Brendan Wiltse- citizen scientist


Throughout 2015, numer­ous committed volunteers participated in day-long trainings and backcountry trail surveys for invasive  species like the forest pest hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA [Adelges ­tsugae]). Volunteers also selected backcountry ponds and lakes to survey for aquatic invasive plant species such as Eura­sian watermilfoil (Myrio­phyllum spicatum). It has been inspiring to see the enthusiasm and dedication of our members and supporters in their roles as citizen scientists.

As of September 2015, ADK has trained seventy-two citizen scientist monitors (twenty-eight water monitors and forty-four forest monitors), in addition to fifteen forest monitors trained in 2014. In 2015, our trained volunteers adopted thirty-three backcountry ponds or lakes for aquatic invasive species monitoring, and fifty-eight forest areas for forest pest monitoring. An additional twenty-two forest areas were adopted in 2014.

Getting the Training on Track

We started the training year for forest pest monitoring in late March with a workshop at ADK’s Heart Lake Program Center. On a beautiful snowy spring day, we learned about forests pests and snowshoed out the Street and Nye Trail to search for HWA in the old hemlock stand at Indian Pass Brook. Fortunately, we found none.

Our next training for HWA was held in August at the Member Services Center in Lake George, where we searched for HWA on the cross-country ski trails of the Lake George Recreation Area along Gage Brook and West Brook. We targeted areas for volunteer survey, primarily in the Lake Champlain Basin. Volunteers identified numerous sites for survey around Lake George itself, which is dense with hemlocks and will likely be one of the first places where HWA will be identified.

citizen scientist paddlingOur two water-monitor training sessions were held in July and August at the Heart Lake Program Center with the invaluable participation of ADK’s education department, as well as the excellent facilities support of the Adirondak Loj staff. Erin Vennie-Vollrath of the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program (APIPP), the event’s main educator, explained our broad mission and survey protocol. ADK’s Paul Gallery helped coordinate the training sessions, provided GIS expertise, and assisted volunteers in their selection of backcountry waterbodies for survey. Brendan Wiltse of the Ausable River Association (AsRA) explained issues affecting the Ausable River Watershed. Heart Lake served as the perfect classroom to learn search methods such as the rake-toss (see photo on next page). Fortunately, our surveys on Heart Lake did not identify any invasive species.

ADK could not have accomplished any of this without our partners, including APIPP, the Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP), the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), Cornell University, the New York State Natural Heritage Program, the Adirondack Watershed Institute (AWI) of Paul Smith’s College, and the AsRA. Funding was provided by LCBP and the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission.

APIPP’s coordinator, Brendan Quirion, explains that training in backcountry monitoring provides critical increased capacity for the early detection of invasive species and rapid response to infestations. These backcountry programs target the more remote and less frequented areas of the Adirondack Park, where forests and waters often show the highest levels of conservation value as well as increased resilience to invasive species invasions. By detecting the new introduction of harmful invasive species in these areas as early as possible, not only do we protect the best of what the Adirondacks has to offer, but also, when invasive species are found our mitigation efforts are more likely to succeed.

Citizen Science 3The idea to adapt the successful water monitoring programs of APIPP and AWI to backcountry areas and to target stewardship-minded ADK members was originally developed by AWI Director Dan Kelting. AWI has participated with ADK throughout 2015, providing expertise at training sessions to assist volunteers in the identification of aquatic plants, both invasive and native. Jennifer Dean and Brent Kinal in the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s New York Natural Heritage Program provided training at workshops in iMapInvasives, an online GIS-based management system designed for citizen scientists and resource managers concerned with the threat of invasive species.

HWA on the March

The urgency to search for HWA in the Adirondacks, and to begin a statewide effort for early detection and response using citizen scientists, was driven by forest entomologist Mark Whitmore of the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University. Robert O’Brien, invasive species field director for OPRHP, embraced this approach for New York State parks and initiated the approach in Allegany State Park, where ADK volunteers subsequently identified HWA. Whitmore and O’Brien then helped APIPP and ADK organize the first training session in 2014 for citizen scientists to monitor for HWA in the Adirondack Park.

The search for HWA in the Adirondacks has been minimal in the past because its march northward from the Catskills and Hudson Valley has been slow and it had been thought that HWA would be susceptible to the cold climate and severe winters of the North Country. However, Whitmore’s current research has found that during the past two very severe winters, HWA, although suffering severe mortality, can persist and perhaps eventually thrive in cold climates, much as the balsam woolly adelgid has in the Adirondacks. The short-term success of HWA is based on its biology, with the long-term prognosis made more grim by the prospect of climate change, if you include unpredictable weather and severely cold winters as part of the change. In North America, HWA reproduces only asexually, which makes it much easier for the species to adapt to cold climates. Since cold tolerance is genetically linked, even one insect surviving an extremely cold winter can reproduce very rapidly and the resulting generations will also be cold-adapted.

Citizen Science 4Upon realizing the threat of HWA to populations of eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), I began to realize the impact that the loss of hemlocks, a foundation species, would have on the Adirondacks. Especially in areas like Lake George, Keene Valley, and much of the Lake Champlain Basin (including its far edges in the Saranac Lake Wild Forest and the St. Regis Canoe Area), hemlocks are very dense.

Foundation species like eastern hemlock are critical in the habitats they help to create. They moderate stream water temperatures for trout and other animals, provide a buffer for nutrient inputs to maintain water quality, stabilize shallow soils (especially in steep gorges), and provide shelter for animals and plants (which is especially important in winter), critical habitat for migrating neotropical birds, and a unique substrate for lichens.

Anyone who has hiked, paddled, or driven through the Adirondack Park should realize what we could lose. If we do not act quickly, we are soon very likely to make our treks without the company of hemlocks. We only need look to places such as the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for an example of the devastation that could be in store for the Adirondacks. Closer to home, the decline of hemlocks is already well underway in the Catskills. HWA has been advancing quickly through New York State, and now is at the doorstep of the Adirondack Park—if not already present, as is likely.

If we do not act, the face of the Adirondacks will completely change, and the environmental and economic impacts resulting from such widespread habitat destruction will be devastating. The time to act was yesterday, but if we act now, there is still hope to save hemlock stands in the Adirondack Park.

Fortunately, we have a growing number of committed citizen scientists willing to adopt and monitor backcountry waters and forests to protect our beautiful Adirondack Park.

Thank you, ADK volunteers, for helping protect the places you love! It has been a great year working with ADK’s ­citizen scientists!