Crowd-Sourcing Data Sets: Using Citizen Science to Protect National Parks from Climate Change
Gillian Bowser, PhD
Wildlife Ecologist and Research Scientist
2014 Fulbright Specialist to Peru
Dr. Gillian Bowser believes in the power of citizen scientists. She has dedicated her career to demonstrating that everyone can be a scientist, and empowering one citizen scientist at a time to join the fight against climate change.
Dr. Bowser is a wildlife ecologist and associate professor at Colorado State University’s Natural Resource Ecology Lab. She has participated in the UN Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) and as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Diplomacy Fellow with the U.S. Department of State Office of Marine Conservation. Dr. Bowser is passionate about connecting experts and non-experts around the world who share a common goal: discovering how to protect, manage, and preserve parks impacted by climate change.
Dr. Bowser’s research focuses on ecological indicators of climate change in national parks and protected areas, and the relationship between changing ecological conditions, local community livelihoods, and climate. A 2014 Fulbright Specialist to Peru’s National Agrarian University – La Molina, she explored ecological indicators for climate change in Huascarán National Park. Early in her grant, she realized that by using citizen science tools, she, along with her colleagues and students, could create a dataset to track changes to the ecological systems, invertebrate pollinators caused by local glacial retreat. After her Fulbright, she was able to bring students back to those same sites, review the citizen science databases, and gain a clearer picture of the impact of climate change on pollinators.
Dr. Bowser believes in the power of citizen scientists to help parks around the world deal with similar challenges caused by changing climates. She shared that “National parks worldwide share common challenges of managing protected areas in the face of changing climates. My Fulbright experience allowed me to connect those protected areas’ challenges, and take a look at how parks and protected areas can use citizen science with students, community members, or the visiting public.”
Dr. Bowser’s career in ecology and wildlife biology started in college with a summer job at the front desk of the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in Yellowstone National Park. Eventually, she secured a position as a wildlife biologist. That experience began a decades-long partnership between her and the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). By 1984, Dr. Bowser was working full-time for NPS, studying elk, bison, mice, and butterflies, and working in national parks including Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, Wrangell – St. Elias, as well as at the headquarters of NPS in Washington, D.C. NPS sponsored Dr. Bowser’s graduate and doctoral research, and continues to collaborate with her as she works to find solutions to common challenges facing parks from Wyoming to Peru.
Recently, the NPS expanded its global partnerships by establishing the Fulbright-National Parks Partnership, providing new opportunities for those who share Dr. Bowser’s mission to advance conservation efforts across international borders. According to Dr. Bowser, “Fulbright provides that cross-border, cross-cultural understanding so needed to manage protected areas. Many of these areas have international audiences, and yet those audiences need to understand how the park balances local livelihoods, cultures, and tourism’s impact, all overlaid with a changing climate.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York gave Dr. Bowser a unique perspective: “Living there, you’re introduced to so many different things and cultures, that it’s easy to see things as challenges rather than barriers.” She works tirelessly to promote and increase diversity in the sciences, often mentoring young minority students, and taking part in programs aimed at increasing minorities in the STEM fields, such as the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation in Science.
Currently, citizen science is not a very diverse field, but Dr. Bowser believes there is great potential to engage with audiences across society. “What’s so exciting is that everybody has a cellphone in their back pocket, right? So you have the potential to engage anyone. The question is, do you have the will?” asks Dr. Bowser. “As parks and protected areas struggle with understanding the impacts of changing climates on the organisms that they are trying to protect, getting the public involved as part of the science solution is so critical.”
Dr. Bowser’s belief in, and success with, citizen science underscores the importance of programs such as Fulbright, and the formal and informal partnerships that Fulbright fosters. Dr. Bowser sees these partnerships for their potential: “National Parks have such an opportunity to use citizen science as a management tool. Such information becomes an important first step for adaptative management decisions.”