CWFand the emer­gence of ci­ti­zen sci­en­tists

National Post (Latest Edition) - - CONSERVATION - ELISA BIRNBAUM

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.

SARAH BONNETT

BioBlitz Canada 150 top species iden­ti­fier Will Van Hemessen tak­ing in­ven­tory.

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