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Jonah Evans’ CyberTrackers Mark Their Territory in Wildlife Counting Clash

Two factional tribes have emerged in the world of citizen-scientist wildlife trackers.

Jonah Evans cybertracker

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On a foggy winter morning, the shoreline of San Diego’s Torrey Pines beach resembles a forensic crime scene investigation into the animal kingdom. A series of red, orange, and yellow flags mark fresh outlines in the sand around various bird, insect, and animal tracks and scat. About a dozen people in shades of green and khaki huddle around them, getting down on their hands and knees to stare intently. They are taking a CyberTracker certification field test through NatureTracking.com, one of a handful of private companies training amateur biologists to do empirically based animal tracking. The goal: Create a new, more strictly certified corps to do wildlife habitat studies for ecological assessments, the kind that could affect everything from land-use zoning for new developments to national and city park plans and animal protection rights. As one woman with a long braided rat tail later said: “You’ve never seen so many people excited about poo.”

This is a brand new class of science-adventure worker. For years local and state agencies have relied on everyone from volunteer citizen-scientists to park rangers and university biologists to tell them what is really happening in the greater outdoors. In April 2009, Jonah Evans published an article in
the Journal of Wildlife Management called “Determining Observer
Reliability in Counts of River Otter Tracks.” In it, he pointed out a
simple fact: While the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had spent
more than 30 years tracking otter populations under county bridges, no
one had ever checked their observers’ reliability. A survey of abilities
showed a whopping 40% margin of error. What that will mean depends on how quickly the state can revamp its population-count practices and figure out the impact of the oversight.

“Because there is no formal training for the people who track animals
some population counts might be inaccurate,” says Evans,
who is now the head evaluator for NatureTracking.com, and the monitor for today’s exam.

This discovery has led to a conflict between two factional tribes with different philosophies about how to solve the problem. There are the CyberTracker supporters, and what Evans calls “hocus pocus” holdouts, a pack using self-taught, ad hoc or spiritually-driven tactics that could lead to even more mistakes. And this divide has sparked a credibility war among granola intellectuals.

Case in point: At a recent International Society of Professional Trackers conference in the outlying desert, the country’s top ground readers sat on the opposite sides of a lodge decorated with an enormous mounted antelope head. Jim Lowery, a popular field guide author and head of California-based Earth Skills tracking school, described his method of “pressure release,” studying footprint nuances to visualize what might have just happened. “It takes you into the possibility of being in the moment with the animal. You don’t need a whole system for it,” he said.

A CyberTracker evaluator, on the other hand, must score perfectly on the exam in two different regions of the country. Today’s test will be a true Man vs. Wild experience. It consists of a series of backcountry hikes that wind for two days through three habitats–beach, desert and hobo-infested freeway underpasses– to simulate real field exhaustion. Anything on the ground is fair game, from a tire track to a discarded plug of chewing tobacco. And the questions generally get harder, moving from making basic species identifications to picking out the gender of a footprint, which foot might have left the mark, at what rate of travel–walking, loping, trotting–and, eventually, just, What happened here? “I really feel the definition of science is the quest for the truth,”
Evans says. “What the policy makers do with that knowledge is up to
them.”

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On the beach, though, everyone seems a bit light on their shorebird knowledge. “What are chickens doing at the beach?” Asks Barry Martin as he stares uncomprehendingly at the footprint of a raven. Martin is the founder of the San Diego Tracking Team, a volunteer-based citizen tracking brigade that uses their training methods to contribute to the preservation of about 120,000 acres of animal habitat in San Diego County. But because of some lone ranger types refusing to adopt the CyberTracker standard, he’s afraid their results may one day be deemed unreliable. “Some people are still resistant to it,” says Martin. “That is a liability.”

Kersey Lawrence, a doctoral student in wildlife biology at University of Connecticut, stares at another circled bird-scratching. “This could be a tacheckapolo…  I just made that up,” she says. Later, when Evans tells her it is obviously a long-billed curlew track, she balks. “I never knew that existed.”

The CyberTracker methodology was invented about a decade ago by Louis Liebenberg, a South African who, according to the CyberTracker brochure, wanted to help Bushmen become pro safari guides. There, certified ground readers carry GPS units to catalogue their finds. This generates enough raw data for scientists and land managers to spot emerging ecosystem trends, such as insect invasions that might hurt the emerging organic farming industry.

Evans is one of just a handful of evaluators in the United States. He says he charges a test fee of about $250 per person. By doing several exams around the country, he nets about $15,000 a year. But the rewards for certification are growing. Evans and other legitimized trackers have already been hired on federal projects to snowshoe for endangered lynx in Wyoming and university studies that involved following wolves in Montana. Others have used their certifications to promote guidebooks or launch their own environmental survey companies that are pressuring out less rigorous citizen-science organizations. Evan’s biggest coup came in August, when he was hired as a full-time wildlife diversity biologist to come up with more conservation projects for West Texas.

Test-taking American outdoorsmen fall into four main sub-species:
wildlife
biologists, land libertarians working for citizen science organizations,
state parks officials, and ultra-hobbyists with their own safari hats
and perpetual body odor. In total, CyberTracker vendors have certified 300 people in the United States since 2004. Evans suggests state and private agencies check it carefully to figure out who might be worth hiring. For example, at the ISPT conference Dick Newell, the 74-year-old self-taught head of an organization called Orange County Trackers, proudly stated that he’d taken the test. What he never mentioned was that he’d done relatively poorly on it. “If you were to look at [my score] alone you would say I can’t find my way out of a wet paper bag,” he admitted later. Still, he sees no conflict holding monthly trainings for state game wardens, city parks officials and animal control officers.

What does all of this mean for those miscounted Texas river otters? No one is quite sure. The otters aren’t endangered, but they are protected under the Commission for International Trade of Endangered Species Appendix II, meaning the impact of any trapping or hunting must be closely monitored because the animals could be mistaken for other species of endangered river otters. To do that, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has since sent more than 100 employees for CyberTracker certification.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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