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March 13, 2012

Scores of opportunities to help wild Wisconsin

EDITOR'S NOTE: Owen Boyle and Kris Stepenuck will be guests on Wisconsin Public Radio's The Larry Meiller Show on March 21 live from 11 -11:45 a.m. on these WPR Ideas Network stations or online: (both links exit DNR).

MADISON - Volunteers can count sandhill cranes, listen for frogs, owls and hawks, search for freshwater mussels and violets, monitor water quality and join in a host of other efforts now gearing up to help collect information about Wisconsin's wildlife, plants and water resources.

Citizen based monitoring
Volunteers, like this mother and daughter participating in the Midwest Crane Count, provide valuable information about plants, animals and other natural resources.

The Department of Natural Resources and other organizations are recruiting citizens to the state's woods, waters and prairies to help gather information aimed at better understanding and managing these natural resources. Such information is particularly important for managing those rare species protected under the state's endangered species law, which turns 40 this year. Go to the DNR website and search for "ER 40".

"Coming into April is when a lot of these efforts start to ramp up," says Owen Boyle, DNR coordinator of the Citizen Based Monitoring Network. "It's a great time for people to see what opportunities are out there and get involved."

The Midwest Annual Crane Count, Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey, Western Great Lakes Owl Survey, Wisconsin Bat Monitoring Project, Wisconsin Ephemeral Ponds Project, and lake and stream monitoring are among the efforts now seeking volunteers, Boyle says.

More than 150 organizations in Wisconsin put volunteers to work every year monitoring water quality and counting and noting the numbers, distribution and habitat of native and invasive species. In 2011, citizens donated more than 300,000 hours to such efforts. That's critical support in an era of shrinking government resources and growing citizen demand for meaningful involvement in managing natural resources, he says.

"The amount of citizen based monitoring going on in Wisconsin is remarkable -- it blows me away how many people are out there monitoring and mapping and providing other vital information," says Boyle, who started his job as coordinator earlier this year after serving as DNR's ecologist for southeastern Wisconsin for years.

According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency survey, 62 percent of volunteer monitoring datasets are used by state agencies and 30 percent are used by federal agencies. "The monitoring data collected by citizen groups in Wisconsin plays an integral role in DNR's decision-making process," Boyle says.

Growing interest and engagement in natural resources topics

Citizen-based monitoring has a long history globally, nationally and in Wisconsin. Some of the best known efforts, like the Christmas Bird Count organized by the National Audubon Society, are more than 100 years old. In Wisconsin, the frog and toad survey has been collecting data since 1981, and volunteers in the Citizen Lake Monitoring Network have been testing water quality since 1986.

In more recent years, such citizen-based monitoring has become more popular, particularly as the Web has increased interest among citizens, and the ability of organizers to build large databases of information collected from people all over the state, country and world, says Kris Stepenuck, who coordinates stream monitoring activities

She's seen stream monitoring in Wisconsin grow from volunteers monitoring four sites in 1996, when the Water Action Volunteers program started, to 384 sites statewide in 2011. As important as and ever-growing volunteer base is the engagement of the people is just as critical: surveys of new stream volunteers and those who have been monitoring for several years show that the veteran volunteers attend more community meetings about natural resource topics and are more likely to write a letter to the local newspaper editor.

"It's not just people having fun, we're building a knowledgeable cadre of people who take action in their local community for protection or restoration of natural resources," she says.

DNR and organizations with monitoring programs formed a loose affiliation called the Citizen-based Monitoring Network of Wisconsin in 2004 to improve their effectiveness by providing communications, resources and recognition, Boyle says. Since then, Wisconsin has been one of the few states with a full-time staff member working with citizen-based monitoring projects, and DNR has annually awarded up to $100,000 in seed money to help organizations and programs advance their volunteer-based monitoring projects.

"The root philosophy of our network is that we can accomplish far more by working together than we can working alone," he says. "We hope to see you on the lake or in the woods or wetlands in 2012!"

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Owen Boyle - 608-261-6449; Kris Stepenuck - 608-264-8948; Erin Crain - 608-267-7479 or Lisa Gaumnitz - 608-264-8942

Last Revised: Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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