HELENA — A wide diversity of plants and animals inhabit the nearly 1 million-acre Helena National Forest, and with such a massive area to cover, a new citizen science campaign asks the public to help document the many species calling it home.
“Have You Seen Me?” made a soft launch last year with a partnership between the Helena National Forest and the Montana Discovery Foundation. The project recruits the public in reporting sightings of various species using the iNaturalist smartphone app or mailing a postcard. The partners ramped up efforts this year, with posters up at nine locations throughout the forest hoping to raise awareness and generate more responses.
“Getting people aware is half the battle,” said Debbie Anderson, executive director for the foundation. “And we are having some bites.”
The 15 reports received include quite a few black-backed woodpeckers, a few rare plants, butterflies, a moose and a mountain goat, she said. The majority of responders mailed in postcards with only a couple using the app, she added.
The postcard asks a few general questions such as the date, time and location of the sighting. It also asks reporters to note the weather conditions and any particular behaviors they observe.
The iNaturalist app takes prospective citizen scientists to a high-tech reporting system. Users must download the app, create a free profile and then search for the Helena National Forest EOL Project under the projects menu. Users who snap a photo of the species can upload it to the app as well as view various species’ descriptions to help in identification.
iNaturalist also provides geo-referencing, or exact latitude and longitude coordinates, which are saved as part of the report along with the time and date.
Finally, sightings can be reported via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at one of the Helena National Forest district offices.
Reaching across six counties and spanning the Continental Divide, the Helena National Forest provides more than 700 miles of trails and encompasses the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness and portions of the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall wildernesses.
The posters, placed at area campgrounds such as Cromwell Dixon on Macdonald Pass and Moose Creek near Rimini, showcase several species of conservation interest, including the threatened Canadian Lynx, Red-naped Sapsucker and Columbia Spotted Frog. Reportable species are not limited to those on the poster, however, and the Forest Service and foundation want information on any species the public finds interesting.
The project is the first wide-scale citizen science project that includes so many species on the forest, Anderson said.
When first brainstorming the project, the foundation initially considered looking at a narrow slate of species. Organizers finally decided that looking at all species on the forest did not mean a great deal more work, so they decided to open it up, she said.
“Our goal is to get people outdoors and more knowledgeable,” Anderson said. “We had a very soft launch and now we’re waiting to see how things go as more people become aware.”
The Forest Service hopes to see more data come in with increasing awareness of the program, said biologist Denise Pengeroth.
“We’re behind a desk most of the time, and people out recreating in the field can let us know so we can follow up,” she said.
Although the project has few drawbacks, accurately identifying species that people rarely observe presents a challenge for the public, Pengeroth said. Biologists look at the program as a “first heads up,” when it comes to a species appearing outside of known ranges, she said.
The Forest Service hopes to use the data in studying the distribution of species across the forest. If someone reports a rare species such as a lynx in unknown lynx habitat, biologists will go to the location to investigate, Pengeroth said.
“We try to get physical evidence,” she said. “We want to know what animals are on the forest and what they’re using for habitat.”
An animal may be simply passing through the forest to another area, Pengeroth said, and DNA could prove weather that animal is a resident or visitor.
The data generated through “Have You Seen Me?” goes into a national database for the Forest Service Heritage Program, and can play a role in analysis for on-the-ground projects, she said.
Funding presents another challenge for the project, although costs can vary. Finally, the project depends largely on how much time staff has to investigate the report of a rare species, Pengeroth said.
“If volunteers are putting time in, it’s only right that we be available and put our time in,” she said.
While the Forest Service hopes for data to assist in forest management, Pengeroth echoed Anderson about the importance of public outreach for the project and tying people to the land their tax dollars support.
“We want to bring these species and the forest to the forefront,” she said. “It won’t mean anything to the future if it doesn’t remain relevant.”