A Case Study: Citizen Naturalists Make it Happen

Photo by Jami Dwyer licensed under Creative Commons.

In the northernmost part of Idaho is an example of partnering that has engaged hundreds of citizens and generated plenty of positive news coverage.

Multi-Species Baseline Initiative (MBI) is a collaborative of organizations conducting wildlife and micro-climate surveys across the Idaho Panhandle and adjoining mountain ranges. The 16 MBI partner organizations and seven funding organizations are dedicated to providing a comprehensive data set of occurrence data for various wildlife species, including amphibians, beetles, forest carnivores, slugs and snails. Their main focus is the 20 species of greatest conservation need, as listed in Idaho and Washington State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAP).

Engaging Citizens

Collaboration among these local, state and federal organizations has always been integral to MBI’s work. In recent years, however, local citizens have become important partners as well.

It started in the winter of 2011-12, when Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) teamed up with a local community group called Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness (FSPW) to find volunteers for its MBI Forest Carnivore Survey.

FSPW already had a strong volunteer base, and a few volunteers had run a bait station for the project, according to Michael Lucid, IDFG’s Regional Wildlife Diversity Biologist.

Successful Fish and Wildlife Programs

“This project was so successful,” he remembers, “that FSPW applied for a grant to purchase remote cameras and hire a volunteer coordinator. FSPW did the work of marketing the project and getting people excited. They have email mailing lists, a quarterly newsletter, a very active Facebook account and regular events for volunteers. We had more volunteers than we knew what to do with.”

That winter, 140 citizen naturalists volunteered more than 2,000 hours of labor. With several sites located in some of the region’s most remote locations, some citizen naturalists climbed mountains 7,000 feet high in snow with 30 mph winds.

The initiative attracted press attention with articles in media including Sandpoint Magazine, Boise Weekly and The Spokesman Review. Today, more than 200 citizen naturalists have participated on the project. Best of all, everyday people have learned about wildlife and become advocates for conservation issues.

“As biologists, we often don’t understand how little people know about the natural world,” says Lucid. “Thousands of people in northern Idaho now know what a fisher is because of this project. Because they know what a fisher is, they are more likely to be involved in fisher conservation and management.”

Success Factors

Three key reasons why the volunteer program has been so successful:

  • FSPW had an outstanding volunteer coordinator. “Kelsey Brasseur did an amazing job of coordinating people and managing data,” says Lucid. “It’s a full time job managing so many volunteers. Without her the program wouldn’t have worked.”
  • A partner organization with a strong volunteer group was willing to take on the workload. FSPW worked with Idaho Conservation League and Selkirk Outdoor Leadership and Education to manage the program.
  • The work had a high fun factor. “There was a lot of excitement and buzz around Sandpoint, Idaho about this project, which kept citizens engaged,” he says. “If you have more technical and less fun work to get done, it’s important to have a paid crew in addition to volunteers.”


Quality Control

As project lead, Lucid’s job is to design enough flexibility into the study to ensure the team meets their goals and that the data are accurate.

“I wouldn’t be willing to have such a large group collect track data, for example, because tracking is a difficult skill to learn and we couldn’t verify the results,” he says. “On this project, volunteers and paid employees bring back verifiable data from the field that can be reviewed by the pros. Hair samples are analyzed at a genetics lab, and images are reviewed by professional biologists.”

Several fail safes are designed into the data collection system. Field workers write waypoints, dates and survey numbers on data cards and sample envelopes. If something is mislabeled, then Lucid’s team can check several data points and determine the correct information. Dates on camera images are also checked.

“One of my favorite tricks is to require observers to write the elevation down at each visit,” says Lucid. “If they get it wrong consistently, we know we may have a problem with that observer. People often assume volunteers will have poorer quality data than professionals. This is a valid concern, but it also is an issue with professionals in my own and partner organizations. Just because someone is a professional biologist does not mean he or she will automatically fill out the data card completely.”

New Way of Thinking

This citizen naturalist program has required an adjustment in thinking for Lucid, who calls himself an “introverted biologist.”

“I’ve spent much of my career working alone in the woods with the animals I was studying,” he admits. “Managing a project like MBI with 15 partners, paid crews of 14 technicians working for me, and hundreds of volunteers on the ground, is a far cry from the days when my job was to go out for the summer and trap wolves by myself.”

His agency would be content to let him be that lone biologist out in the woods.

“And if I took that path, I would lead a more peaceful life,” says Lucid. “But the best thing for wildlife is for me to get out of my comfort zone, and use my position to help other people engage with wildlife in ways they never imagined possible. This leads them to become invested in the natural world around them and that benefits us all.”

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