How Do We collect Data and Use It to Inform Setting Standards in Conservation and Environmental Law?
What is the role of science and how does it inform conservation strategies and environmental law? Who gets to be a scientist and what does that mean?
About a decade ago, I was teaching fifth grade…
Where I am: Texas, Texas, Yee-haw!
I live in Texas, a unique state for many reasons. Beyond the legend of cowboys and JR Ewing’s oilfields, it surprises most people to learn that these days, Texas is the nation’s leader in renewable energy production (Energy Texas), and home to the most diverse city in the United States (Houston.gov). It also sits on the 100th Meridian, which has historically defined the invisible line between the “green side and the orange side” of the maps in our high school history classes. It also loosely defines the boundaries of the two major surface water rights systems in the United States (riparian and prior appropriation). These days, the orange part of the map is advancing on the Mississippi…
Texas is almost entirely privately owned (about 97%), and is known as being pro-business/low regulation. Pro-business has its drawbacks and Texas was recently identified as the nation’s biggest emitter of toxic substances into streams, rivers and lakes (Houston Chronicle). For conservation to work in Texas, public-private partnerships are vital, and more importantly, stakeholder literacy is paramount. I define literacy functionally as “a lifetime chasing curiosity that allows people to achieve goals, develop knowledge and skills, reach their potential, and realize the value of their voice as a meaningful part of their community and wider society.”
I provide that background as I focus on the tension between “good science,” scientists, stakeholders, and policymakers.
Flashback to 2013: Who is a scientist?
In 2013 I was in my second year teaching fifth grade when an article was published in the Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine describing ways that ordinary people were using iNaturalist to record observations of wild things in their local communities, and how Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) were using that “citizen science” to inform the data they shared with policymakers
I realized this cutting-edge platform would be a fantastic way to create a library of the wildness that surrounded our campus. The campus is geographically blessed in that it includes a wildspace “learning lab” that is unfenced to the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. The “BCP” is a 30,000 acre federally protected endangered species habitat in Austin established in 1996 to protect a couple of birds, including the Golden-cheeked warbler. Along with the urban relationship, the BCP is unique in that it is managed under a first of its kind arrangement with USFWS where the county, city and a mix of public/private landowners participate and manage the Preserve.
I reached out to the TPWD Biologists who wrote the article and asked if they would teach my students and me how to use the platform. With their help we created a “Place” on iNaturalist with a virtual fence-line around the campus that automatically collects and curates every observation inside the fence-line without requiring them to “join” our place. Over the past decade, more than 1,000 students, teachers and even trespassers have created a library of more than 250 species on the campus, providing a legacy of understanding lifecycles, migration, distribution, and population dynamics of everything from butterflies to bobcats (Round Rock ISD Outdoor Learning Lab)
When I proposed iNat to my class, one of the students shook his head and let me know that he had no faith in his “colleagues” to make valid observations. He said, “Mr. Hance, these are kids who don’t know anything! They are going to post pictures of deer and say they are elephants!”
Back then, iNat was 100% crowdsourced, meaning users had to physically type in the name of the species and a different user would manually confirm or disagree with that initial observation. These days the platform suggests species when an observation is uploaded, pretty reliably in most cases. The student’s concern that day could have very well been correct so I put in a few controls to improve the accuracy of our contribution. For instance, students had to confirm the species with me before posting the observation and, because of digital privacy concerns, I controlled the login for each account so if anything went “weird,” I could track it to a specific student and limit their access.
Because iNat was crowdsourced, the student studied the people who confirmed Identifications by keeping a record their biographies and determining if they were “credentialed” or “uncredentialed.” The student then compared whether the credentialed people were more accurate (reliable) in their identifications. He posted 100 observations of our class observations and intentionally misidentified a few (e.g. – “mule deer” instead of “whitetail deer”; we don’t have mulies here in Austin). He ultimately concluded that the uncredentialed folks did just as well as the credentialed (note: that’s not always been the case, things have improved as we’ve shifted to apps with identification technology), and he presented his project at the international Children in Nature Network Conference in 2015.
Golden-cheeked Warbler hits the bigtime
Scientists have historically tracked Golden-cheeked Warblers (and other migratory birds) by putting small bands (“bracelets”) on their legs and hoping to see them in successive years during migration. On one observation of a banded Golden-cheeked Warbler posted by my student, he changed the date, which is significant to high-level biologists who report to TPWD and USFWS. About a year later I received a phone call from a biologist who was reviewing iNaturalist asking if we really saw that bird that year. I had to look back at my files and report that we had not, but it was eye-opening to confirm that the highest qualified scientists in Texas were using scientific data collected and shared by 10 and 11 year old children to inform policymakers.
I should add that of 100 observations, that’s the only one I missed curating at the end of the 100-post “experiment” by my student.
These days, everything from wildlife data to pollution is monitored at various scales through citizen science. One of the newer platforms, MOTUS, uses some pretty old-school radio telemetry and rooftop antennae to help create amazing real-time migration maps. The Christmas Bird Count has relied largely on paper and pencil since 1900 (almost 20 years before Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed) when some ornithologists noticed declining bird populations and wanted to provide an alternative way to connect with birds — other than hunting them (Christmas Bird Count).
That’s a Long way to Literacy
Whew, that’s a lot of storytelling!
Human and non-human populations are on the move, and large tracts of lands are changing quickly due to development or inheritance. Change strains systems and science should be out front informing our response, be it through private practices or government regulation.
Transparency, quality, and reliability of data gathered using citizen science has improved dramatically since I introduced iNaturalist to a bunch of fifth graders a decade ago, but some things remain the same: Beyond the data, connecting with the natural world by contributing to science elevates literacy and builds stronger communities willing to work across the aisle to solve conservation challenges.
Stated another way, logic can change how we think, but emotion changes how we behave. To improve outcomes requires logic and emotion, and hinges on what we experience.
Speaking of Outcomes…
That class from almost a decade go graduated last year. I’ve not seen most of those students since then other than random encounters at the grocery store.
That student who created the iNaturalist study tracked me down on LinkedIn last spring on behalf of his classmates to ask if “old Mr. Hance” would guide them on a hike of the BCP the day before they graduated.
I said it would be an honor.
And of course, at the end of the hike we heard the familiar bird, popped out our phones for a photo, and added another Golden-cheeked Warbler sighting to iNaturalist.