Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Building community-based monitoring

Latrobe students quantifying the effects of fire
in the Little Desert NP.
(Photo: John Morgan)
I teach undergrad Botany and Ecology at La Trobe University. My university has a really good reputation for training field-based biologists, and many of our graduates are now making great contributions to conservation through their work in ecological consultancies, local government, government research organisations, NGOs, environmental education and parks management. Many of the undergrads I teach, particularly the mature-aged students, have a real passion for the natural world and really know that they want to make a difference.

As part of my outreach activities, I also engage with local community groups - such as Friends Groups (like my local group called Holly Hill Revegetation Group), local plant groups (e.g. Australian Plant Society), Landcare Groups and naturalist societies. This is also really rewarding - here's a bunch of (mostly) amateur enthusiasts wanting to making their local environment better, and protect what little bits we have left by taking an active interest in their management. Unlike the university students I teach, many of these people don't know much about biology and ecological principles. I see my role here as one of educating to ensure better outcomes.

Engaging with the "community" is a crucial way to get them interested in natural systems and harness their desire to do positive things. We've done this well on many fronts. One thing that is really taking off amongst these community groups is the field of citizen science monitoring. Here, local people are keeping tabs of environmental change in their local area, often doing excellent work that universities and governments are unable to do. WaterWatch is a good example of a programme that relies on volunteers to assess water quality in local catchments.

This is a great way to engage with people. But is it useful as a scientific activity to improve management by changing land management practices, i.e. learning by doing and then adapting management? I don't want to get into semantics about the quality of data that is collected, or the motivations of people who collect data. I'm more interested in thinking about "what is useful monitoring" and how to we maximise the benefits we get from such monitoring.

I've been musing about this a little because I'm often asked to help design monitoring for community groups, knowing full well that such monitoring, to be useful, needs to be simple, long-term and consistent. Here's a couple of suggestions that might help us think about what useful monitoring might be.

1) Identify the 'problem' first! The best monitoring has a clear question(s) / objective in mind from the outset that really determines what the monitoring should be and how it should be undertaken. Importantly, the information gained from the monitoring should help establish better practices in the future rather than just documenting change.

Planting Buloke trees into ex-pasture
(Photo: John Morgan)
Here's a simple example. Your local Landcare Group is revegetating some upper slopes box ironbark woodlands and will plant tubestock to establish trees. Your main concern is the need for weed control in the initial establishment phase because you've observed that establishment success seems patchy in previous years. Hence, it would seem logical to (a) plant some trees into intact understorey and (b) plant some trees where you've sprayed the understorey out. You count the number of individuals in each area then return yearly to recount the trees to assess survival. A more nuanced monitoring would record tree height to see if plants are also growing faster where there are no competitors in the initial phases. This might seem an obvious "experiment" but it is worth monitoring because the outcomes would really help us better use our resources - should we spray weeds out  or if we don't need to spray, can we plant more trees. This monitoring might highlight where the real problem lies too. Trees might do really poorly in both areas because of herbivores, or low soil moisture per se, hence allowing us to design better plantings in future. While this monitoring may not be that "exciting" to do, it is very useful.

2) Keep it simple! When thinking about monitoring, the best information tends to be that which addresses Primary Questions. I tend to think of ecological questions as exiting in a hierarchy that span from Primary, Secondary and Tertiary level questions. Here's an example, about mistletoes.

Mistletoes are really important in woodland and forest ecosystems in Australia because they are food and habitat for a whole heap of birds and animals, and have important roles to play in nutrient turnover. Hence, if I was an restoration practitioner who had been planting trees in agricultural landscapes for connectivity, habitat enhancement, etc, I'd be keen to ask the following (hierarchical) questions:

Dropping Mistletoe
(Photo: http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/189316/)
Primary: Are mistletoes naturally colonising revegetation plantings?
Secondary: Does distance to nearest patch of remnant vegetation affect whether mistletoes are colonising reveg plantings?
Tertiary: Are mistletoes more numerous on some reveg tree species than others?

Hopefully you can see here that the Primary Question, about whether mistletoes are colonising plantings, is probably the most important question to ask first. It is probably also a pretty simple question to answer with monitoring: go out to XX planting sites and search for mistletoe colonisation on trees. Record which plantings have them. The information derived from this exercise informs us about their capability to recolonise reveg plantings, and from this we can start to understand the Secondary and Tertiary Questions. However, there is no need to ask the latter questions if the answer to the Primary Question is "No". You can see from this example, the monitoring could be very simple - there is not need to complicate things initially. Resurveying plantings 3-5 yrs later would then tell us about whether the situation is stable or changing.

3) Archive data somewhere!  Citizen science is a great concept, but for it to be useful, the data that is collected needs to be stored somewhere that is accessible into the future. Importantly, the data needs to be used periodically to inform understanding and leverage decision making processes.  Most ecologists who study long-term dynamics do so knowing that dynamics will span decades. In Australia, there are ecological experiments that have now been going for many years (in some cases 50-100), but they are only valuable because the data is archived and can be accessed for future comparison. Indeed, the new Terrestrial Ecological Research Network (TERN), a federal government initiative, is almost entirely about databasing old and new data. This will be a great resource for scientists over the coming century if it can be maintained. A similar approach is needed for citizen science.

This might span a range of scales. If your local bush group is into collecting information about birds and plants, perhaps by annual surveys, then this data is most useful if archived in national databases where such records already occur. The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) is a superb repository for such data - species location records are a powerful way of observing changes over time. Because these databases are free to access, they really are an excellent place to put your data (which you can then always access) and they allow others to profit from your hard work. Imagine 25 years of bird count data, collected from across Melbourne, being in the ALA and accessible for all. It would give a great overview of the status of native birds in a rapidly growing city. Indeed, such databases are already contributing to this understanding. WaterWatch is an excellent example of collecting data and archiving it as an online resource - it's worth checking out.

Of course, there are much smaller scale ways of archiving data. In local Friends Groups, perhaps the group nominates a 'data manager' and their role is to report annually on what data was entered into their local database. If this was minuted each year, it would be pretty easy to know what was being monitored and where that data resided. I often think it would be great if I could access dates of burning of native grasslands where local groups have now been monitoring them for years. Sadly, such data is not being kept.

This returns me to my original thoughts - be clear about what it is you are monitoring, and why? If it is just to engage with local communities, let's not call it monitoring. Let's call it scientific outreach where we teach people how to monitor. But if we are to monitor, let's do it well and have a clear reason for doing it. And let's use the information being collected to make better environmental decisions.

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