Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A University of Minnesota program teaches high shcool students to recognize monarch developmental stages and recognize milkweed and other host species the larvae use. © Karen Oberhauser
A University of Minnesota program teaches high shcool students to recognize monarch developmental stages and recognize milkweed and other host species the larvae use.

© Karen Oberhauser

June 2005

Curious by nature

A gathering of professional and amateur scientists discusses how to knit together a network to turn outdoor observations and measurements into usable scientific data.

David L. Sperling

A chance to share their passions
Follow-through to help citizen monitoring set roots

It was a conclave of the perpetually curious. People like myself who had spent their youth looking under rocks, poking sticks in the mud, watching flutterbys, blowing blades of grass and lying face up in the lawn imagining puffy dragons in the clouds that floated by. Unlike others who "grew out" of that phase, these folks got more serious. They've often spent a lifetime learning more about the things that take root, crawl, hop, slither and fly away. These are the folks who study nature as a job or on their own, they are never bored, and as near as I can tell, they never idle by watching American Idol.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was but one of 13 groups that invited citizens and scientists who like to monitor nature's comings and goings to come together for a workshop on a beautiful weekend last summer. People who do research and environmental monitoring for more than 60 groups attended. They represented citizen groups, municipalities, agencies and university programs. Their aim? To learn about each others' interests, to discuss how to keep collected data useful and to build a network that can share research results.

"Amateur groups and agencies aren't the only ones wrestling with this problem," noted Phil Emmling of the Federation of Fly Fishers. "Getting data to talk to each other is equally a problem for professional groups."

Government has been slow to explore how we might better rely on the information that citizen monitoring groups collect, said Paul Heinen, policy advisor to the DNR secretary. "It seems clear in looking at state legislative trends that there is going to be less government and there is going to be more citizen responsibility," he said. "We need to keep encouraging diverse 'friends' groups like the Friends of State Parks, volunteer lake monitors and people who take part in Sturgeon Watch to stay interested and involved."

State Sen. Neal Kedzie echoed that theme in his keynote address. State government can't do it all and we have important work to do together to better protect the environment. "It takes ordinary citizens to do extraordinary things," Sen. Kedzie said. Citizen involvement on smaller bills and policies paves the way to larger pieces of legislation. That's how we moved from looking at wetland mitigation cases and water shortages to building programs like the Green Tier law and groundwater protection laws.

Danielle Donkersloot, the volunteer monitoring coordinator for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) described how that state sets up its partnerships with citizen groups and makes use of the water quality data these groups collect.

There are a lot of myths about volunteer data Donkersloot said. Some people think the volunteers are advocates with hidden agendas. "They're not scientists," some say, and the 'professionals' question the quality of the data volunteers collect.

"In fact, volunteers want to do it right," Donkersloot said. "They want to collect and share quality data so their time in the field is well invested."

When she counsels citizen groups, the first question she asks them is "Why are they out there?" Do they want their data to be used and by whom?

Some groups are mainly interested in just getting their members outdoors and exploring nature. Some want to collect information, photos and maps for their own projects. Some want to take a more serious approach to conduct scientific research including quality controls and quality assurance of their data. And some want their data to be used by regulatory agencies when evaluating water quality, air quality and the environmental performance of businesses and communities. NJDEP sets different requirements for visual, physical, biological and chemical monitoring depending on the level groups choose to pursue.

That last tier requires a more intense level of commitment, Donkersloot explained. If you want to consider using data for regulatory purposes, then the people who collect it need to be trained, certified and follow strict quality assurance/quality control plans.

Dana Curtiss of the Illinois DNR's EcoWatch Network shared lessons learned in 12 years of running that state's volunteer environmental monitoring program. Illinois invests $640,000 a year training and working with 1,400 volunteers to monitor wadeable streams, forests and prairies at 650 locations throughout Illinois.

We meet with the volunteer groups and talk out their goals, Curtiss explained. The groups need to decide if they are primarily interested in outdoor education, stewardship or monitoring. If they are interested and committed to monitoring, then "we work with them to do this one thing to the best of our ability and support the collection of quality data," Curtiss said. She noted that the average volunteer stays with the program for at least four years.

Lisa Goodman, former volunteer coordinator for the River Alliance of Wisconsin offered ideas about how to keep volunteers interested.

