Sunday, July 17, 2016

Citizen Science

It’s mid-July and we've had some pleasant, coolish days. To make it even better, the mosquitoes and flies are taking a bit of a hiatus. Wait, what?

We’re heading into the crunch season of irrigation and our streams are already losing their springtime exuberance. The late afternoon wilt can be seen across the hay fields waiting for water.
I’m having fun in my garden. We have beets galore and a variety of greens. I’m planning on surprising Mark tonight with creamed new potatoes and peas!

I’ve had two “citizen scientist” escapades lately. It's apparently an old (ala' Ben Franklin), now new movement to empower the public in natural resource management based not on regulatory actions but on education and volunteerism. 

First I attended a workshop by Tim Ekins, University of Idaho Extension Water Educator, to learn how to monitor parameters of stream health including dissolved oxygen level, velocity and turbidity (cloudiness from suspended particles), pH, temperature, and bank characteristics. The best part was using a screen to collect organisms that live on the bottom of the stream. We sorted through debris with tweezers and transferred any bugs to an ice cube tray for identification. Seth’s fly fishing talk of caddis and stoneflies came alive to me during this exercise. So that's what he was talking about!

The second science lesson was hosting Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition who returned to the ranch to revisit a carbon plot on one of our pastures. Peter educates as he monitors. At one point he pulled out two loupes, small 5X magnifying glasses that fit in your eye socket, and invited me and Colton, a young man working on the ranch this summer, to lie down in the grass and observe the soil surface. Worm castings rose up like boulders and giant ants scuttled around the grass stems. Later we looked at seed heads and tiny bugs on flowers with the loupes. It blows your mind and makes you know how little we grasp of the natural world.  

We ranchers and farmers need to try harder to mix it up with the scientific community. I’ve learned both parties can be skeptical of the other. We cowboys can be intimidated by the scientist’s unfamiliar names of our common plants and their sometimes superior attitude. Likewise, I'm guessing biologists are suspicious of the cowboy culture and don't think they can relate to us. Truth is, a richness comes to the conversation when both disciplines are included. And in my opinion our resource issues will only be successfully addressed when the two “sides” come together.   

Resource management aside, the citizen scientist in me is a perfect fit with the artist in me. Knowing their contribution to the ecosystem only makes the species that live here on the ranch more beautiful.  

They're not endangered around here

fighting over who gets to collect bottom dwelling macroinvertebrates!

Peter eyeing soil life with a loupe

the loveliest grass of all, Indian Rice 

 mules ear and quakies


  1. As a scientist, I know we're afraid of looking dumb. I say, "Suck it up and get in the truck." Anytime a rancher says, "I could take you around and show you some stuff," I say "How about next week?" and clear my schedule.

    Come on, scientists; whatcha ‘fraid of? You might not understand everything a rancher says, but you can ask them to explain it to you. You might not be able to open all the rancher's gates, but they'll be polite when they get out and open them for you.

    Scientists know 2-year research projects only give a fleeting glimpse of living systems. Ranchers are out on their land 24/7/365—for generations. That’s continuous data collection in a long-term study. Scientists can only dream of a data set that extensive.

    So, scientists, suck it up, get in the truck, and learn.