Citizen Science in the Wild: From Gun Shops to Wetlands

Dec 21, 2016

Data used to drive decisions about how to manage land and wildlife in the Southwest can come from unexpected sources. Whether counting birds or hunting them, people who enjoy the outdoors are contributing to the science of wildlife management. Maya Springhawk Robnett of the Arizona Science Desk reports…

Bob Miller describes himself as two things: a naturalist and what he calls a “redneck treehugger.” He’s the kind of man who interrupts himself mid-speech to identify a birdcall behind him, or to respond to one.
“I’m not claiming to be a biologist, you know? These are just the things that I’ve learned… Like this little Marsh Wren right here..."  Miller stops to mimic the call he's just heard.

"Pretty soon, I'm running around the Imperial Valley with a library in the backseat of my pickup..."

At the Alamo River Wetlands Project in Brawley, California, greenery surrounds the water and birds chirp from the reeds. This is where Miller spends his free time.

At 60 years old, Miller has almost no higher education. After he graduated high school, he took a few community college classes, and he became a truck driver. A few decades later, a crash ended that career.
That was when a biologist friend gave him a book on birding. And it opened up his world.

"So, pretty soon, I’m running around the Imperial Valley with a library in the backseat of my pickup," he jokes.  "Bugs and snakes and plants and…all of these, you know. Rocks and geology and just—all of these books!”

Before he knew it, Miller was a citizen scientist. After years of getting to know Imperial County’s birdlife, the Bureau of Land Management contracted him for bird surveys in the Algodones Dunes.

“For about seven years, I was doing the bird surveys out there and every year I’d walk about 300 miles a year through the sand dunes doing the surveys. Recorded well over 100 species of birds out there,” he nods.

Miller uploads his daily surveys of birds to websites like eBird and iNaturalist—platforms for citizen-collected data, accessible to researchers and scientists. Today, within a few hours, he has recorded 35 different bird species. He calls it a treasure hunt.

A different kind of hunt motivates others. Chris Mitchell is president of the Yuma Valley Rod & Gun Club. Mitchell says hunters such as himself see how changes in the environment affect wildlife.

"Hunters are good guys and we’re out there for the animals more than we are after the animals..."

“Some of their access over the years has, you know, just basically been cut off by highways or cities or anything else—just urban sprawl," he says.  "Some of these animals have just been confined to a smaller area and they just need the assistance of humans.”

Mitchell says it often surprises people that hunters would want to help.  “I just hope that people keep coming around and realize that hunters are good guys and we’re out there for the animals more than we are after the animals.”

That’s not an uncommon sentiment for hunters.

Ron Gissendanner has hunted all of his life.

“Oh, I was probably five hunting with my dad and my grandfather. And I wasn’t able to hunt yet, but I was right there alongside of them the whole day," Gissendanner recollects.  "And those are memories you can never take away.”

Now a shooting instructor at a local gun shop, the 59-year-old says preserving that long tradition is what makes hunters reliable partners for Wildlife Managers at Arizona Game and Fish. That includes signing on to a requirement that hunters keep count of birds they hunt, sharing that data with Game and Fish, and allowing larger game to be measured and sampled.

“Because that also gives them data that they pull off of that animal when you check it in, being that they may pull blood out of it, they may take a tooth out of it, they may take certain measurements," he explains.  "And that gives them an idea of how healthy the animals are in that area.”

Officials point to successful efforts to revitalize several threatened species, including the pronghorn antelope and the white-tailed deer, using information gathered by people who interact with their environments.