By Julia Richards
It sounds so simple, but the impact is huge. Spend time observing the natural world around you, write down what you see, enter the data online. Those basic steps, multiplied by thousands around the state, help scientists understand how ecosystems function and policymakers decide what species to protect.
Wisconsin leads the way in this kind of citizen-based monitoring, according to Eva Lewandowski, who coordinates the efforts at the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “We have an infrastructure that other states don’t have,” she says. The Wisconsin Citizen-Based Monitoring Network is a partnership of over 190 different organizations and groups doing volunteer monitoring.
Different entities, whether the DNR, a university, a nonprofit organization or a county agency, lead projects monitoring different species and habitats. The statewide network provides support to all these efforts.
The possibilities are wide and varied. There’s the Turtle Crossing Program, where anyone can report a turtle sighting, particularly by a road. Or the Bumble Bee Brigade, whose members identify and record the species of bumble bees found in a patch of wildflowers. Volunteers can watch bald eagle or kestrel nests, monitor streams and lakes, look for invasive species and more.
People can choose either one-time events that involve training, observing and reporting all in one day, or they can make an ongoing commitment to monitor a certain location regularly throughout the year.
Karl and Dorothy Legler are booked. The retirees have been surveying specks in Wisconsin for decades. They’ve done bird surveys, frog surveys and lately butterfly surveys. “We went from birdwatching to butterfly watching,” says Karl Legler, 79. He rattles off names and years: In 1992 an eruption of Painted Ladies hit Wisconsin. In 2014 Red Admirals came through in huge numbers. Drought years in 2007, 2010 and 2012 were hard on the butterflies.
Neither Legler nor his wife have a background in biology, but they’ve learned to identify untold species of flora and fauna. He even wrote a book on identifying dragonflies in Wisconsin. For most people, “nature is like wallpaper,” he says, just in the background, but the ability to identify much of what you’re seeing makes it exciting.
“We just have a blast. We spend all day at it,” Legler says.
Many of the projects lend themselves to kid participation. The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project simply requires looking at milkweed leaves and counting any monarch butterfly eggs or caterpillars on them. “Kids love that project because they’re good at it,” says Lewandowski, noting that young eyes are at the right level to spot the tiny eggs. Families can then log onto the project’s website and enter their findings. “Whenever possible we like to get the kids involved in the submitting of the data because it helps them understand the whole process—the fact that they are contributing to real science,” says Lewandowski. The data furthers conservation research and management of monarchs, which have been declining in recent years.
Youth have also helped with monitoring bat populations, as well as photographing, identifying and logging data on bee and dragonfly species. Lewandowski has seen youth who get involved in citizen science go on to careers in conservation biology or environmental science. Each year the Citizen-based Monitoring Network awards youth, as well as adult volunteers, for their outstanding contributions.
Not all citizen science projects focus on individual animals or plants. Some look at the health of other natural elements, such as lakes. Rachel Sabre coordinates the efforts of 120 volunteers to gather data in 800 or more of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes. The volunteers may be people who live on the lake and want to help, or people who enjoy visiting and kayaking on a lake they love. They measure water clarity at regular intervals, as well as levels of phosphorus, chlorophyll and dissolved oxygen. At certain times of the year they’ll also scan the beaches for invasive species.
Sabre helps train people in how to take the measurements. Despite being amateurs, the volunteers provide accurate data. “[The Environmental Protection Agency] has accepted this data for over 33 years. It’s just as good as a biologist going out,” Sabre says. Quality control measures are important to citizen science data, just like any other scientific data, Lewandowski explains. Professionals will look at the numbers as they come in and may inspect certain sites or follow up on unusual finds.
Once all this data is vetted, it has a huge impact—furthering scientific research, guiding conservation efforts and even informing regulations. Volunteer- submitted data helped lead to the recent listing of the rusty patched bumble bee as an endangered species, explains Lewandowski. “Decisions on whether a species warrants protections, on whether a waterway warrants protections are a really critical way that governments [county, state and national] are using citizen science data,” she says.
Collected by the public, the data is often open to the public as well. Someone looking to buy lakefront property, for instance, can look up information about the lake’s water clarity on the DNR website, Sabre explains. At the butterfly website he contributes to, Legler can see in real time which species are out in the state. “You can see the unfolding of the butterfly population over the course of a year,” he says.
By coordinating the efforts of all these budding scientists and enthusiastic volunteers, the DNR and other agencies are able to collect a tremendous amount of additional data to advance their work. “To have an additional 13,000 or more boots on the ground is really powerful,” says Lewandowski. “We are able to get more observations in more locations at more times of day and more times of year.”