Science for Everyone

Wisconsin residents of all ages and backgrounds are tracking wolves, monitoring streams, banding birds, counting invasive plants and more—all in the name of “citizen science”

By Denise Thornton

At dusk Dave Wiltrout steps out of his house and climbs into a Ford F150 to follow the lonely roads of the Chequamegon National Forest till well after midnight. At an isolated spot, he stops, steps out of the truck, and moves silently down the dark road. Then he fills his lungs and howls.

He’s hoping to learn from answering calls whether the wolf packs he identified while snow tracking the previous winter have added new members. A retired veterinarian who earned his howling chops while treating sled dog teams, Wiltrout sometimes finds that his howls are a bit too effective. “When they answer you back, it’s pretty spectacular. But when a wolf responds to your call from 50 yards away, and it’s pitch black out, and you are the only person for miles—that will make the hair go up on the back of your neck,” he says.

Despite his solitary treks, Wiltrout is no lone wolf. He is a citizen scientist, one of many volunteers who work with biologists, wildlife technicians and tribal conservation departments to monitor the wolf population of Wisconsin.

And the contribution of citizen scientists doesn’t end there. They are playing an increasingly crucial role in many areas of research at CALS and other institutions. Projects that incorporate citizen scientists benefit from an enthusiastic (and usually unpaid) workforce that allows researchers to conduct projects that otherwise would not be possible. And in return, citizen scientists increase their knowledge and contribute to issues that matter to them.

Data collected by citizen scientists directly benefits Adrian Treves, a professor with the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, where he explores coexistence and conflicts between people and wildlife. “The accuracy of the wolf count in Wisconsin is important to both research and state policy,” he says. “Citizen scientists working with DNR biologists make it possible to locate every wolf pack and attempt to enumerate every single wolf in the state.”

“The volunteers more than double the miles we can cover,” says Adrian Wydeven, a mammalian ecologist and conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “We try to cover as much of the landscape as possible to detect every wolf out there. Volunteers provide many more eyes and ears looking for wolves and searching for signs, and that gives us a better picture of the distribution of wolves in the state.”

The volunteer tracker program has been in place since 1995 and coordinates up to 150 trackers each year. Wydeven puts out a news release each fall requesting volunteers. “We get Internet inquiries, and I send them to our Wisconsin’s Volunteer Carnivore Tracking Program website.” (This URL and others provided below.)

To become a tracker, volunteers spend a weekend studying wolf ecology, survey methods, conservation and the social and political aspects of wolf management. Then they get outside to look for wolf signs and do howl surveys. A second class is a day-long animal tracking class in early winter to identify wolf tracks, conduct a survey within a certain area and fill out the survey forms.

The wolf count culminates every April when scientists and trackers convene at the Wausau Days Inn and pull out a big map of the state. That map gets covered in Post-its marked by numbers up to 11, which is the biggest wolf pack in the state. Volunteer data is included on that map. Wydeven says experienced volunteers are as good at reading tracks as agency biologists. Volunteers also jump into the discussion to interpret the data, giving them an opportunity to participate and gain a better understanding of how scientific information is formulated.

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Posted in Communities, Environment, Featured, Summer 2012 |