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Wild Side: Citizens contribute to scientific research and monitoring

Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter Trout Unlimited volunteers conducting habitat monitoring on the upper Trimbelle River last year. (John Kaplan photo)

For hundreds of years people who were not professional scientists but who were interested in natural history made remarkable discoveries. They made sampling instruments, measurements, collections and careful drawings, shared observations, and wrote descriptions of the world, life on Earth and of the universe.

They contributed to the development of the scientific method and the basis of our understanding of the natural world as we know it today. Now, non-professional scientists are still making significant contributions to science.

Citizen science, also called Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR), has been around for a long time but has recently taken off with a new generation of projects, volunteer participants, tools, Internet resources, and mobile devices.

Are you interested in plants, birds, frogs, fish, wildlife, weather, geology or water quality? Want to participate in scientific projects and experiments? Do you like to take photographs and share them with others? Want to contribute to the inventory of life on Earth?

Now there are many opportunities for public participation in scientific research (PPSR). You don’t have to go to monthly meetings or invest in expensive equipment. You can learn scientific observation methods and contribute to a project of interest to you.

Locally, you can participate in stream monitoring and do work on trout stream habitat projects with the Trout Unlimited Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter. Kent Johnson, a water quality specialist for the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services in the Twin Cities, has volunteered thousands of hours monitoring streams in our region. He established a trout stream monitoring protocol for Driftless Area streams used by TU and the DNR. With the help of TU Chapter members, Johnson has monitored the Kinnickinnic River since 1992, compiling one of the longest river monitoring records in Wisconsin.

The Prairie Enthusiasts St. Croix Valley Chapter welcomes volunteers to monitor and work on prairie and oak savanna restorations.

There are many larger-scale projects under way. You can participate in the annual Great Back Yard Bird Count with the Audubon Society. This year’s bird count was completed in February and results are being posted on-line.

The International Crane Foundation sponsors an annual Midwest Crane Count in mid-April with over 2,000 participants in six states to monitor sandhill and whooping crane populations.

The Wisconsin Geological Survey encourages volunteers to investigate and report on rock outcrops in the state.

The National Weather Service Cooperative Observing Program out of Chanhassen, Minn., trains volunteer weather observers who collect real-time weather observations needed to improve weather forecasting and to study climate change.

Over 1,000 people are currently participating in the DNR-sponsored West Central Wisconsin Lakes Water Quality Monitoring Program. There are training sessions for new volunteers, on-line training, data analysis and reporting.

Water Action Volunteers (WAV) is a statewide program for Wisconsin citizens who want to learn about, monitor, and improve the quality of Wisconsin’s streams and rivers. The program is coordinated through a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin-Cooperative Extension. 

Internationally, the Encyclopedia of Life project is systematically bringing together information about all life forms. You can contribute to this project by taking lessons on observing protocols and then making photographs and sending in observations with a cell phone.

The EarthWatch Institute is an international charity working with professional and citizen scientists internationally on a variety of projects. EarthWatch has contributed to enlightened environmental management policies, attaining conservation goals and making ground-breaking scientific findings.

EarthWatch expeditions provide opportunities for a fascinating vacation to learn and work with scientists on subjects of your interest. People from all over the world, all ages and backgrounds, participate in EarthWatch expeditions. They have a passion for protecting the planet and its wealth of species.

Henri Poincare (1852 – 1912), the French mathematician, physicist and engineer once said, “If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”

The theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) said, “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” Citizen science provides the opportunity to closely observe nature and to know it better.

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