Nate Schweber

Hunting for wolverines with citizen scientists

Across the country, volunteers are helping scientists gather crucial data to answer pressing environmental questions

HIGH UINTAS WILDERNESS, Utah — Since they married in 2012, Joe and Laurén Flower have enjoyed exploring their colossal backyard. Their hometown of Salt Lake City backs up to the hulking Uinta Mountains, whose quartzite peaks were first mapped by mountain men in the 1820s when they trapped a fearsome animal they called the carcajou. Native Americans called it a skunk-bear, and today it is known as the wolverine.

Like Old Ephraim, Utah’s famous last grizzly bear, the elusive, sharp-toothed, long-clawed wolverine was believed to have been extirpated long ago from these steep slopes. The last one spotted here was in 1979, and it was dead.

Then in 2014 a wildlife biologist’s motion-activated camera photographed a lone live wolverine. The Forest Service wanted to know more about whether wolverines had returned to the Uintas, or if one had just passed through. But the agency lacked the resources to send employees on long off-trail hikes to set up cameras in the rugged country and collect more clues.

Like domestic cats, wild cats like to play with shiny, dangling objects, so volunteer Joe Flower hangs a blank CD from a tree in the hopes of attracting a lynx.
Nate Schweber

So the Flowers and scores of others volunteered to do the job for free.

“You’re building a deeper relationship with your landscape and the place you live,” Laurén Flower, 32, an elementary school teacher, said as she sat by a campfire next to her husband on a mountain they had scaled to set up a wolverine camera.

Added Joe Flower, 31, a graduate student, “I’ve been backpacking this range since I was a kid. To be a part of finding out if there are wolverines here is a dream.”

Across the country, volunteers such as the Flowers are finding ways to help scientists gather crucial data to answer a myriad of pressing environmental questions, especially in the field of wildlife biology. The enthusiasm of these so-called “citizen scientists” is being tapped by agencies like the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the National Geological Service as well as by universities, scientific institutions and wildlife advocacy groups — even as some lawmakers have taken issue with their work.

Professional wildlife biologists and land managers say that modern technology has led to an explosion of opportunities for people with all kinds of outdoor skill sets to help gather more scientific information than ever before.

“Anecdotally, we can say that interest in citizen science is growing, and quickly,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington D.C.

Because citizen scientists work ad hoc on a variety of projects, no national organization exists to track all their work, various officials say. But in just the last decade, opportunities have emerged for tens of thousands of volunteers to help scientists monitor natural phenomena such as the timing of tree and flower blooms; the distribution of bees, butterflies and moths; the numbers of trout in Yellowstone National Park; the health of mountain goats and pikas in Glacier National Park; the abundance of species in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; and the status of birds across the continent.

“The future looks bright for citizen scientists,” said Chandler S. Robbins, 96, who in 1966 started one of America’s longest-running citizen science projects, the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

That survey recently helped scientists with an Audubon Society report troubling declines in certain species of birds. David Ziolkowski, a program biologist for the survey based in Laurel, Maryland, said cell phones that take high-quality photos and pinpoint exact locations via satellite ensure that scientists get excellent data.

“The floodgates are open wide,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

Volunteers on the ground

The rise in opportunities inspired Gregg Treinish to found Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation in 2011. He calls the Bozeman, Montana-based organization “a project management service” that matches volunteers with the right outdoor skill sets with professional scientists.

Courtney Frost, at left in blue, a biologist for the Gallatin National Forest in Montana, instructs a group of volunteers before they hike into Utah’s Uinta Mountains to help search for wolverines.
Nate Schweber

“The need was very clearly there on the scientific side — we live in a world that gets very little funding for sciences, far less than is needed,” he said. “There is a group of tens of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts who have shared the feeling that I have experienced of wanting to do more, wondering how to benefit the world.”

When Adventurers for Science and Conservation received a grant from the National Forest Foundation this year to search the Uintas for wolverines and lynx, a rare wildcat, it was a significant moment. According to Kimberly Hersey, mammal conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Natural Resources, it proved that volunteers help scientists “get data we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get because of manpower, resources and funding.” 

Wolverines have massive home ranges, and roam some of the most treacherous and remote regions of the country. Scientists say the Uintas could potentially be an excellent habitat for wolverines, an animal once considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In mid-June, Mike Quist Kautz, a program director for Adventurers for Science and Conservation, gave the second of two training sessions to around four dozen men and women ranging from their 50s to their teens, including Sophie Adelman, who celebrated her 17th birthday learning how to set a backwoods bait station.

“It’s one I won’t forget,” she said.

To attract wolverines and lynx, Kautz showed the group how to attach sections of beef bones and squares of carpet to trees. For the wolverines, the volunteers smeared the bones with an acrid brown paste, Gusto, made from the anal glands of skunks and muskrats. For the lynx, they sprayed the carpet with a knockoff of the Calvin Klein cologne Obsession.

Mike Quist Kautz, a program director for Adventurers for Science and Conservation, shows the proper way to attach baits with scents to a tree in the backcountry.
Nate Schweber

“I don’t know why cats like this,” Kautz said, “but they do.”

