Texas Has a Successful Citizen Science Program for Detecting and Reporting Invasive Plant Species

The more trained eyes watching for invasive species, the better our chances of lessening or avoiding damage to our native landscape.

Invaders of Texas citizen scientists removing Johnsongrass (Sorghastrum nutans) from a park in Austin, Texas. There is glossy privet (Ligustrum lucidum), another invasive plant and a target for removal, in the background. Image Credit: Hans Landel

Texas is a large state. With 2,780 miles of border (more than 1,200 miles of it shared with Mexico), nine ecoregions and a major port of entry and transportation hub for international goods, there is ample opportunity for invasive species to enter and find hospitable places to thrive.

And thrive they have. The Texas Department of Agriculture lists 30 species on its noxious weed list, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department lists 21 aquatic plant species and 68 groups of aquatic animals on its prohibited aquatic list. These lists do not contain other common invasive species, such as lionfish, heavenly bamboo, guinea grass, King Ranch bluestem, zebra mussels, Chinese tallow, feral hogs, the privets, and introduced agricultural pests. Unfortunately, last year the destructive emerald ash borer had to be added to these, perhaps heralding another environmental disaster.

With so many invasive species in Texas, it is impossible for the state and other governmental entities to manage the problem individually. Recognizing this, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin  (UT-LBJWC), Texas A&M Forest Service, U.S. Forest Service Forest Health Protection, U.S. Forest Service National Forests and Grasslands in Texas, National Biological Information Infrastructure, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Master Naturalists and others partnered to establish Texasinvasives.org 10 years ago to assist in battling invasives throughout the state by enlisting the citizens of Texas. In this article, I briefly describe Texasinvasives.org and then focus on the Invaders of Texas citizen science program.

Texasinvasives.org

Texasinvasives.org is a collaborative effort of the Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Council among state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry, academia and other private and public stakeholders who share in the common goal of protecting Texas from the threat of invasive species.  It is managed by the UT-LBJWC, with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS, through the Farm Bill), Texas A&M Forest Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and UT-LBJWC.  It is designed to move the target audience beyond awareness to action on invasive species by:

  • Facilitating communication among the state’s invasive species stakeholders
  • Implementing a coordinated response to address invasive species issues on a statewide level
  • Providing a venue for sharing information about key invasive strategies
  • Enhancing public awareness of the threats posed by invasive species in Texas.

Texasinvasives.org strives to reach these goals through an integrated set of components that include a website, mobile app, e-newsletter, Facebook page, early detection and rapid response system for Texas, and the Invaders of Texas citizen science program.

The website acts as a clearinghouse for information on invasive species, especially those in Texas.  It features a searchable database of profiles of 175 invasive plants, 20 invasive animals, 46 invasive insects and four pathogens; pest alerts by ecological region; invasive species publications; landing pages for the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s outreach campaigns on zebra mussels and giant salvinia; and many other public and professional resources. It also holds the database of observations submitted by the Invaders of Texas citizen scientists and a web-based mapping tool for mapping those observations. In fiscal year 2016, TexasInvasives.org had more than 234,500 unique visitors and 807,743 page views, making it the most highly referenced invasive species resource in the state of Texas.

Invaders of Texas citizen scientists practice collecting observations. Image Credit: Michael Murphrey

Invaders of Texas Program

The Invaders of Texas Citizen Scientist Program is designed to train volunteer citizen scientists to detect invasive plants in their area and report them to a statewide detection and mapping database housed on the Texasinvasives.org website. The idea is simple: The more boots on the ground and trained eyes watching for invasive species, the better our chances of responding to new and existing threats, thereby lessening or avoiding economic and ecological damage invasive species can cause to native ecosystems.

The overarching goals of the Invaders program are to:

  • Train a large, geographically distributed cadre of citizen scientists to find and report locations of selected invasive plant species in Texas
  • Validate and use those data to develop maps of invasive species to improve our understanding of invasive plant distributions in Texas
  • Partner and provide information to regional resource managers and agencies to control and/or eradicate invasive plants and, where possible, provide opportunities for volunteers to help in these eradication efforts
  • Through continuing education, bring our volunteers to a level at which they can train the next generation of citizen scientists.

The original Invaders program was developed by a consortium of botanic gardens, natural history museums, zoos, and aquaria in partnership with Sea Studios Foundation, National Geographic and Vulcan Productions. It was launched on April 20, 2005, when National Geographic’s “Strange Days on Planet Earth” TV series premiered its opening episode about invaders on PBS. The first Invaders program, Invaders of the Sonoran Desert Region, was developed by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The Invaders of Texas program’s training is offered through either workshops throughout Texas, or online on the Texasinvasives.org website. Training covers basic information on invasive species, how to control their spread, field safety, and how to systematically collect and report observations. Additionally, workshops provide instruction on how to identify and manage 10 to 12 local invasive plants. We have found that this approach allows individuals to become familiar with invasive species in their area and reduces the anxiety associated with trying to learn a large number of invasive species in one day.

“As a Texas Master Naturalist and member of the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance, the Texas Invasives application is a real tool in our arsenal to stem the flood of invasive plants in our natural areas,” said Lance Jones of San Marcos. “We have worked hard to remove ligustrum, bastard cabbage, chinaberry and nandina from the natural areas. The educational guides, online training, and the mapping database help in these efforts.”

Texas covers a vast amount of space; therefore it would be impossible for a centralized organization to provide expert assistance to all citizen scientists. This problem is addressed by organizing citizen scientists into satellite groups. Satellites offer a local network connected with local experts to help with local issues and answer local questions. One of the lessons we have learned is the importance of strong leadership within the satellites. The satellite leader plays a major role in keeping a satellite active, and we provide further training to support these leaders.

