Citizen Science Engagement: A Vital Part of Yellowstone Science
by Erik Oberg
Understanding long-term environmental change and documenting patterns in nature requires rigorous protocols, dedicated observers, and a long-term commitment. Increasingly citizen scientists or volunteers from outside the scientific community are contributing to monitoring programs that are difficult or impossible to carry out (Bonney et al. 2009). There are many examples of citizen-based monitoring programs, but one of the most successful and best recognized is the annual Breeding Bird Survey (BBS; Ziolkowski et al. 2010). Beginning in 1966, BBSs included approximately 600 survey routes east of the Mississippi River. Today citizen scientists complete nearly 3,000 survey routes annually throughout the U.S. and Canada. These efforts help track population trends for over 400 bird species, and the data have contributed to more than 450 scientific publications. Citizen science volunteers at Yellowstone have been conducting BBSs since 1987.
Many decades before the coining of the term “Citizen Science,” Yellowstone National Park (YNP) benefitted from volunteer data collection with early park managers relying on visitor creel counts to estimate fish populations. Today, volunteer anglers continue to help characterize native and non-native fish distributions. Between 2002 and 2016, over 900 volunteers logged almost 23,000 hours and sampled 7,000 fish, contributing much to our current understanding of trout genetics. Before the days of tracking collars and digital photos, visitors also turned in thousands of wildlife observation cards, as nothing inspires citizen science volunteers like YNP’s big mammals. Throughout the 1990s, park researchers engaged over 600 citizen science volunteers to study coyotes and foxes; other citizen monitoring projects enhanced Yellowstone’s ability to collect water samples. These efforts helped shed light on meso-carnivore response to wolf reintroduction and provided useful baseline water quality data to examine watershed responses to changing mammal populations. Another ongoing citizen science campaign in YNP formed following the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. “Wolf Watcher” volunteers arrived to help record pack movements, dynamics, and wolf ecology. Wolf Watchers have helped park managers document a mange outbreak, monitor genetic characteristics, and study seasonal variations in predation patterns. These watchers share their passion, knowledge, and spotting scopes with thousands of visitors every year. In 2016 alone, Wolf Watchers contributed over 13,000 hours, delivering public presentations and making visitor contacts in the field.
Despite its rich biodiversity, YNP was set aside for its geysers. It’s no surprise that a citizen science program grew around these unique park treasures. Have you ever stood by a geyser and wondered, “When is this thing going to go off?” There is a decent chance a “Geyser Gazer” volunteer, clipboard in hand, was there to provide you an estimate with train-schedule precision. Founded in 1983, the Geyser Observation and Study Association’s (GOSA) purpose is the collection and dissemination of information about geysers and other geothermal phenomena in YNP. They gather eruption data on many of the park’s most popular thermal features and maintain an online database and timetable for eruptions. Some GOSA data is being incorporated into a park study examining geyser eruption cycles.
Among the most successful citizen scientist opportunities across the National Park Service (NPS) has been the BioBlitz: www.nps.gov/subjects/biodiversity/national-parks-bioblitz.htm. A BioBlitz is an organized event focused on identifying as many species as possible in a specified area, typically over a 24-hour period. BioBlitzes are a partnership between the NPS and National Geographic Society and have introduced many citizens to volunteer science opportunities in the parks. In 2009, approximately 125 scientists, park staff, and volunteers conducted Yellowstone’s first BioBlitz and documented over 1,200 species, including the first park records of little seed ricegrass (Piptatherum micranthum), a blue lichen (Aspicilia desertorum), and a tiger beetle (Cicidela haemorrhagica).
As the NPS enters its next century of stewardship, YNP managers recognize novel and emerging threats to park resources—some iconic and some little-known. The park is teaming up with Yellowstone Forever (YF), the park’s education and philanthropic partner, to offer hands-on learning opportunities. Trained and accompanied by park biologists, these YF citizen science volunteers will gather baseline data to better understand stressors unique to each species or ecological community. Each of the five projects below was prioritized by park staff and began recruiting new citizen science volunteers in 2018.
A steadily recovering bison population has caused concern as to whether or not there is “home on the range” for the most diverse and abundant ungulate and carnivore community in North America. The YF Home on the Range Project will collect data to evaluate bison, elk, bighorn, mule deer, and pronghorn dietary patterns and nutrition, habitat use, migration patterns, birth rates, survival rates, and population growth rates. Managers and decision makers need new information on how park resources are being affected to guide future management.
Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycle changes over time. By recording these changes, park managers can better anticipate resource protection needs and plan management actions. Volunteers will collect Carabid beetles, a diverse and abundant invertebrate community that represents ecosystem health. (“Insects as a Vital Sign in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” this issue). Volunteers from YF will also participate in a simple monitoring program documenting key phenological events such as green-up, flowering, seed set, and die-off for sentinel plant species. Collected data will be used to fill an important knowledge gap about important phenological events and how they may be changing over time.
Invasive weeds compete with native vegetation for space and resources, lower species diversity, and provide little forage value for wildlife (“Invasive Plants as Indicators of Ecosystem Health,” this issue). Given what we know about the current grazing pressures in the park, understanding how much forage is available for wildlife assists in making science-based management decisions. Weeds are an enormous economic drain that negatively impact ecosystem health. Volunteers coordinating with YF will photograph and gather locations for seven high priority invasive plant species. Data will be used to better understand invasive plant ranges, estimate rates of spread, and prioritize invasive plant treatments and native plant restoration locations.
Red-tailed hawks are charismatic, common, and easily recognizable, making them ideal candidates for citizen science monitoring. A red-tailed hawk nest monitoring project in YNP is part of a continental-wide effort to provide baseline data on nesting success and will serve as an important indicator for future change. Yellowstone’s northern range offers a unique opportunity to monitor this species in a relatively natural landscape, providing baseline data from which to measure future trends as visitation and climate patterns change. Citizen science volunteers working with YF instructors will monitor breeding behavior and territory use by observing known nest locations.
Pikas are small, non-hibernating members of the rabbit family that typically dwell at high elevation sites. They are vulnerable to a warming climate and tend to abandon lower elevation sites in favor of higher, cooler habitat. Volunteers will assist by conducting surveys at historic pika sites, listening for pika calls, and searching habitat for evidence of recent pika activity.
Plants and animals within YNP are being affected by local, regional, and global stressors. Citizen science efforts will help maintain the park’s capacity to monitor important park resources and will contribute to a deeper understanding of their status and trends. These authentic, hands-on volunteer and learning experiences also serve to educate and inspire the next generation of park stewards. To find out how you can become a YNP citizen science volunteer, visit www.yellowstone.org/experience/citizen-science or contact Erik Oberg, e-mail us.
Bonney, R., C.B. Cooper, J. Dickinson, S. Kelling, T. Phillips, K.V. Rosenberg, and J. Shirk. 2009. Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience 59:977-984.
Ziolkowski, D., K. Pardieck, and J.R. Sauer. 2010. On the road again for a bird survey that counts. Birding 42:32-41.
Eric Oberg is a Yellowstone Biologist with 25 years of National Park Service experience in resource education, water quality monitoring, and biological inventories, with a focus on invertebrates. He has worked in six parks, including Joshua Tree, Sequoia, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and has recruited hundreds of citizen science volunteers.