Harnessing public interest in Yellowstone's wolves with a citizen science website aimed at improving research and public outreach
Each year, Yellowstone National Park attracts millions of visitors, many of which come with the goal of watching and photographing the park’s abundant wildlife, particularly wolves. Wolves were successfully reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, and ever since, the Yellowstone Wolf Project has been collecting one of the most extensive and long-term datasets of any mammal in the world. Despite the considerable effort expended by the Project’s crews to collect these data, we have the potential to dramatically improve and expand a number of their datasets by tapping into the large pool of photographic data collected by wildlife watchers, professional photographers, and visitors to Yellowstone. We are proposing to create a citizen science website that would act as a central hub for collecting and displaying visitor photos and accompanying data on wolves in Yellowstone.
Our proposed site would allow the public to upload their photographs of wolves and describe when and where they saw the animals as well as their suspected identity and pack affiliation. We would then cross-check these photos for quality and validity and extract the data necessary to answer questions about pack composition, individual histories, and individuals’ infection status with sarcoptic mange, a mite infection that causes hair-loss and increased mortality. The site would in turn act as an educational tool for the wolf-watching community and general public, displaying photographic histories of individual wolves, maps of territory ranges, information on pack compositions and genealogy, as well as highlighting some of the Wolf Project’s most recent research.
Why this matters and should be exciting to backers: The return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has been one of the most successful wildlife reintroductions in history. The wolves’ visibility and the park’s commitment to monitoring them has yielded some of the best data on predator-prey dynamics, survival and reproduction, genetics, and infectious disease within a wild population. However, there are a number of questions that we currently struggle to answer because we don’t have fine-enough temporal resolution in our data. For example, the ongoing outbreak of sarcoptic mange appears to be having a negative impact on the population. In our efforts to understand who gets infected, who recovers, and why, we need monthly observations of all radio-collared and uniquely identifiable individuals to determine their disease status. This is too big of a task to pursue with a limited field crew; but with the help of all the park’s visitors who take photos, it becomes much more feasible. Thus, our citizen science website will be an exiting opportunity to broaden and strengthen the public’s involvement and investment in the science that we are pursuing in Yellowstone.
What your money can do: The funds raised through this effort will cover the development of a top-notch website that is dynamic and user-friendly and which allows us to efficiently organize and file all the incoming data. Any funds raised above and beyond our goal will be used to upkeep and expand the site. For example, if successful, we may broaden the public’s involvement by creating a portion of the site that trains and allows users to identify individuals in the uploaded photos so that they are actively part of the data collection process.
Potential discoveries: A citizen science website, and successful public involvement, will allow us to ask a whole new set of scientific questions. For example, repeated observations of known individuals, in the form of photographs, may allow us to better understand who gets infected with sarcoptic mange, who recovers, and why---all of which have implications for the long-term trajectory of the wolf population. We may get better estimates of dispersal rates by being able to track uniquely identifiable, un-collared individuals over time. Photographs taken during the breeding season may give us better data on breeding events---who bred with whom? By having a better record of pack composition over time, we may discover what drives the survival and cohesion of the pack as a unit. In addition to these potential scientific discoveries, we anticipate this site being a source of discovery and education for the public. An informed and invested public is key to the success of conservation efforts throughout the region.
Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
If we are successfully funded, one of the ongoing challenges will be to build a community of engaged citizen scientists that regularly contribute to our website and help us continually shape and improve the site’s content. We want this to be as much of a resource for the community as it will be for us! Pending funding, we are ready to mobilize a large advertising campaign that will tap into the already-well-organized community of wolf-watchers and photographers in Yellowstone. Furthermore, we have several staff dedicated to seeing this effort succeed---whether that be through ongoing outreach, future website expansion and improvement, or the development of new research avenues using the data we hope to collect. We are ready for the challenge!
Our video was created by Erik Rochner, an MFA candidate in science and natural history filmmaking at Montana State University. Check out his site at: http://www.rochnerfilms.com.