ROUTT NATIONAL FOREST, COLORADO – With mosquitoes swarming around her, Inna Willis inspects the unknown creature trapped in her net with a mix of disgust and fascination. After learning it’s an aquatic beetle larva, Willis discards the unintended catch and moves on, trudging through the muddy water in her borrowed wading boots.
Willis, a graphic design intern at the University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute, is participating in a survey for the Rocky Mountain Amphibian Project on this hot July day with Mason Lee, a project coordinator at the institute.
Though a student at UW, Willis is not pursuing a science degree, nor does she have any particular scientific background. Such is the spirit of community science, aka citizen science, in which volunteers — some untrained in scientific methods — act as foot soldiers in research projects, often by helping collect data in the field.
In July 2020 the Biodiversity Institute announced a move away from using the term citizen in favor of community science in an effort to welcome volunteers to participate regardless of where they were born or call home.
During today’s survey, Willis spots tiger salamander larvae, frog tadpoles and adult boreal chorus frogs.
She will contribute her observations to a vast dataset that helps researchers track amphibian populations over time in the Bridger-Teton, Medicine Bow and Routt national forests.
The amphibian project is a collaboration between the BI and several other partners, including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The BI’s role in RMAP involves recruiting, training and equipping community scientists. Each scientist adopts a survey area in the summer, known as a catchment, collecting data on the amphibians and environmental conditions they find.
Volunteers help researchers cover a wider geographic area over a longer period, said Lee, who manages all community science projects at the BI. Meanwhile, participants get the opportunity to contribute to science and take part in research happening in their area.
Community scientists experience not only the scientific process of data collection but also some of the difficulties of fieldwork.
The catchment that Willis and Lee are surveying in Routt National Forest is identified as Lone Pine Creek on the BI’s website. The site is rated easy but still requires navigating a field of fallen trees, through dense willow patches, alongside a mountain stream and around occasionally deep and muddy waters prone to trapping one’s foot in the stinky sludge.
“Most community science happens on public lands. They’re able to actually go out into the public lands where they would normally go to mountain bike or hike or something, and they get to see a different side of it when they’re doing these projects,” Lee said.
Some RMAP sites require longer hikes to reach, and a few in the Bridger-Teton National Forest even necessitate backcountry camping.
RMAP is the BI’s most intensive program for community scientists, Lee said, and it experiences low volunteer retention rates year-to-year.
Other community science programs at the BI include the Annual Wyoming BioBlitz, the Mullen Fire Initiative, Bi-Annual Moose Day and the Laramie Salamander Migration Initiative.
During Summer Moose Day community scientists adopt routes to drive or hike, searching for moose or signs of them along the way. Volunteers can ski or snowshoe their routes for its winter counterpart. The BI offers training to prepare volunteers and the resulting data are used for research and management by UW and Wyoming Game and Fish.
While the BI only offers moose monitoring routes near Laramie, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation hosts its own Moose Day each winter with routes around Jackson.
Though their contributions are valuable — an observation borne out by research — the BI struggles to recruit community scientists beyond the Laramie area, and few of the RMAP sites outside of Medicine Bow National Forest get adopted by volunteers each summer, Lee said.
While many of the BI’s community science projects are centered around Laramie, the organization is working on expanding its reach to other communities and growing its volunteer base across the state.
“I think community science is important in Wyoming. We don’t have huge population centers. We’re kind of spread out. Community science can help fill in those gaps,” Lee said.
Community scientists on par with experts
Researchers at UW and Wyoming Game and Fish analyzed the contributions of community scientists to the Rocky Mountain Amphibian Project.
One of their findings, according to a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Indicators, suggests competence by volunteers in detecting and identifying amphibian species at their catchments.
The study compared data collected by community scientists and professional biologists that surveyed the same catchments in the same year. The results demonstrated a 77%-99% agreement between the species observations of volunteers and professional biologists at those sites.
The researchers also modeled probabilities for community scientists and biologists in the detection of each species. The modeled estimates were similar for most species except the state’s smallest frog, the boreal chorus frog, whose detection had a higher modeled average probability for biologists (74%) compared to community scientists (44%).
Lee, who contributed to the study and is listed as an author, wasn’t surprised by its findings and emphasized the training and preparation that volunteers at the BI receive.
“They really help magnify the research that’s happening in Wyoming on amphibians because, without them, we wouldn’t be able to monitor these species over time. That paper just reinstates that they’re collecting good quality data, and they’re making a big difference in terms of what professional scientists could do,” Lee said.
‘Preaching to the choir’
Community science is sometimes couched as outreach, essentially as a tool to reach people outside of the scientific community, involve them in the process and improve scientific knowledge among the public. Community impact is often an important aspect that funders use to gauge research projects.
There are issues with this approach though, Lee said.
“A lot of community science, they call it preaching to the choir. People that participate in community science are the ones that are already interested in it,” she said.
Esther Gilman-Kehrer is a clinical associate professor for UW’s Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing and a volunteer through the Wyoming Naturalist Program. The program, coordinated by the BI, Audubon Rockies, Wyoming Game and Fish and Wyoming State Parks, trains participants to become certified naturalists in part through community science work.
Through the program, Gilman-Kehrer participated in this year’s BioBlitz and has adopted a catchment for RMAP. She has also volunteered for the Laramie Salamander Migration Initiative and regularly contributes species observations to the iNaturalist app.
Gilman-Kehrer has years of scientific background and experience in the nursing field, including a master’s degree and a Doctor of Nursing Practice, and took science classes during her undergraduate studies.
She agrees that many of her fellow naturalists and community scientists already come from science and biology backgrounds, and said her motivation for joining the Naturalist Program was to spend more time outdoors and feel a sense of purpose simultaneously.
“I’ve spent my whole life working indoors. I’ve been a nurse practitioner and then a midwife. So, I always worked in the hospital or indoors or in a clinic,” she said. “I never really got out as much as I did when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I was outside all the time.”
With the benefits afforded to volunteers like Gilman-Kehrer, Lee hopes the BI can attract and generate a more collaborative process with the public for building community science projects in the future.
“We would be very happy to work with communities that have a question about something that’s happening in their area,” she said. “If they want to create a project, that’d be awesome.”
This story is supported by a grant through Wyoming’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the National Science Foundation.