' Brillinger said.
Brillinger said the longitudinal information was entered into the PNDI system with negative values, and therefore decreased the buffer zones.

'We still got hits in places where the exact points were, just not for the entire buffer zone,' he said.

Brillinger said once the problem with the system was identified it was easily fixed.
In late February, the state re-ran all of the 13,113 inquiries through the system and came up with 1,893 hits, or areas of conflict, that had not previously been identified.

But Fike said the hits might not be completely accurate.

'The information in the database is ever changing and evolving,' Fike said. 'What might have been true during the time period the system was not working, might not be true now. Sometimes critters move from place to place. But the only thing we could do is run the inquiries through again and try to cover some of the places that should have been checked previously and make sure they are getting checked now.'

Copeyon said the problem also stemmed from the conservation department relying too heavily on the PNDI system.

'When the system works, it's an excellent system,' Copeyon said. 'But it's not the end-all. Just because the system is telling us that there is not a conflict does not mean that there is not an endangered species in the area.'

Fike said the conservation department plans to upgrade the system to a geographic information system.

'This is still maybe one or two years down the road,' she said. 'We are in the process of trying to secure a state grant now. But with a GIS system we will be able to conduct more sophisticated searches. A GIS system will be able to not only take into account the types of species, but the types of development involved as well. We can get a better picture of things with a GIS system. But we have to get the funding first.'

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