Citizen scientists help Glacier study species

2013-06-29T03:15:00Z Citizen scientists help Glacier study speciesBy Erin Madison Great Falls Tribune The Billings Gazette
June 29, 2013 3:15 am  • 

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK -- Glacier National Park covers more than 1 million acres, but with only a few full-time biologists on the park staff, it’s impossible for the park’s trained scientists to cover the entire park and collect the data they need.

That’s where Glacier’s Citizen Science Program comes in. The program, started in 2005, trains volunteers to collect data on mountain goats, mountain sheep, pikas, loons, aquatic insects and invasive plants.

“Citizen Science helps us to fill in the gaps,” said Jami Belt, Citizen Science coordinator. “What we are trying to do is capitalize on people who are already getting out there.”

Glacier’s Citizen Science Program, housed at The Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center in West Glacier and funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, has about 100 active volunteers. Those volunteers, who collect data throughout the park, make the program work, Belt said.

“You guys are the core of this program,” she told a group of new volunteers during a recent training session.

Volunteers don’t need any scientific background.

“We get all walks of life,” Belt said.

Instead, the Citizen Science Program aims to recruit people who would be out in the park anyway, hiking to alpine areas or bird watching at the park’s lakes.

Alpine habitats are accessible for a short period of time each year and generally require long hikes to access. Even if Glacier had a larger team of biologists it would be virtually impossible for them to cover all the park’s alpine area in the short summer season.

Citizen Science volunteers must attend a one-day training session. After that they can head into the park any time they want to help collect data. Participants are asked to collect data at least three times each summer.

Nancy Lundgren began volunteering with the Citizen Science Program five years ago. When she initially heard about the program she thought it would be a nice way to give back to Glacier Park. Living in West Glacier, Lundgren didn’t visit the park as much as she would have liked and thought participating in the Citizen Science program would give her an excuse to go to Glacier more often.

“The motivation was partly to get out more,” she said.

Now, Lundgren collects data about once a week and often makes overnight trips.

She likes that the volunteer work makes her sit and be still while watching for wildlife and soaking in her surroundings.

“It’s a whole different way to experience the park,” the retired high school teacher said.

Lundgren attends volunteer training every year because each time she learns something new.

“Gosh, I’ve learned so much,” she said.

Many volunteers are surprised by how many animals they see when they stop to look for them, Belt said.

“You’ll be amazed at how much wildlife is out there,” she told a group of volunteers in training. “The more you look the more you’ll find.”

The Citizen Science’s High Country Program focuses on mountain goats and pikas for numerous reasons.

“We have a lot of species in the alpine that we want to know more about,” Belt said. “What we don’t know in the alpine could fill a book.”

Both mountain goats and pikas have the potential to be greatly impacted by climate change because both live in specific alpine habitats. Citizen Science organizers also wanted to select animals that were charismatic enough that people would be interested in watching them.

Mountain goats are the iconic species of Glacier National Park.

“This is probably one of the best places to come and watch mountain goats, maybe in the world,” Belt said. “It’s important that we know more about the species.”

Pikas are small herbivores related to rabbits that live on talus-covered slopes. Rather than hibernating, they collect vegetation throughout the summer months and eat it during winter.

“Seeing pikas is cool,” Belt said. “They’re cute and they’re fun to watch.”

With both mountain goats and pikas, the data collected aims to help scientists understand more about the species’ vulnerability to climate change.

A doctorate student studied pikas in Glacier several years ago, giving the park good baseline data on the species’ population. Data collected by citizen scientists helps biologists monitor population changes.

The last large-scale research project on mountain goats was about 30 years ago. Work by the Citizen Science Program has helped determine a baseline population estimate for the species that scientists can use going forward to gauge the impact of climate change on mountain goats.

This year, the program started monitoring bighorn sheep, in addition to goats.

Sheep are more widespread than goats, but live in the same areas as mountain goats and may also be impacted by changes to alpine habitat, Belt said.

The U.S. Geological Survey did a large-scale study on bighorn sheep in Glacier in 2004. Data on sheep collected by citizen scientists will help monitor any changes in the sheep population.

Glacier’s Citizen Science program also has volunteers counting loons.

“They’re a bit of a species of concern,” said Taylor Hanson, wildlife biology student at the University of Montana and common loon intern with the Citizen Science Program. “They’re a species that could be sensitive to climactic changes.”

There are estimated to be 35 to 40 common loons in Glacier. Each breeding pair produces an average of two chicks a year, but only a portion of those survive. Parkwide about six loons are added to the population every year.

“They don’t reproduce very fast,” Hanson said.

Glacier’s loon research has been going on since the 1980s.

“It’s proactive research just to make sure everything is staying healthy,” she said.

The Citizen Science program also studies aquatic insects, focusing on two species that live in glacial melt streams.

“These were just discovered in the last five years,” Belt said.

The insects live at high elevations in hard-to-access locations, so the program relies on volunteers, such as peak baggers and others who hike to the park’s far-flung high-altitude locations, to help look for the insects and even possibly discover new species.

“We are trying to get people who are going to the right places to collect aquatic insects,” she said.

For the loon, bighorn sheep, goat and pika programs, volunteers attend a one-day training session where they learn how to identify the animals, the procedures for collecting data and practice the work in the field.

In the case of goats and sheep, participants learn how to identify male, female and juvenile animals. With pikas they learn how to recognize the animal’s call and how to differentiate them from similar-looking species. They also learn to identify pika scat and learn how to recognize their hay piles.

On a recent training field trip in the Two Medicine area, a group of volunteers hiked into an open meadow with a clear view of a rocky hillside.

“We’ve got one,” Belt said, catching a mountain goat in her binoculars.

Volunteer Rachel Headley pulled out her binoculars and found the goat on the hillside.

“It only took one, and I’m hooked,” Headley said after spotting the goat.

Headley, a wildlife biology student from New Mexico, is working in Glacier this summer and heard about the Citizen Science Program.

“When I got here, I knew I wanted to do some volunteering,” she said.

She thought the program would be a good addition to her resume, and she liked that it was open to anyone.

When volunteers complete their training day, they receive a list of survey sites. That way when they’re headed into the park for a hike they can look at the list and see if there’s a survey site in the area, or they can plan a hike around a site. Volunteers are also welcome to call the Crown of the Continent Learning Center for ideas on where to go, Belt said.

In addition to collecting scientific data, the Citizen Science Program aims to increase the scientific literacy of the park’s visitors.

“A big goal of ours is to give people insight into the scientific process,” Belt said.

The program also helps create an informed group of visitors involved in active stewardship of Glacier National Park.

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