Rocky Mountain Conservancy – Citizen Science, Enhancing Scientific Literacy

Warm sunny days are back at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and students have already been spotted measuring willows and counting birds in Horseshoe Park as part of the park’s Elk and Vegetation Management Plan. These students are participating as volunteer citizen scientists. Through citizen science programs, students and visitors can do more than recreate.

Citizen science projects are intended to enhance scientific literacy of the participants and improve the overall stewardship of park resources. Park managers develop scientifically sound practices then train volunteers to use these techniques and collect information for resource related projects. These programs allow participants to experience the park while also helping to address important management questions.

RMNP has a long history of volunteer help in the park and continues to expand this through citizen science. Volunteer projects continue to evolve and have included efforts to test mercury, understand limber pines and even train the next generation of wildland firefighters.

How much mercury is present in the water bodies of RMNP? This is one question citizen scientists are currently helping to answer. The Continental Divide Research Learning Center (CDRLC) brought a nationwide mercury dragonfly study to RMNP over the past two summer seasons. This permitted project is in partnership with the University of Maine and over twenty other parks. Citizen scientists collected dragonfly larvae in the park to be tested for mercury levels. Dragonfly larvae have long life cycles and act as bio-indicators of what is in the water, including mercury.

Citizen scientists for this project have been students who have learned about the life cycle of dragonflies, stream ecology and nutrient cycling. The Dragonfly larvae were collected and sent to laboratories at the University of Maine for analysis. Results from the study are posted online and students can compare the data from the sites in RMNP to other national parks.

Young citizen scientists today will be the stewards of national parks in the future. This idea was the inspiration for another collaborative program. The CDRLC, Alpine Hotshot fire crew members and staff from Eagle Rock School in Estes Park came together to implement a class-based citizen science fire program which focused on authentic hands-on experiences.

Eagle Rock students completed the five week course which included fire safety, ecology, suppression, history, and basic training. Students spent many days in the field applying what they learned in the classroom. They also spent time using the tools of the trade including a day digging fire line with Alpine Hotshot Superintendent, Paul Cerda and Captain, Mark Mendonca.

Jon Anderson, an 11-year veteran instructor at Eagle Rock School, appreciated the opportunity for his students to gain real-life experiences outside of a classroom.

Students were introduced to career paths in firefighting and the National Park Service. Many will volunteer or intern in the park this summer. The course taught 19-year old Jeremy Coles what it means to be a leader.

Another large citizen science effort at RMNP is the limber pine conservation project. During the summer, volunteers, along with park staff, collect cones and forest health inventory data from limber pine stands. Seeds from the cones are stored at the National Seedbank Laboratory in Fort Collins for possible future restoration projects, or at the USFS Dorena Genetic Resources Center in Oregon to be tested for resistance to the invasive White Pine Blister Rust.

Volunteers and park staff also protect 268 individual limber pines by hanging verbenone packets on trees. Verbenone is a chemical which mimics a natural pheromone emitted by the mountain pine beetle. The chemical deceives beetles to believe that there are no mates available in the tree. The limber pine project has been a great example of how highly trained citizen scientists can help protect an important species in the park.

In citizen science no two projects are alike, but they all have common goals: to provide crucial information for resource stewardship, and offer opportunities for people to connect with nature and I have been impressed with the student’s desire and commitment to rise up and meet the challenge of a class that is both physically and mentally challenging,” Anderson said. “The integrated curriculum that Eagle Rock School, the Alpine Hotshots and the CDRLC have developed represents a strong collaborative effort that has significant impacts on both the academic and personal growth of students.”

“Working with the Alpine Hotshots encouraged me to be more on top of my game with life skills and working as a team, being a leader to contribute to make class smooth,” said Coles. “Meeting people from RMNP opened up doors for my future.”

become better stewards themselves. The scope of projects and research may seem as vast as the Continental Divide, but with the help of dedicated citizen scientists, great advances are being made. Citizen science may be a new catch phrase, but it embodies a long tradition of passionate volunteers helping with park stewardship.

To get involved with these or other projects, please contact Ben Baldwin for more information.

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