The Practice of Science with Community
by guest writer Tuula Rebhahn
A honey-colored butterfly flits through the meadow and the entire monitoring team stops to watch: The artist-in-residence, the student intern, the photography, the visiting etymologist. To each individual, the butterfly means different things: The fleeting nature of life, the excitement of spotting a rare species for the first time, the return of native flowers to the ecosystem.
At least, that’s how we imagine the next Mardon Skipper sighting here at Vesper Meadow. The butterfly is so rare, it’s a candidate for the federal endangered species list. But, recent research has shown that the Mardon’s largest population cluster in Oregon is right next door to us at Howard Prairie! The Mardon is a beautiful little creature, no more than an inch across, with a stout, hairy body and a gorgeous golden tone.
What makes us so sure we’re going to find one in the upcoming butterfly season? For one thing, Howard Prairie meadow is contiguous to ours, but that doesn’t mean butterflies are going to come here: Our native grasses are not as widespread as Howard Prairie, and these grasses are the key ingredient for Mardon Skipper habitat. So it felt auspicious that one week after the property was purchased in the summer of 2018, local biologist John Villella with the Siskiyou Biosurvey was completing an annual Mardon Skipper survey. At the very end of the Mardon’s two-week flight period, he scoped out a couple of native grass clusters at Vesper Meadow. As luck would have it, a single Mardon happened to be scoping out its favorite grasses here too, and John was able to add it to his butterfly count.
Rare sightings like this one are hugely important for understanding not just what’s happening for one species of butterfly, but similar species across North America. Native butterfly habitat in the Cascades has been reduced to a patchwork of protected lands, and even these are changing quickly as the planet warms. We need to ensure that this area contains habitat refuges for rare and endangered species – butterflies as well as birds, salamanders, invertebrates, grasses, flowering plants, and the list goes on.
To do this, any conservation project must prove to the outside world that the area of concern is ecologically critical. That means gathering data about the individuals and species that rely on that habitat..
That’s where citizen science or even better, community science comes in. Instead of “citizen science,” Vesper Meadow prefers the term “community science” – to participate, citizenship is not required. The work of cataloging and counting the populations that depend on Vesper Meadow will require a widespread and organized effort by a team of mostly volunteers. The citizen scientist is anyone who is passionate about the ecosystem, wants to spend time outside among likeminded individuals, and learn new skills in habitat and species monitoring.
Community science and monitoring is a big part of the plan to transform the severely-impacted Vesper Meadow into a successful nature center and preserve, a crucial habitat adjacent to the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. Anyone can participate in some aspect, and most of the skills needed can be learned on-site.
How does it work? Some of our community scientists will conduct traditional species counts – walking defined paths known as “transects” and counting individuals they see. In addition to paths, we’ll be establishing photo points, which will allow any volunteer to take a picture (or a series of pictures moving in 360 degrees) from the same site for several seasons. This allows us to follow changes over time. In addition, we’d love to see artists doing similar monitoring through a creative lens.
One of our goals here at Vesper Meadow is to demystify the scientific process. How is a botanical area, a monument or a biodiversity hotspot established? By observation; by understanding how soil, climate and history interact to create a place that is like no other. It doesn’t take a lot of specialized training to observe, just some patience and willingness to learn.
That’s right – you, too can be a community scientist at Vesper Meadow! Soon we’ll begin signing folks up for our first bird and butterfly monitoring walks this spring. Be sure you’re on our email list to be informed about opportunities to come out and count. Perhaps you’ll be among the first to sight a new species in 2019!
Vesper Meadow frequenter and volunteer, loves to write
to translate my vast experiences into word nuggets that are philosophical, poetic, interesting and useful – sometimes all at the same time.