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September 2007

I, Citizen Scientist

Learn how you can help combat climate change by researching everything from Alaska's Bering Glacier to tracking pumas in Argentina through citizen scientist programs

After an afternoon spent mapping the research site using GPS coordinates, we return to the cottage and dig into plates of shepherd’s pie, a specialty of Newman’s Yorkshire family. We’re weary and famished. Fieldwork is hard. “I wish we had a pedometer to count how many miles we’re hiking every day,” says Tina Woolston.

“It’s not the mileage, it’s the terrain,” says Kaye


Before turning in, we set up a betting pool. How many mice will we find in our traps tomorrow morning? Ten, say Gamper and Goodwin. Twenty, says the elder Bonazzi.

“Twenty!” exclaims David Outman, Bonazzi’s trapping partner. “R.D., let’s talk about this.”

They settle on 15. Kaye and I are in for nine. We turn in thinking warm, happy thoughts about rodent trapping.

On the drive to the research site the next morning, I notice a notepad sitting next to the radio. It’s marked ROAD KILL. “Taking notes?” I ask.

“Yes, we’ll keep track to see if there are any seasonal patterns to what turns up on the road,” says Newman. “A lot of what we do is trawling, or collecting data without any specific hypothesis. We’ve got hypotheses we’re testing too, of course, but with long-term records we’re often not sure how they’ll be useful. Maybe it’ll come to nothing. Maybe we’ll answer a question we haven’t thought to ask yet.”

On the hike in, we spot the back half of a mouse that’s been torn apart by a predator. We volunteers proudly note that it’s a jumping mouse–we can see its distinctively long hind feet and lengthy tail. “Sure, you can identify it,” Newman says. “But what caused its death?” We stand there puzzling it out. Then Newman answers: “Lack of torso, I’d say.”

The moment of truth: trap-checking time. Eight volunteers race through the forest like children on Christmas morning. “If the door is open, don’t touch the trap,” Buesching tells us. “The less scent we leave on them, the better.” Ten, 20, 50, 100 traps. All empty.

“Well, high marks for consistency,” Newman says. He and Buesching aren’t worried. This is typical, they tell us. Rodents won’t be tempted until they become more comfortable with the strange, metallic objects in their territory.

We do some more mapping, and attach 10 camera traps to trees. (The motion-sensitive cameras will snap a photo of any animal that walks by.) Then, in the late afternoon, it’s back for another trap check. This time, we have something.

At the edge of the forest, Buesching places the trap inside a plastic bag and cautiously opens the metal hinge. Out pops a chipmunk. “Male, in breeding condition,” Buesching says. Newman weighs it with a field scale, then clips a bit of guard hair to mark it, so they’ll know they’ve already counted this animal. Tests done, the chipmunk scurries off.

Buesching, Newman, and the volunteers head back to the van. The volunteers are a bit dejected. The score stands at Small Mammals 99, Humans 1.

Newman isn’t disappointed, though. He knows more data will come. And indeed, over the next nine days, the team will find plenty of evidence: fresh deer and black bear droppings, photos of raccoons in the camera traps, and the remains of a porcupine killed by a fisher. (Despite the name, fishers don’t eat fish, but are renowned for their ability to kill porcupines by attacking them in the face.) The traps didn’t yield much–three more chipmunks and three red-backed voles–which surprises Buesching and Newman. “We had a late-spring snowstorm here,” Buesching says, “and that might have left them without food.” The fresh bear poop and the fisher kill excite the volunteers, but the scientists take a more dispassionate view of the findings. Everything they find, even the empty mouse traps, is useful information.

“These are long-term studies,” Newman tells me, “and we’re just starting. It might be years before we know if climate change is affecting porcupines, chipmunks, or other mammals–or isn’t. Only by knowing where and how many there are in 2007 can we possibly know if their population has changed by 2017. It could be that we’ll be saying, ‘We used to find chipmunks here, but we don’t anymore.’ By collecting this data now, we can look back and see what’s changed–and say it with certainty.”

In other words, that wasn’t just a chipmunk. That was the beginning of 20 years of scientific data that just might help save the world.

Bruce Barcott now recognizes the animal droppings around his home in Boulder, CO.

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