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
Indeed, engagement is the key. Kris Stepenuck, of UW Cooperative Extension and the Department of Natural Resources, coordinates 300 adults and 1,500 students who wade into streams all around the state collecting data for UW-Extension and the DNR as part of the Water Action Volunteers (WAV), a group that makes water monitoring possible at a level that simply could not happen without them.
Last year WAV volunteers were asked to help expand an urban road salt monitoring project that, because of the cost of continuous monitoring equipment, had stalled at 22 sites.
“Each continuous monitoring site costs $15,000 to run,” says Stepenuck. “But with volunteers grabbing samples every other week, plus whenever it snowed, they were able to monitor 34 sites for under $10,000. So it’s much more economical, and we can get a broader picture with the help of this network of local volunteers.”
To keep her volunteer force growing, Stepenuck pays close attention to what motivates them. “They want to see lakes and streams protected for the future,” Stepenuck says. “And the more they learn, the more likely they are to take action to help protect these natural resources they care so much about.”
As evidence Stepenuck points to a newsletter she uses to keep her volunteers connected with each other and with the research to which they contribute. A recent edition shows the results of a survey tallying volunteers’ community connections and activities related to natural resources. Every person surveyed said he or she has written a letter to the editor of their local paper about water or other resource issues, attended a public meeting, talked with neighbors, engaged in personal reading or research, or sought experts for additional information on water issues. Before becoming a stream monitor, almost half stated they had rarely or never participated in water issue activities in their local communities.
Ted Ludwig is an example of someone who found his engagement deepening. First he joined the Tainter Lake Association, and then he attended a water monitoring course through Water Action Volunteers. Soon he was monitoring multiple sites. “I’ve taken on coordinating 20 people who are monitoring 15 different streams,” says Ludwig. “Now that I understand the value of water monitoring I keep looking for ways to do more.”
After retiring from 21 years in the Marine Corps and 20 years with the U.S. Postal Service, Ludwig now spends more than 30 hours a week as a Water Action Volunteer and organizing a nonprofit dedicated to monitoring area streams and lakes. When he is not in the water, Ludwig is writing letters to newspapers and going to hearings on environmental issues. He also serves on a citizen committee to help develop lakeshore rules at the county level.
In addition to enjoying being outdoors, says Ludwig, “The thing I like the best is working with young kids. It’s always fun to see the kids when they try to identify the creatures they have found in the water. The people you work with are really nice, and it makes for an enjoyable retirement.”
When the solution depends on observation over large areas, citizen scientists can play a pivotal role. The Great Lakes Early Detection Network, launched this spring and spearheaded by CALS/UW-Extension agronomy professor Mark Renz, will depend heavily on citizen monitoring to identify invasive plant species.
“We started this project to better understand where invasive plants are located and how they are moving within the Great Lakes Area,” says Renz. “Wisconsin has more than 70 species of invasive plants. When you add in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, it’s a huge task to find out where these plants are. We quickly realized that as scientists and researchers, we could not tackle this by ourselves. We are asking people to do a service for their community by reporting invasive plants.”
Renz has designed a website where information can flow back and forth between volunteers and researchers to keep the volunteers engaged. He hopes to attract and build a relationship with volunteers who become knowledgeable about plant identification and stay involved in the program. “We are a network,” says Renz. “The citizen scientists are equal members. We know that if they are not happy, the project will falter.”
Tags: citizen science, Denise Thornton, Dietram Scheufele, Environment, Kris Stepenuck, Mark Berres, monitoring, Water Action Volunteers
Posted in Communities, Environment, Featured, Summer 2012 | 5 Comments »