National Park Service


Date of this Version



Natural Resource Report NPS/NGPN/NRR 2010/186 / NPS 920/101513, March 2010: xiii, 115 pages

Published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Natural Resource Program Center, Fort Collins, Colorado

Also available at:

Please cite this publication as:

Gitzen, R. A., M. Wilson, J. Brumm, M. Bynum, J. Wrede, J. J. Millspaugh, and K. J. Paintner. 2010. Northern Great Plains Network vital signs monitoring plan. Natural Resource Report NPS/NGPN/NRR—2010/186. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.


United States government work. Public domain material.


Executive Summary

The condition of natural resources in parks and other units of the National Park Service (NPS) is fundamental to this agency’s mission to manage park resources “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Park managers are increasingly confronted with complex and challenging resource management issues and need a broad-based understanding of the status and trends of park resources for the long-term protection of park ecosystems. The National Park Service has initiated a long-term ecological “Vital Signs” monitoring program to provide the minimum infrastructure needed to track the overall condition of natural resources in parks and to provide early warning of situations that require intervention. The focus of the program is on assessing status and trends at the level of individual parks, with broader regional or national inference a secondary goal when feasible. This multi-disciplinary monitoring program will create broad applications for management decision-making and park planning, increase our knowledge of park ecosystems, and promote public understanding of park resources.

To facilitate collaboration and information sharing among parks with similar natural resource issues, and to obtain economies of scale in inventory and monitoring, the NPS organized the more than 270 parks with significant natural resources into 32 ecoregional Networks. The Northern Great Plains Inventory and Monitoring Network (NGPN) includes 13 park units in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and eastern Montana. The Network includes Agate Fossil Beds, Devils Tower, Jewel Cave, and Scotts Bluff National Monuments (AGFO, DETO, JECA, and SCBL); Fort Laramie, Fort Union Trading Post, and Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Sites (FOLA, FOUS, and KNRI); Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wind Cave National Parks (BADL, THRO, and WICA); Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR); Niobrara National Scenic River (NIOB); and Mount Rushmore National Memorial (MORU). The NGPN monitoring program is designed to complement, not replace, existing park and other agency monitoring programs. Funding for the program supports a core of professional Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) staff who conduct the day-to-day activities of the Network. The core staff collaborates with staffs from the 13 parks and other programs and agencies to implement an integrated long-term program for monitoring high-priority Vital Signs.

The program is designed to ensure that monitoring addresses critical information needs of park managers and produces ecologically relevant and scientifically credible data that are accessible to park managers, planners, and other key audiences. The monitoring program will leverage its funding through collaborative partnerships with other programs, agencies, and academia. This monitoring plan, the result of a multi-year investment in program development, is the foundation of the NGPN’s monitoring program.

The first planning steps involved compiling and reviewing relevant scientific information, conducting detailed park scoping to identify the most important resources and issues for each park, and assessing current monitoring by parks and other programs to prioritize gaps in current monitoring and identify opportunities for integrating information across programs. Chapter 1 and associated appendices summarize the results of these scoping efforts and provide an overview of the NGPN parks. Chapter 1 also summarizes the policy and management context for the Network’s monitoring program, including its goals and broad objectives.

The second step was to develop conceptual ecological models of the predominant ecosystems associated with Network parks (Chapter 2), including key ecosystem drivers, stressors, and processes. In addition to helping prioritize monitoring objectives, these models will help interpret and communicate monitoring results to park management, our scientific partners, park visitors, and the public. Using the results of the early planning and design work, Network staff, other NPS experts, and regional scientists ranked and prioritized potential Vital Signs. The result is a list of high-priority Vital Signs (Chapter 3) that will be monitored by the NGPN, park staff, or collaborating programs and agencies. The NGPN will use existing programs and data to address many Vital Signs to help put I&M-collected data into context and to leverage the core Network funding and staff.

Chapter 4 provides an overview of how Vital Signs sampling locations are chosen and includes the revisit schedule for sampling each location through time (i.e., sample design). The Network will use data collected from probability samples or censuses (for remote sensing protocols) when possible. For expensive monitoring limited to one or two locations per park we will use nonprobabilistically selected index sites; supplemental sampling and model-based inference will be needed to estimate park-wide trends in these cases. Where possible, sampling for Vital Signs will be co-located in space and time to improve efficiency and depth of ecological understanding.

Monitoring protocols detail how data are to be collected, managed, analyzed, and reported, often through collaboration with other programs. Over the next several years, Network staff and collaborators will develop 12 monitoring protocols (Chapter 5) that address Vital Signs for which staff will play a lead role in field data collection as well as high-priority Vital Signs (e.g. air quality) being monitored by other programs. Of the 12 protocols, the Network’s top priorities focus on plant community/vegetation composition and structure, and water quality.

What are Vital Signs?

Vital Signs are a subset of physical, chemical, and biological elements and processes of park ecosystems selected to represent the overall health or condition of park resources, known or hypothesized effects of stressors, or elements that have important human values.

Goals of Vital Signs Monitoring

Determine the status and trends in selected indicators of the condition of park ecosystems to allow managers to make better informed decisions and to work more effectively with other agencies and individuals for the benefit of park resources

Provide early warning of abnormal conditions of selected resources to help develop effective mitigation measures and reduce costs of management

Provide data to better understand the dynamic nature and condition of park ecosystems and to provide reference points for comparisons with other, altered environments

Provide data to meet certain legal and Congressional mandates related to natural resource protection and visitor enjoyment

Provide a means of measuring progress toward performance goals