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How citizen science data can be applied locally to conserve habitat and rare species

Map of iNaturalist records for London, Ontario. Over 50,000 observations, spanning at least 4,257 species have been posted to date. Photo by Brendon Samuels.

It is no secret that the natural world is in trouble and needs all the help it can get. A 2019 report to the United Nations found that around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, the most ever in human history. One of the principal drivers of this major decline in global biodiversity is the loss and degradation of habitat, especially because of land use changes associated with agriculture and development.

Fortunately, the public can contribute data through citizen/community science to help safeguard habitat and protect rare species in their community.

The City of London – known to many as the Forest City – has much to lose in the coming years. London is situated within the Carolinian Life Zone, a region containing the most species biodiversity of anywhere in Canada. More Species at Risk of extinction are concentrated in southern Ontario than any other part of the country. However, in 2018, forest cover in the area surrounding London was estimated at only 5-15% – far below the 30% minimum threshold that Environment and Climate Change Canada suggests is needed to support less than one half of the potential species richness and marginally healthy aquatic systems. The 2014 Middlesex Natural Heritage Systems Study concluded that 19.7% of land in Middlesex County, including London and also nearby First Nations, is covered by significant natural heritage.

How does London, a city undergoing a rapid building boom, balance development with conserving its significant Natural Heritage System? The City has policies, strategies and guidelines in place to ensure development does not result in net negative impacts to natural heritage. Before development can proceed, Environmental Impact Studies (EIS) must be carried out to characterize the ecological features and functions, including species of plants and animals, that exist in a study area. These studies are prescribed under the Environmental Management Guidelines, which are set to be updated soon for the first time since 2007. Over the last few years, I worked with London’s Environmental and Ecological Planning Advisory Committee to contribute recommendations for updating the Guidelines.

An important addition to updated Environmental Management Guidelines is the inclusion of citizen science data in environmental studies. According to Guidelines Appendix C, Data Collection Standards, “It is recommended that reputable citizen science data sources, such as iNaturalist and the Ontario Reptile & Amphibian Atlas, be reviewed when conducting a background review to supplement data obtained by the consultant team.” What does this actually mean in practice? The language in the Guidelines is not prescriptive, but it leaves open the potential for citizen science data to support evidence-based planning that ultimately conserves rare species and their habitat, per requirements under provincial law.

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose you are a member of the public who uses iNaturalist, a citizen science tool (mobile app and website) managed by the Canadian Wildlife Federation that invites users with a smartphone or computer to upload photos of any species of animal, plant or fungi to a database, including species listed as Threatened. You are out for a walk in your neighbourhood when you spot a bird building a nest on an older building. You snap a photo of the bird and upload it to iNaturalist for identification. It’s a Barn Swallow, a bird listed as a Species at Risk in Ontario that is subject to protections under the provincial Endangered Species Act. The species identification on your photo is then verified by the iNaturalist community. Your observation becomes a permanent record of the existence of that nesting Barn Swallow, in that particular spot, at the time you took a walk and saw it there. It gets added to the Natural Heritage Information Centre project on iNaturalist and becomes part of provincial records of the distribution of this bird Species at Risk.

An observation of an active Barn Swallow nest on a building posted to iNaturalist. Note that the observation is labelled Research Grade, meaning it already has been verified by an online community of experts.

Fast forward a few years, and the location where you spotted the Barn Swallow is being scoped for new development. The development proponent hires an environmental consultant to carry out an Environmental Impact Study. Per London’s Environmental Management Guidelines, the design of their study, and the selection of survey protocols to look for species of plants and animals that occur in the study area, is informed by a background review. As part of that review, the consultant checks historical records on iNaturalist and pulls up the Barn Swallow observation you submitted. Perhaps it is the case that the study was already going to include surveys for Barn Swallows, or maybe the trigger requirements for Barn Swallow surveys were not met. Either way, because of the photo you previously submitted, there is now verifiable historical evidence of Barn Swallows within the study area. The development proponent and their consultant would need to justify not checking if Barn Swallows still exist at the site. If surveys find evidence of Barn Swallows at the site, then the developer might be required under provincial law to include plans to compensate for loss of Barn Swallow habitat, such as leaving parts of the property naturalized or installing a structure to accommodate the birds’ nests.

One needn’t look back too far in the history of development plans in London for examples where citizen science data could theoretically have been useful for informing environmental study design. In 2020, a large breeding colony of Bank Swallows – a Threatened bird species – was discovered by myself and a colleague in the Byron Gravel Pit in London West. The site contained approximately 2000 nest burrows, making it one of the largest known in-land breeding colonies of Bank Swallows in the province. A study of the site was previously carried out in 2018 by a consultant, AWS Environmental Consulting Limited, to support plans for development. AWS reported the existence of only 70-75 nest burrows. So, either the colony grew by a factor of almost 20 in the span of 2 years, or the consultant missed a substantial portion of the colony. In the future, historical records of habitat for Species at Risk, such as the Bank Swallow, can inform the design of environmental studies if consultants check records from citizen science databases like eBird.

Panorama of the Bank Swallow colony in the Byron Gravel Pit containing almost 2,000 documented nest burrows. Zoom in to examine the colony in detail. Photos by Brendon Samuels.

It is worth noting that some citizen science databases like iNaturalist automatically obscure the precise locations of certain species that are sensitive to persecution or harm as part of their commitment to geoprivacy. Location records for observations of sensitive species may not be available for the public to view online, but those records can still be submitted to the Natural Heritage Information Centre through iNaturalist or via the Ontario government website.

In summary, participating in citizen science is one way that the public can help to conserve biodiversity in their community. By contributing data on locations of species and their habitat, historical records can inform studies that are used to safeguard the Natural Heritage System from negative impacts associated with new development. People who enjoy and care about nature – especially those who take photographs of wildlife – can thus play important roles by contributing their observations towards efforts to protect habitat and rare species for future generations.

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