The people an organization attracts as volunteers genuinely care about that natural resource for a reason, Goodman said. They stay with your program if you can show you are providing support that an issue deserves. Your organization needs to show that it will provide opportunities for volunteers to find others with similar interests. In a cause like ours, Wisconsin river protection, our volunteers don't just want to talk about their protection, they usually want to explore and experience the rivers together. It's fun to feed those common interests and to reinforce the values the volunteers feel when they are on the rivers.

A chance to share their passions

The conference moved from discussing volunteer groups in theory to sharing the neat stuff groups have learned in their explorations and investigations. A few of the 12 workshops are described here.

Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI) – DNR Wildlife Biologist Andy Paulios described this impressive project that acts as a clearinghouse and coordinating center for statewide research and education on birdlife. More than 130 organizations statewide take part in WBCI efforts and Paulios pointed out that the longest-running surveys of natural resources in the nation have been conducted by dedicated volunteers, not government agencies. The Christmas Bird Count started by Frank Chapman on Christmas Day 1900 continues today. One of the 25 sites participating in that initial count was an individual from North Freedom in Sauk County.

Today, the program has expanded to include such combined research as the Federal Breeding Bird Survey whose data includes observations of more than 3,700 active bird migration routes that are monitored annually nationwide. More than two-thirds of the nation's birds are monitored along their migration routes. Such projects as the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas rely on hundreds of volunteer ornithologists to map the breeding territories and range of birdlife.

WBCI volunteers and partners work to keep common birds common, to promote bird-based recreation, to manage large landscapes, to enhance bird habitat, preserve important birding areas, work on international bird migration/preservation projects and to help people understand how they can be better neighbors to birds. That work ranges from field research to offering practical tips about controlling non-native bird predators and making manmade structures like houses and transmission towers less hazardous to birds.

Contact Andy Paulios

Wisconsin's Volunteer Carnivore Tracking Program – What started as a workshop for folks interested in wolves has turned into several packs of volunteers trained to track wolves in winter. By car, snowshoe, snowmobile and on skis, trackers slowly patrol snow-covered roads from November through March to note where wolf packs are on the move. Reports from their observations are pieced together to determine the number, territories, distribution and breeding status of wolves and also keep an eye out to see if rare carnivores like Canada lynx, wolverines and cougar are gaining a foothold in Wisconsin. More than 450 trackers have attended training that is now conducted every other year in three workshops. Last year, 113 volunteers participated in conducting the winter surveys, which doubled the amount of tracking reports that DNR biologists could have compiled without that help. Help from volunteer trackers may become even more important for maintaining accurate population estimates and ranges. If wolves are delisted from endangered species protection less federal funding might be available for monitoring and radio tracking work.

Contact Wisconsin's Volunteer Carnivore Tracking Program

LoonWatch – This program coordinated by the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute of Northland College in Ashland conducts research, monitoring and education about the approximately 16,000 adult loons that are summer residents across northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; about 3,100 adult loons nest and raise broods in Wisconsin waters. Shoreland development, campgrounds, summer homes and marinas have all taken their toll on nesting loons. Pollution affects their nesting success and motorized watercraft and human encroachment also affect their survival. Research programs since 1976 have studied the loons' range, protected nesting areas and conduct research to better understand their winter range needs as well. Volunteer educational programs include staffing a speakers bureau, writing lake monitoring reports, installing artificial nesting platforms and posting loon nesting areas. Every five years the LoonWatch program also coordinates a one-day count of loon adults and chicks to track population trends.

Contact: The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute

Monarch Butterfly Larva Monitoring – This program coordinated at the University of Minnesota aims to promote a basic level of citizen science, insect appreciation, an understanding of insect biology and monarch butterfly conservation.

Monarchs proved to be a great species to study because they are well-known, identifiable and approachable, noted Project Coordinator Karen Oberhauser. Many children have seen monarchs, and recognize the larva, chrysalis, and adult forms, she noted. Training courses provide protocols that volunteers can use to recognize monarch developmental stages and recognize milkweed and other host species the larvae use. Volunteers describe larval locations, egg densities, monarch densities, survival rates and weather conditions. Monitoring for this educational program only takes about two to three hours per week.

