Standardising ecological protocols for NRM monitoring

Man taking a photo of a fenceline in the outback.

TERN is working with the Australian Government to co-design a suite of ecological monitoring protocols alongside a standardised exchange standard to support better access to, and reuse of, data from environmental monitoring projects across Australia.

The new protocols build on TERN’s data aggregation systems and well-tested survey protocols. TERN has produced a set of modular methods implemented at over 900 monitoring plots Australia-wide since 2012. A modular approach to the collecting protocols will enable individual projects to collect information that is relevant to their project, whilst not requiring projects to collect information beyond the scope of their project needs.

Standardised data collection protocols
The project will ensure NRM service providers and ecologists collecting field data have ready access to comprehensive instructions for a suite of standardised monitoring protocols, and be able to use web-based applications in the field to enter data and take photographs.

The standardised protocols will assist land managers, ecologists, and environmental consultants to collect consistent and comparable monitoring data.

The entire process from designing monitoring projects, conducting the monitoring, managing and accessing the data, and analysing the effectiveness of NRM outcomes/impact assessments, will be more streamlined, consistent, automated and robust.

Standardised data collection complemented by FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) data sharing will help create transparent and streamlined ecological monitoring data that are compatible across Natural Resource Management projects, regions and jurisdictions, enabling robust decision-making.

1. Improve consistency in data recording to ensure data generated from NRM investments are compatible across individual projects, regions and jurisdictions.

2. Strengthen the evidence base for assessing and quantifying NRM outcomes.

3. Support better access to, and re-use of, ecological survey data for a variety of purposes, including adaptive management, research and policy making.

4. Identify current best practice monitoring protocols and data collection tools.

5. Communicate effectively to facilitate engagement with all stakeholder groups.

6. Develop tools (app) and systems for effective data management.

The project will produce

1. A set of standardised ecological monitoring protocols for Australia, informed by experts in the field, will be available through TERNs national ecosystem research infrastructure.

2. Accurate and efficient data collection and data dissemination for Australia’s ecological data collected NRM projects.

The modules being developed

Currently, 25 modules are being developed. The modules are designed to cater for the broad scope of NRM projects based on the relevant desired outcomes. The modules are:

  • Plot selection and layout
  • Plot description
  • Floristics
  • Plant tissue vouchering
  • Cover
  • Basal area
  • Coarse woody debris
  • Photopoints
  • Condition
  • Soils
  • Fire
  • Recruitment
  • Vegetation mapping
  • Opportunistic observations
  • Interventions
  • Camera traps
  • Targeted surveys
  • Vertebrate fauna
  • Invertebrate fauna

The modules specifically designed for pest fauna monitoring are:

  • Aerial count surveys
  • Ground count surveys
  • Sign-based surveys
  • Control activities
  • Camera traps
  • Opportunistic observations


Man walking through the trees on a hill.

Other project components

In parallel with the development of standard pest fauna and ecosystem survey data collection protocols, the Australian Government is working with TERN to develop a standardised data exchange standard to support better access to, and reuse of, data from environmental monitoring and surveillance projects. The Australian Government is implementing a nationally federated repository to store and share environmental data for use by proponents, regulators and the community.

Overall, the entire process from designing monitoring projects, conducting the monitoring, managing and accessing the data, and analysing the effectiveness of NRM outcomes/impact assessments, will be more streamlined, consistent, automated and robust.

The Ecological Protocols Project leverages TERN’s core work of the Ecosystem Surveillance platform

Man standing in the outback using his mobile phone.

Frequently asked questions

TERN protocols are written as step-by-step instructional guides, providing the surveyor with all the information required to implement the protocols to the specified standard. The instructions and guidelines provided, together with the field collection app, mean that the data is not open to interpretation by the surveyor. TERN protocols are considered fully repeatable, meaning any semi-experienced ecologist or land manager should be able to pick-up the manual and the app, and conduct the survey according to the protocols with no error.

Yes, the protocols are being written to be adaptable to all environments and vegetation communities covered by the 54 National Landcare Program Management Units across Australia. Whilst being standardised, the protocols will allow some flexibility to cater for special environments, for example rocky escarpments where survey transects or camera trap arrays may need some alterations to allow safe and effective installation.

