Citizen Science Takes Flight in the Backcountry

at_3If you climb up into the mountains surrounding Jackson Hole, your reverie might be interrupted by a series of loud, rolling squawks. The Clark’s nutcracker does not sing sweetly, but this bird is capable of calling us to action.

In summer of 2016, some 200 students answered this call by listening intently during short surveys for nutcrackers in Wyoming’s Wind River and Teton mountain ranges. Their mission? Participate as citizen scientists to help conserve mountain ecosystems. Citizen science is a growing field in which people who are not professional scientists nevertheless contribute data to larger research efforts.

As the primary seed disperser of the whitebark pine, the Clark’s nutcracker is a symbol for the larger ecosystem. Tough and stately, the whitebark pine shelters less-hardy plants and its calorie-dense seeds feed over 30 species of animals. However, these rugged trees are in serious trouble. Out the backdoor in the Tetons, dying whitebark pines advertise another truth: our society’s collective actions in the frontcountry can take a toll deep in the backcountry.

at_1If you’ve road-tripped through the Rockies, you many have noticed large stands of dead, beetle-killed trees. Climate change has allowed the mountain pine beetle to wreck havoc at lower elevations and also to creep higher into whitebark pine habitat. When you add in an invasive fungus, white pine blister rust, the result is that one out of every two whitebark pines across the continent has been killed off. If we are going to save the whitebark pine – and the precious interconnectedness of our ecosystem – we need to re-plant it in areas where Clark’s nutcrackers live.

Each Clark’s nutcracker may hide as many as 98,000 seeds per year in small piles underground. The caches they neglect to retrieve grow into the next generation of whitebark pines, so restoring the tree in the absence of Clark’s nutcrackers would be a costly dead end.

In order to unravel the habitat preferences of a bird that favors rugged terrain, we need the help of people who favor rugged terrain. Course groups from the National Outdoor Leadership School and Teton Science School stepped up to the task while on backcountry expeditions this summer. In its first year, the Clark’s Nutcracker Citizen Science Project generated data and provided a hands-on, learning opportunity.at_2

The nutcracker-whitebark relationship opens a door to the larger story of interconnectedness in an ecosystem. Students grasp how everything from grouse-whortleberry to grizzly bears intertwine in the same story. They begin to understand how their actions below the mountains affect what happens in the mountains.

Firsthand observations can empower students in a way that a lecture cannot. When we witness dying forests, a complex reality becomes tangible: we are all part of this problem. However, if we are willing to slow down and observe the wild places we love, the raucous call of the Clark’s nutcracker reminds us that we may each play a meaningful role in future solutions.