National Post (Latest Edition)
CWFand the emergence of citizen scientists
The number of citizen scientists is on the rise, and you can thank organizations like the Canadian Wildlife Federation for that. Since its founding in 1962, CWF has been running programs that encourage people to get off the couch and into the wilderness — even if it is simply exploring their backyards or a neighbourhood park. Whenever they go outdoors, i t’s never been easier or more appealing for everyday Canadians to explore, learn about the country’s natural wonders and contribute to science in a tangible way.
That i s what i nspired BioBlitz Canada 150, a Canada 150 signature project funded by the Government of Canada. Led by CWF with its partners in conservation, the far- reaching initiative, colloquially referred to as “Canada’s Nature Selfie,” inspired over 10,000 Canadians from across the country to join experts in documenting the species found during 35 bioblitz events that took place in every province and territory.
And document they did. Using iNaturalist. ca and the associated smartphone application, 7,510 species were catalogued during the bioblitzes and the information is now available to make meaningful conservation decisions. Launched a few years ago by CWF, the Royal Ontario Museum, NatureServe Canada and Parks Canada as a branch of the global iNatualist.org network, iNaturalist Canada allows people to record and share observations of wildlife species.
According to James Pagé, CWF’s species at risk and biodiversity specialist, people can contribute to iNaturalist all year round. “With just a few taps on your smartphone, you can upload a photo of that mysterious flower on your property. The app can automatically identify that flower for you while experts online can confirm its accuracy and you will be helping to grow the database.
“We know of 70,000 documented species in Canada, but experts estimate there are 140,000 that likely exist in the country,” says Pagé. “There’s a lot more information that remains outstanding. Citizen scientists can help.”
Evoking the naturalists of yore like Catharine Parr Traill, author of influential books on Canadian wildflowers in the 1800s, and Frère MarieVictorin, a self- taught botanist who went on to create many of the French names for plants, lovers of the outdoors can become citizen scientists who help monitor our natural world. Take William Van Hemessen — he was the winner of BioBlitz Canada 150’s “top identifier” prize, for successfully recognizing over 3,000 observations submitted to iNaturalist. A Southern Ontario resident, Van Hemessen spends much of his free time contributing to the database.
“Tools like iNaturalist will get more and more people involved in citizen science,” says Van Hemessen, adding that growing threats to our environment require knowledge to be shared. “With the pace of ecosystem change in the 21st century, we can no longer rely on an exclusive handful of experts to gather ecological data. There’s a massive army of brains out there, and for the first time ever we have the tools to collect the myriad of natural history data our citizens can provide.”
Pagé agrees. “I anticipated a big uptake in iNaturalist Canada, but I didn’t realize to what extent,” he says of the 2017 season, adding that the number of observations in the database nearly quadrupled from 113,000 to over 400,000 in the last year alone, including a big upsurge from the Bioblitz Canada 150 events. “The future will lie with traditional scientists and citizen scientists exploring and cataloging nature because the app is easy to use and not everyone needs to be an expert. Those two facts will enable it to take off even more.”
To be sure, Canadians are more informed and impassioned than ever before about the issues of conservation. But the role that technology plays in converting that interest into participation cannot be underestimated. “It’s a game- changer,” says Rick Bates, CWF CEO, explaining that iNaturalist is helping CWF and other conservation organizations advance their research and engage Canadians in bigger and more powerful ways.
Its power was magnified this summer when photo recognition software was introduced into the iNaturalist app and website, allowing a species in an uploaded image to be identified within seconds of submission. “A platform that allows for geo- referencing wildlife, supports instantaneous information and can be accessed by scientists from all over the world can transform the way CWF gets things done,” adds Bates.
With conservation as its founding principle, CWF is focused on conserving nature and encouraging government and industry to adopt practices aligned with the conservation of wildlife. Organizing programs that inspire citizens to care — and take action — are vitally important. Take, for example, CWF’s WILD Family Nature Club, which gets families exploring the outdoors together, or CWF’s WILD Spaces, an educational program that engages students aged nine to 12 to create pollinator habitats and share their experiences through an online classroom.
The organization has magazines, too — WILD for kids, and Canadian Wildlife and its French counterpart Biosphère for adults. These publications highlight Canada’s natural beauty and conservation issues through stunning photography and engrossing stories.
Most recently, CWF introduced the Canadian Conservation Corps (CCC), a new service program funded by the Government of Canada as part of the Canada Service Corps. Through CCC, 90 young people aged 18 to 30 will have the opportunity to take part in an unprecedented nine-month training program featuring a wilderness journey, comprehensive field training and community service projects.
“It’s really important for people to engage in the outdoors generally, but also for people to get involved in conservation projects, whether l earning about t hem or participating in them,” says Bates. “The environment is so important, if we don’t take care of it, our economy suffers, our health suffers, and our culture suffers.”
Which brings us back to everyday scientists and their future value. “I foresee the trend to continue of everyday people contributing to the science and conservation of species in Canada,” says Pagé. And CWF is leading the way.