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Celeste Headlee January 9, 2006

For years, federal and state governments have cut funding for wildlife protection. That's led to complaints from biologists who say they don't have enough money to adequately do their jobs, but it's also led to a new movement. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Celeste Headlee reports on how citizens are starting to take over duties once performed by trained scientists:

Ray Rustem says wildlife biologists these days are often chained to their desks.

"Years ago, when I first started with the Department of Natural Resources, wildlife habitat biologists spent quite a bit of time in the field actually doing fieldwork. With the types of things that are going on now, they've become much more in getting the planning done and we've had to shift some of that fieldwork done to the technician level. Frankly, yeah, we could always use additional people out there."

Rustem is with the Wildlife Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says state funding has fallen steadily for years, and one way he's made up the difference is by involving Michigan citizens. Rustem says the DNR uses dozens of volunteers for its frog and toad survey in the early part of the summer.

"This is our tenth year and we've got at least 120 people who've been doing this all ten years. That's a tremendous amount of data that's being provided for us on information about species and where they're located."

Many groups are now using so-called citizen scientists to collect data. Sally Petrella is a biologist who works with the non-profit organization the Friends of the Detroit River.

"We've cut out so much of the funding for regular science that there's a real lack, and citizen scientists can cover far more areas than professionals can, at a much lower cost."

Petrella is standing beside the murky, reed-choked waters of the Rouge River Watershed. It's home to six species of frogs and toads. Every summer, Friends of the Detroit River enlists the help of 700 people to listen for the creatures as they call to each other from the marshy grasses.

Petrella is standing beside one of her more loyal volunteers… Al Sadler. Sadler admits that part of the appeal is the walk along the banks of the river… but he also believes that public participation in wildlife protection has become an absolute necessity.

"I think that it's required if we plan on keeping any wildlife areas around. I think that if citizens don't get involved, I think that people won't know what they're going to miss, and before we know it, there won't be much wild places left."

Sadler is a fairly typical citizen scientist. He has a day job as an engineer and volunteers in his spare time, but there are also people with advanced degrees in biology and wildlife management who are called citizen scientists simply because they don't work for the government.

Dennis Fijakowski is one of those people. He's the executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.

"We can't count on the government to do everything for us. We have to be a part of the solution."

Fijakowski says ordinary people have made important contributions to wildlife conservation. He says the lynx was considered extinct in Michigan until a trapper caught one, and a rare Great Gray Owl was discovered on a national wildlife refuge last spring by a photographer.

"You look back at the conservation history of our state and it was citizen led. All of the important, the milestone decisions, legislation… it was citizen led."

John Kostyack with the National Wildlife Federation says involving citizen scientists is great, but…

"They're not really a substitute for having staff in the wildlife agencies… state and federal and tribal. Because they are the ones who are going to take this initial data, which is going to be very rough from volunteers, and then use it to decide upon where to take the research next."

And there have been cases in which citizen scientists have clashed with state and federal governments. They are consistently at odds with government officials over issues related to global warming and the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy is locked in a bitter battle with state biologists over whether the state is home to a viable cougar population.

The Conservancy's Dennis Fijakowski acknowledges that the union between government biologists and citizen scientists may not always be an easy one, but he says the involvement of residents in the protection of their state's wildlife can only be a good thing.

"Because all anyone of us wants is that we pass on a wild legacy to our children and grandchildren… and we're not going to if we don't get our acts together."

Many organizations offer citizens the opportunity to get involved in data collection, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For the GLRC, I'm Celeste Headlee.
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