Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Volunteer monitoring species in a marsh © Tim Oksiuta

Volunteers such as those involved in marshbird surveys (rails, bitterns, coots and grebes) are an integral part of Department of Natural Resources' approach to monitoring hundreds of species throughout the state.
© Tim Oksiuta

August 2014

The power of citizen scientists

Harnessing the energy of volunteers who are curious about Wisconsin's environment.

Erin Gordon

Have you ever wondered what the story is behind the dragonfly that boldly lands on your lap? Have you ever found a shiny shell in a shallow stream and wondered what kind of creature it came from? If you are this curious, you may have a calling. You may want to join The Wisconsin Citizen-Based Monitoring Network (CBM).

Thanks to the work of citizen scientists in the network, since 2002 over 10,000 records of dragonflies have been noted, six new species in the state have been identified and valuable survey data has been collected to help the state update Wisconsin's endangered species list. Rare native mussel species have been located, and monitoring has led to the discovery that some individual mussels can survive up to 100 years.

The common thread through scientific advances like these is that volunteer engagement and involvement allows us to do more together than one agency could ever do alone. The efforts of volunteers allow state and local leaders to make well-informed decisions when it comes to conservation of our natural heritage. Simply stated, without the help of engaged citizens volunteering their time, much of this data collection would be nearly impossible. The network is a partnership between the Department of Natural Resources, CBM project leaders (at universities, schools, nature centers, friends groups and other nonprofits) and citizen volunteers.

With many projects to get involved in, citizens can find a program that not only meets their interests, but their talents as well. Citizens can participate at various levels as their schedules allow. Here's a peek into four CBM projects that have made remarkable discoveries.

Monitoring freshwater mussels

What started as a way to gather more up-to-date information on Wisconsin's native mussel populations has grown into both a wonderful educational opportunity and a monitoring project that works to take data and apply it to decisions made throughout the state. With observation locations in virtually every county, citizens, schools and other groups interested in exploring what's right in their own backyards can collect data on mussels with minimal training and equipment.

DNR Conservation Biologist Lisie Kitchel says citizen monitors gather information regarding population, reproduction, changes in distribution and abundance, and the presence of rare or exotic species, purely by collecting shells and photographing live specimens in wadeable streams. Eager volunteers can start at almost any age and dedicate as little or as much time as they wish.

"This program is really nice because little kids as young as 3 years old can look for mussels," says Kitchel. "It's a treasure hunt for them."

Surveying dragonflies

Nearly 12 years ago, the Wisconsin Odonata Dragonfly Survey was formed to gather information on species distributions and habitats statewide and fill the void of knowledge about these majestic creatures. According to DNR Research Scientist Bob DuBois, after developing better identification guidelines, the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society's monitoring project grew and generated better ways for committed citizens to connect and share their findings as well as engage youth in nature.

Through the Society, surveyors are better equipped to stay involved and motivated to continue their monitoring. The project welcomes any level of commitment from volunteers and information can be collected in just one short outing. With the help of a field guide, citizens can learn about these invertebrates while enjoying themselves in the outdoors.

In working to create connections among citizens across the state, this project also aims to engage children in natural resources while teaching them about the different species.

"Dragonflies can be educational and serve as a social outlet for children," says DuBois. "This survey is just one way to pass on the legacy of being involved in nature that exists in our state."

Discovering marshbirds, nightjars and owls

The Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative's surveys for marshbirds, nightjars and owls were all created under the same principle that, unfortunately, some species fall through the cracks of traditional monitoring programs. This project aims to fill those gaps in information and data collection and to improve management and conservation of these bird species. Bird enthusiasts are welcomed to conduct surveys at predetermined routes throughout the state and receive training and direction on how and when to look for the target species.

The nightjars (nocturnal species including whip-poor-will and common nighthawk) are monitored on routes that cover almost every corner of the state. Survey volunteers travel a predetermined road on one night during the early summer months and stop to listen for the beautiful and distinctive calls of these birds.

For surveyors looking to go off-road and tackle more technical data recording, the Wisconsin Marshbird Survey allows volunteers the opportunity to explore wetlands and listen and look for secretive species such as rails, grebes and bitterns. Volunteers run two or three surveys on a predetermined route at dusk or dawn.

There are also over 90 routes for owl enthusiasts of all skill levels to assess population trends. Data collected from these surveys is integrated into research projects and conservation programs across Wisconsin and the Midwest, says DNR Research Scientist Ryan Brady.

"The ability to incorporate data gathered through monitoring into the conservation work we do demonstrates the role of citizen scientists in a powerful way," says Brady. "We simply couldn't do it on our own."

Improving Wisconsin water quality

What began as an educational cleanup project in 1990 has transformed into a three-tiered statewide stream monitoring effort called Water Action Volunteers. In this program, citizens connect to one another and to their local communities through partnership and collaboration.

Volunteers, families, schools and other groups can get involved in any of the three levels depending on their time, availability and goals for their participation. Everyone begins with level one: looking at basic stream data such as flow and clarity. Those wishing to make a bigger commitment can move up to level two, which focuses on long-term trends. In level three, volunteers are involved in specialized research projects that address specific questions and often require greater time commitments.

"Without our partners, we simply would not exist," says Water Action Volunteers Stream Monitoring Program Coordinator Kris Stepenuck. "Collecting, understanding and sharing their data gives them a voice at the table and their voice is a part of the process. We want them to be able to connect with us and local management."

The echo of this important sentiment is the basic foundation for the Wisconsin Citizen-Based Monitoring Network. The engagement of citizen scientists and their integral role in collecting information that would otherwise be left largely unknown speaks to their powerful part in preserving and protecting Wisconsin's natural heritage.

Erin Gordon is a communications specialist in the DNR's Office of Communications.