National Post (Latest Edition)

CWFand the emergence of citizen scientists

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

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