About the Landscape Explorer & FAQ

The Landscape Explorer is a collaborative effort created to help communicate how grass and shrublands in the American West are changing over time.


Mapping products on Landscape Explorer were developed by the University of Montana in Partnership with Working Lands for Wildlife, Montana NRCS, and Intermountain West Joint Venture. Nvidia provided support through their Academic Hardware Grant Program.



Why did you create this mapping tool?

Our landscapes are changing. Some of those changes happen quickly (large, suburban residential or industrial development projects) while others unfold over decades (woody plant encroachment or expansion of row-crop agriculture). This project reveals these changes, especially those slow yet significant transformations that are difficult to see in our day-to-day lives. We developed this map to visually communicate how native grasslands and shrublands in the Great Plains and the western United States are being fragmented and lost. Providing the public and land managers with a tool that uses historical imagery to visualize how changes like woody encroachment, agricultural conversion, and residential subdivision are reshaping our landscapes is a powerful communication strategy that can overcome our natural inability to perceive slow-moving environmental changes and to help promote conversations about how we can conserve these imperiled landscapes.  

Who created the map?

The map was created by the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) Science Team at the University of Montana. Housed within the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group (NTSG), the WLFW team develops science products and performs analyses to support conservation across grasslands and shrublands in the western United States. Funding for the mapping project was provided by Montana Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Intermountain West Joint Venture, and Working Lands for Wildlife. NVIDIA supported this work with an academic hardware grant. Questions regarding the creation of the map can be directed to the University of Montana team.

How was the historical imagery map created?

We primarily used aerial imagery collected by the US Army and archived by the USGS. Additional images were collected from state databases when available. We used specialized software to process the imagery and stitch together adjacent images to create a seamless mosaic. We provide further detail on the map creation at this page.

What years are the historical and modern imagery from? 

The year of acquisition for the historical imagery varies from 1940 to 1970, with most imagery being sourced from the mid-1950s. We attempted to use the earliest available imagery that was of high quality. In the map application, you can click on a location to get the year the image was taken and a link to the source image at the USGS. The modern aerial imagery in the application is provided by Google and is generally from the time period 2014 - 2023, with urban/more populated areas having the more recent imagery. 

Can I use historical imagery in my project? 

The historical imagery product is available for non-commercial use and can be  downloaded from University of Montana servers. When in the map application, simply click on a location to download a GIS-ready image tile. Alternatively, we have provided additional ways to access the data on this page.

I have a question, who can I contact?

Technical questions regarding the map can be addressed to the University of Montana team. Communication and general inquiries can be addressed to the Working Lands for Wildlife Communications team.

Why is there no imagery for my location?

The aim of this project is to support grassland and shrubland conservation in the Great Plains grassland and sagebrush biomes. We’ve focused our efforts on processing imagery for the 17 western states in the conterminous United States. Across this landscape, we have imagery that provides greater than 99% cover. Currently, there is no plan to extend this project to the eastern United States. If you find problems with imagery, please contact our technical team at the University of Montana

Where can I learn more?

Learn more about the Great Plains grassland and sagebrush biome, the threats these biomes are facing, and how the NRCS's Working Lands for Wildlife efforts are helping address them at www.WLFW.org