In this study, we propose integrating unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and machine learning classification for suitability prediction of expanding habitats for endangered flora species to prevent further extinction. Remote sensing imaging of the protected steppe-like grassland in Bilje using the DJI P4 Multispectral UAS ensured non-invasive data collection. A total of 129 individual flora units of five endangered flora species, including small pasque flower (Pulsatilla pratensis
(L.) Miller ssp. nigricans
(Störck) Zämelis), green-winged orchid (Orchis morio
(L.)), Hungarian false leopardbane (Doronicum hungaricum
Rchb.f.), bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum
(L.)) and Hungarian iris (Iris variegate
(L.)) were detected and georeferenced. Habitat suitability in the projected area, designated for the expansion of the current area of steppe-like grassland in Bilje, was predicted using the binomial machine learning classification algorithm based on three groups of environmental abiotic criteria: vegetation, soil, and topography. Four machine learning classification methods were evaluated: random forest, XGBoost, neural network, and generalized linear model. The random forest method outperformed the other classification methods for all five flora species and achieved the highest receiver operating characteristic (ROC) values, ranging from 0.809 to 0.999. Soil compaction was the least favorable criterion for the habitat suitability of all five flora species, indicating the need to perform soil tillage operations to potentially enable the expansion of their coverage in the projected area. However, potential habitat suitability was detected for the critically endangered flora species of Hungarian false leopardbane, indicating its habitat-related potential for expanding and preventing further extinction. In addition to the current methods of predicting current coverage and population count of endangered species using UASs, the proposed method could serve as a basis for decision making in nature conservation and land management.
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