Citizen Scientists to the Rescue for Glacier Park

By Beacon Staff

For the two Glacier National Park wildlife biologists who monitor over 70 mammal and 260 bird species, research needs have heaped into a mountain. Scant dollars permit the pair to share only four seasonal science technicians who are funded mostly to monitor wildlife along major park roadways. “There is little opportunity for wildlife technicians to get into the backcountry,” says Park Service ecologist Tara Carolin.

Enter citizen science – a way to solicit more eyes and ears to help. During the past two summers, Glacier Park beefed up its loon studies with volunteers. “We’ve gotten so much data compared to what we’d get with one science technician,” says Jami Belt, who coordinated the successful project. “Citizen science is a way to meet the backlog of research needs.” This summer, while continuing the loon study, the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center (CCRLC) adds two new citizen science projects to its research arsenal.

With one day of classroom and in-the-field training, project coordinators school volunteers in identification, behaviors, tracks, methodology, GPS training and record keeping. Citizen scientists then traipse into the field at their leisure to collect data. “We used standardized training and methods to follow to get information for citizen science projects,” says Belt. “The program has been really successful.”

Drafting volunteers to study loons was so successful that Belt found her volunteers doubling to 156 by the second season. Jim Fiddler and Lisa Discoe, volunteers from Bigfork, even discovered a new nest. “To be involved in something in the park, you feel like you’re a part of preserving it,” says Discoe. “The project gives a purpose to go to the park beyond just hiking or driving.”

Belt’s new park-wide project aims to gather data on three icons of the high country – mountain goats, Clark’s nutcrackers and pikas. “We don’t know the status of these three species,” explains Belt. However, sporadic evidence in recent years hints at dropping populations, perhaps due to diminished habitat from global warming.

At the Goat Lick on U.S. Highway 2, fewer and fewer shaggy white mountain goats clamor up the steep gray cliffs to lap up minerals. Clark’s nutcrackers frequent here less; one recent white bark pine stand study tallied only two per summer. Already, heat intolerant pikas have vanished from some of their historic haunts – prompting the tiny alpine screamer to become the poster child for climate change. Belt aims to amass location and population estimates on these three species before they’re gone.

The CCRLC is also launching a new citizen science project to investigate nonnative plants in the backcountry. Although the park staffs one integrated pest management biologist and 10 seasonal technicians who keep nonnative plants and noxious weeds at bay along roads and developed areas, there’s been no funding to assess the status of invasive species clawing into backcountry meadows. “We’re protective of trying to have this outdoor museum here,” says research program coordinator Susan Sindt. “We just need to get more information on what’s out there.”

After training, she’ll send volunteers on backcountry trails to map five plants, such as spotted knapweed, yellow toadflax and oxeye daisy. Carolin adds, “This citizen science project will be a huge help to the program.”

Volunteers need no special background in science, biology, or ecology – just the desire to aid in the research, which can be worked in to regular hiking routines. Coordinators ask that participants head into the field for at least one day of research during the summer.

The three program coordinators are scheduling training sessions in upcoming weeks. Loon project coordinator Melissa Peterson is also gathering volunteers for the statewide Loon Day on July 19 when she plans to cover all of the park’s 45 loon lakes.

“The science is not hard,” says Discoe. “It just requires being patient.”

For those interested in volunteering, call Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center at 888-7986.

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