"We have a lot to learn about basic distribution and abundance of this species," Oberhauser noted. Moreover, citizen observations may offer insights on insect response to herbicide tolerance, other pesticide use and changing land uses.

Wisconsin NatureMapping – This program adopts a similar aim to act as a starting point and training ground for people who would like to start simply by recording and sharing their wildlife observations in a more systematic way. The program, sponsored by the Beaver Creek Citizen Science Center in Fall Creek and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, trains observers how to use simple field notes and a computer program to pinpoint their observations online. Sightings pinpoint the day, location, habitat type and species seen. Observers also list a confidence factor of how certain they are that they've properly identified the species reported. Results are compiled in a database available to all users. As more people share their observations, the resulting maps give a sense of the abundance and distribution of species over time. The database could also be used by wildlife watchers to plan road trips when they could be reasonably certain of seeing species in a given area at a point in time. To participate or just learn more, contact Wisconsin Nature Mapping or call (715) 877-2212.

Other breakout sessions discussed a host of water quality monitoring programs including coordinated efforts to monitor and contain purple loosestrife, community programs to control the spread of invasive plants, and lake and stream monitoring programs.

Follow-through to help citizen monitoring set roots

Since the summer conference, the Department of Natural Resources has taken several steps to help nurture the citizen monitoring concept in Wisconsin. First, the agency provides a website and list of contacts where groups can network and exchange ideas.

Second, the agency will forward a draft to legislators that would establish an advisory board to the DNR on volunteer monitoring efforts. As envisioned, that board would include representatives from active groups conducting monitoring projects, members of conservation groups, science teachers, university researchers, land-use planners, Native American tribes, industry and agriculture. Until such legislation is discussed and approved, an interim advisory board has been appointed by Secretary Hassett with representation from the Wisconsin Wildlife Society, The Nature Conservancy, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Watershed Science and Education Program, the state LEAF (Learning Experiences and Activities in Forestry) program, the Wisconsin Association of Lakes and the Water Action Volunteers program. The interim board has met to consider approaches for fostering more viable monitoring programs.

In a related effort, the DNR Water Division has developed a strategy to link DNR workplanning with citizen monitoring efforts. One goal of that strategy is to involve citizens in monitoring at a level where their data can be used for management decisions by the Department of Natural Resources. It includes involving citizens in many aspects of water monitoring in streams, rivers, wetlands, inland and Great Lakes beaches, lakes and groundwater. Parameters that can be monitored and the protocols DNR staff can accept have been defined. The monitoring program is being tested this summer. A parallel citizen-based monitoring plan is also being developed as part of the Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Plan to address terrestrial monitoring.

Key future goals include setting up common database that are accessible to professional and dedicated amateur scientists; creating and maintaining accessible websites that can serve as clearinghouses for monitoring data, training and collection methods; identifying gaps in current monitoring programs that trained citizen monitoring programs can fill; and integrating these monitoring programs into conservation plans and management plans.

Michelle Washebek was hired to coordinate DNR's citizen-based monitoring activities until such time as a permanent position is authorized and filled. Some seed money ($100,000) was available to provide grants to citizen groups this spring. Individual grants ranging from $2,500-$10,000 helped 13 groups underwrite the costs of teaching volunteers to identify species, developing consistent methods of collecting data and recording observations so the information may better meet professional standards and be useable in collective databases. Funds also covered part of the costs to buy sampling equipment, help pay for lab analyses, pay partial travel expenses, and pinpoint observation locations by interpreting GPS data.

Future grants will similarly judge whether each project is conducted in a rigorous fashion so the data collected will have wider applications that might prove useful in making environmental and resource management decisions.

"The environment didn't come with a learner's manual, and we've always felt that if you really want to know what's going on in the landscape, you need to ask the folks who are living there," said Erin Crain, who coordinated the conference for DNR's Endangered Resources and Integrated Science Services programs.

"These partnerships can encourage more people to keep their eyes and ears attuned to the outdoors, to make solid, regular outdoor observations, to engage in scientific exploration and to record those results in ways that are useful for making decisions," Crain said. "We need to keep encouraging that kind of dedication and find ways to value and use those observations whether made by 'professionals' or equally dedicated and knowledgeable 'amateur' scientists. We need to keep finding and working with people who maintain a natural curiosity about the natural world around them."

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.