Citizen scientists are recruited through local volunteer-based conservations organizations such as Texas Master Naturalist, Native Plant Societies and Master Gardeners. The Texas Master Naturalist program provides most of our citizen scientists. Texas Master Naturalist chapters are well-established throughout Texas and the volunteers are versed in the local flora and fauna.

Screenshots of the Texas Invaders mobile app (iOS version shown): Home screen, Species list, Reporting form.

Once an individual has completed training they can register to obtain login credentials and are free to login and submit species observations of invasive plants. Using the mobile app (Texas Invasives for Android and iOS), citizen scientists record the species, date observed, time spent in the field, GPS coordinates, type of disturbance, patch type, relative species abundance and notes about the location. These data, along with a required digital image, are uploaded to the database on Texasinvasives.org and constitute a single species observation.

One of the lessons we learned is that citizen scientists are uncomfortable making their own scientific decisions. Originally, citizen scientists were required to report numerous ecological parameters for each observation but this proved to be intimidating and resulted in fewer species observations. Since the primary goal for the program is to develop baseline maps of targeted invasive species, we scaled back the collection criteria in favor of more observations while still meeting the minimum North American Weed Management Association (NAWMA) standard (NAWMA is now the North American Invasive Species Management Association). This change has proven effective and increased the number of species observations submitted by the citizen scientists.

Citizen science-based projects are often criticized for lacking the rigor of traditional scientific studies. For this reason, we validate all species observations submitted by citizen scientists before they are added to the database. Validation is performed by knowledgeable individuals based on the photo submitted with an observation. The validated data can be mapped using the mapping tool on Texasinvasives.org.

Screenshot of observations of Ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven) submitted by Invaders of Texas citizen scientists. Different colors represent different satellite groups.

The data are available to the public, and to local, state, and federal resource managers to facilitate their management efforts. For example, since 2015, there have been six documented requests to use the data, ranging from use by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Interagency Review Team to set standards/metrics for invasive species on a mitigation project, to research for the Texas Landscape Project.

“The partnership between Texasinvasives.org and the Texas Gulf Region Cooperative Weed Management Area (TGR-CWMA) has been central in the success of our battle against the invasive Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia) along the Texas coast,” said Katie Swanson, coordinator for the TGR-CWMA. “It has provided a tool that not only engages local citizens in recognizing the Brazilian peppertree and its negative impacts, but also provides resource managers and scientists a way to follow its expansion throughout Texas.”

Moreover, the data are submitted to the database of the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS) developed by the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. The species observations from the Invaders of Texas program are making a significant contribution to this national effort.

Invaders also train in the Sentinel Pest Network (SPN). This early detection and rapid response system increases the probability that certain damaging species that are not yet established or widespread in Texas, such as the emerald ash borer and the cactus moth, are detected and reported early. These reports are sent to partner agencies for verification and, if necessary, quick action. The SPN does not require a login to report, making it accessible to anyone and increasing the pool of “vigilant eyes”.

The Invaders of Texas citizen science program has documented success in invasive species and high-consequence pest outreach and education. Since its inception in 2005, the program has hosted more than 120 workshops and trained more than 2,800 citizen scientists. These citizen scientists are widely distributed throughout Texas in more than 75 satellite groups or as individuals. They have logged more than 6,000 hours in the field and collected more than 21,400 invasive species observations.  In addition, more than 10,700 hours of documented volunteer time has been spent eradicating invasive plants, equivalent to more than $237,360. Countless person-hours have been spent by volunteers and our citizen scientists performing other undocumented efforts to control invasives and subsequently restore habitat in Texas. It is nationally regarded as a model citizen science program, having earned recognition from the Urban Natural Resources Institute (UNRI), the National Invasive Species Council and the Federal Interagency Committee for Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds.

Participants in an Invaders of Texas citizen science training workshop learning to identify local invasive plants with Dr. Hans Landel. Image Credit: Tara Nawrocki

Although Texasinvasives.org plays a vital role in protecting Texas’ environmental and agricultural heritage from the threats invasive species pose—threats against which the best protection is widely recognized as increased public awareness and prevention such as provided by Texasinvasives.org—the program’s existence is in danger. Funding for the past several years has been a year-to-year prospect, and never certain. Unfortunately, the majority of the funding for 2018 fell through. We are diligently exploring both short- and long-term funding sources and considering how the program might change to ensure its survival.

Invasive species are a threat to our environment, our economy, and our well-being. Managing their impacts takes hard work, persistence, knowledge, resources and motivation. Citizen science captures the hard work, persistence and enthusiasm that volunteers already possess and leverages it through education, opportunities, and resources to increase the effectiveness of invasives management. We are proud that the Texasinvasives.org organization and its Invaders of Texas program help to protect the natural heritage of Texas by providing a means for Texans to channel their concerns about their environment into impactful action.

Rachel Cywinski, an Invaders of Texas citizen scientist and trainer, said, “When I look at the amazing commitment of the students who just needed some information to get started, and how they have applied it in practical ways to protect our American ecosystems, I feel the few hours that I spend teaching classes is a great investment. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the Citizen Scientist program. (It) has forever changed and enriched my life.”

Dr. Hans Landel is the invasive species program coordinator at the UT-Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. Landel manages the Texasinvasives.org program and a project to map invasive plants for the National Park Service and sits on the Steering Committee of the Texas Gulf Region Cooperative Weed Management Area. He is the guest editor for Earthzine’s 2017 invasive species theme.

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