The first stage of the project is to kick-off awareness raising and identify opportunities for RLP providers, land managers, and ecologists to be involved in the project. In 2022 we held workshops to engage interested people, that aimed to identify the best-practice monitoring protocols currently used, and assess their suitability for RLP projects. From there, we started developing the protocols and commence initial field trials in different environments targeting the different vertebrate pest species. Further refinements to the protocols will be conducted into the first half of 2023 as the app is developed and refined. There will be more opportunities for stakeholder involvement, once the modules are drafted.  In 2023, once everything is prepared, tested, and running smoothly, NRM practitioners will be trained on how to implement the protocols, and training materials (including instructional videos) will be developed and made available to practitioners.

NRM regional representatives will be kept informed on the projects progress via the National Landcare Program newsletters (RLP Bulletin).

For now, the project is focused on feral cats, foxes, wild dogs, pigs, rabbits, goats, and deer (multiple deer species). The project has a minor component identifying the existing monitoring methods used for camels and wild horses as a first step, but no protocols are expected for these species just yet.

The protocols, and associated data collection app, will be ready to use in the second half of 2023.

No, the project is only focusing on developing ecological monitoring protocols to collate data on presence, absence, abundance, and the environmental disturbances the vertebrate pest species are causing. The protocols are likely to incorporate protocols for monitoring habitat damage, and recovery as an outcome of managing the pest species, but not the actual control and management strategies. A module has been drafted than enables NRM service providers to record pest fauna observations and removal counts whilst they are conducting control activities. 

Almost all modules include several different levels of protocols to cater for the specific project requirements. For example, the standard protocol collects the minimum data required, whilst the enhanced protocol collects a greater level of detail. For example, the enhanced protocol may require the same method but with increased replicates. Users will be guided in the planning phase to determine which protocol to select. The first time the monitoring survey is required it is generally recommended the enhanced protocol is followed. However in subsequent seasons or years, the standard protocol could be followed, before again repeating the enhanced version later once change is detected. 

Service providers will be given access to the modules around March 2023 as we understand being able to read through the protocols and understand how they work will be important to assist planning for new and upcoming projects and funding bids. By March, the documents will be close to near final versions, however TERN will continue to field test and make refinements to both the modules (written documents), and the app to make sure everything is as clear and streamlined as possible. 

The app is a progressive web app, and designed to work on both Android and iOS (Apple) tablets and mobile phones. Some modules will be easier to use on a tablet, but a mobile phone is sufficient. We recommend any ‘modern’ device – no more than a few years old, to make sure the software is compatible.  Mobile data is not required as the app can pre-populate data (and drop-down lists) before you leave connectivity in the office/home, and it will store data whilst out in the field, ready for upload with your return to connectivity. 

The Biodiversity Data Repository (where all data is sent after collection via the app and curation) has internal an internal process for obfuscating data before it is made visible. There are different user and permission levels. The data is safe.

Yes! Initially, training materials will be provided around March 2023 when NRM regions start planning their future projects for post July-2023. These materials and videos will include an overview of the modules, and provide guidance on what modules suit different types of projects and NRM outcomes. Case study examples will be provided, with clear step-by-step processes outlining why the modules were selected. These materials and videos will include a focus on planning, scheduling, resourcing and costing the activities required.

It is envisaged that later in 2023 in-person training courses will be provided. These courses will be catering for on-ground staff and ecologists implementing the surveys. As the project developers additional materials will become available. 

The Australian Government envisage multiple avenues to provide ongoing support, and understand that a ‘IT Helpdesk’ style of assistance will be required, covering both the app and data curation portals from a tech perspective, but as well as ‘ecologist support’ where people experienced in implementing the surveys, using the equipment, working in different ecosystems, are able to assist. Regular updates to training materials (including videos) and self-help guides are also planned. 

This website will be updated as the project develops.  To be kept updated, please complete the ‘contact us’ form below.

As the funding body, the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, will own the data collected. Data licensing under Creative Commons will clearly state and acknowledge the organisation that collected the data, and depending on the type of future use of the data, attribution will be required. 

Contact us

  • Standard Environmental Monitoring
  • Standard Pest Fauna Monitoring
  • Remote Sensing Cal/Val Handbook
  • AusPlots Survey Protocols Manual