Each volunteer committed to return in July, August and September to check the cameras and reapply the scents. Dory Trimble, 26, a project manager at a hospital in Salt Lake City, said she would consider it “an incredible gift” to help find a wolverine. But it wasn’t a completely blissful experience. She hacked and threw the crook of her elbow to her nose when she cracked her bottle of Gusto.

“Once the gag reflex kicks in you just have to flee,” she said.

Treinish says one of his goals is to turn volunteers into advocates for conservation. He says his group works vigilantly with professional scientists to teach volunteers proper scientific standards, objectives and criteria for data collection — lest they be accused of having an agenda.  

“Our viewpoint is that when you can use scientific data to make a decision,” he said, “that is conservation.”

Defining the boundaries


In some parts of the rural west, gathering data for scientific decision-making can sound like a precursor to government regulation. As a result, not everybody has welcomed the work of citizen scientists. In March, Wyoming passed a law that criminalized the possession of scientific data by any citizen caught trespassing on private property. The law garnered widespread media attention because it was signed soon after a dozen ranchers sued a member of an environmental group who they accused of trespassing on their private property in order to collect samples proving that cows allowed to defecate in streams were spreading high levels of the E coli bacteria.

The bill’s author, State Senator Larry Hicks, said it is a “gross mischaracterization” to say that the law is meant to impede citizen science. Rather, he said it is to make sure that people take their environmental concerns to “proper regulatory authorities” rather than act as “self-appointed vigilantes.”

“Look, when you’re collecting data it’s for a purpose, it’s not for your personal enjoyment, the whole reason we needed a new statue is to deal with the data,” Hicks said. “If you’re a quote ‘citizen scientist’ that doesn’t give you some sort of additional immunity from the law.”

Justin Pidot, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and an outspoken critic of the bill said it has already had a “chilling effect.”

Volunteer Dory Trimble sprays a patch of carpet nailed to a tree with a knockoff of the Calvin Klein cologne “Obsession.”
Nate Schweber

“It’s described as protecting private property, but there are already trespass laws on the books, so it’s not really about trespass — it’s about this information that’s being collected,” he said. “It’s a worrisome issue because in many circumstances politically powerful groups have an incentive to conceal problems that they’re causing.”

Part of Hicks’ concern has to do with the term “citizen scientist,” a catchall that has in the past included everything from environmental agitators to hobbyist naturalists to professionals who studied science but went on to take jobs in different fields. But throughout history, some of the most important contributors to wildlife sciences have been people who weren’t employed in an official capacity. Charles Darwin was not on the payroll of the ship The Beagle when he sailed to the Galapagos in 1835. Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell were working as writers in 1888 when they founded the Boone and Crockett Club in New York City, a hunter-conservationist group for “inquiry into and the recording of observations on the natural history of wild animals.” Rachel Carson was trained as a marine biologist before she noticed a correlation between the spraying of the pesticide DDT and the disappearance of songbirds. (One of the people she contacted to gather the data that led to her historic book “Silent Spring” was Robbins, who was then starting the North American Breeding Bird Survey.)

Experts say we can expect more of this in the future. “With large-scale science questions to answer, technology advancing and science budgets shrinking, citizens will continue to provide an important role,” said Kelly Lotts, a project manager with Butterflies and Moths of North America, a project that relies heavily on volunteers.

In Yellowstone National Park, fisheries biologist Todd Koel has since 2002 compiled data provided by volunteer anglers to track the status of native cutthroat trout. A key food for more than 40 different species of wildlife, the fish is now under threat by non-native trout.

“People consistently say that they have this feeling that they’ve been taking from the park for so many years,” he said. “This allows them to contribute something back, and we have created a lot of good, informed people.”

“If you have a citizen who can return to the same spot again and again, you get a much clearer picture of what’s there. It’s the re-democratization of science, it’s bringing it back to the people.”

Rich Hatfield

Endangered species conservation biologist

Rich Hatfield, an endangered species conservation biologist with the organization Xerces, which studies insects, said that in the last 18 months he has received almost 6,000 photographs of bees from volunteers in 49 states as well as from Canadian provinces. The volunteers have helped prove that there are still populations of a rare rusty-patched bumblebee in three states where professional scientists previously thought there weren’t.

“If you have a citizen who can return to the same spot again and again, you get a much clearer picture of what’s there,” he said. “It’s the re-democratization of science, it’s bringing it back to the people.”

In the Uintas, the volunteers had not yet found any wolverines, but off the shoulders of 12,000-foot peaks they found mule deer and moose loping through aspen forests carpeted with calypso orchids and morel mushrooms.

“Ultimately, you’re planting a prayer and hoping that somebody will pick up the scent and come explore,” Joe Flower said to his wife as they scouted a steep drainage for the right spot to set a bait station.

After they teetered over shaky wet logs to cross a mountain stream, Lauren Flower said she was excited to see the seasons change as they returned over the summer to check the remote cameras.

“I’ve been reminded of how important this place is to me,” she said. “I’m glad I’m here.”

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