One of my absolutely favourite jobs is talking to landowners and community groups engaged in environmental restoration. It’s where my personal and professional interests really come together. Our team (me, Peter Handford, Groundtruth, and Karen Denyer, National Wetland Trust/Papawera) has been tasked (by Auckland Council) with creating a simple ‘Ecological Monitoring Guide’, based on common, standard methods for community members. Interviewing a cross-section of groups in the Auckland region along with Auckland Council staff is a preliminary step – we need a solid foundation to build the Guide on. This post summarises community group interviews and a subsequent workshop with AC staff.
The Guide: a background
The purpose of the Guide (due early 2018), is to help groups, landowners, schools and others involved in restoration find the best monitoring methods to suit their project objectives. It will also help standardise methods across groups and to support the delivery of consistent advice from Auckland Council (AC) staff.
All up, it’s a challenging task. The nearly 5000 km2 Auckland region is enormously diverse: islands both inhabited and uninhabited, two large harbours on opposite coasts, extensive wetlands, dunes, forests… alpine is one of the few ecosystems not represented. The range of activities that groups do reflects both the diversity of the landscape, as well as the social opportunities in each area – from populous urban areas to rural areas with small communities. Generally, project meta-objectives centre on restoring ecosystems (restoring habitat; bringing back native species), but the way in which each group, landowner or school does that varies enormously. The monitoring methods used – as well as their level of technical understanding varies widely too.
Working with community groups
For AC staff, supporting groups (and other restoration practitioners) to find the right monitoring method(s) will be a balance between promoting ‘best practices’ while also supporting them to choose the best tools to meet their own restoration and monitoring objectives. Here, AC staff risk being perceived as prescriptive, with groups potentially being excluded if they choose not to follow methods recommended by staff. At the same time, part of the staffs’ roles includes enabling, and possibly ‘extending’ groups to do outcome monitoring (ie monitor what their restoration activities have achieved for the environment). Overall, AC staff want to show that they value community groups’ work, and want to provide advice that is useful and inspires the community to continue their work.
A broad spectrum of community environmental groups
The 10 groups I interviewed formed a cross-section of the >90 groups scattered over the Auckland region (see Naturespace). These groups ranged from tiny (2 volunteers) to a very large one managing over 100 volunteers, with paid coordinators and contractors. Many were well established (>10 yrs). Some focused on increasing populations of a single species, while others were restoring ecosystem function to support diverse flora, fauna and fungi species. While most groups are based on multiple partnerships with agencies, business etc, group location was a big factor in how much support they received from Auckland Council (AC) staff.
Groups’ activities are shaped by their local environment as well as social, cultural and economic factors which means that a range of social activities (e.g., awareness raising, education and advocacy), typically alongside restoration activities (e.g., weed and predator control, revegetation, active experimentation with new tools and techniques).
The list of monitoring methods we’ve collected so far that groups may use keeps growing – we compiled around 60 different methods covering terrestrial, freshwater and saline wetland as well as dune lands. Marine or other coastal methods (e.g., cockle counts) won’t be included at this stage.
Monitoring is like an onion: multi-layered. The more layers you go down, the more complex it gets (Community group)
Monitoring methods and tools used by groups interviewed included water quality (Waicare kit; invertebrate counts), predator management (transects, chew cards, wax tags, tracking tunnels, bait take), lizard populations (ACOs), weta populations (weta hotels) bird counts (5MBC, simplified 5MBC, and species-specific protocols such as call count monitoring), revegetation success (growth and survival rates), invertebrate diversity and abundance (methods unspecified), and vegetation surveys (FORMAK). Several groups also participate in crowdsourced citizen science studies including the annual Garden Bird Survey and Great Kereru Count.
Some groups focus on using volunteers instead of contractors in keeping with their broader social project objectives. However, others rely on local contractors, providing employment opportunities, consistency and the specialist skills needed for certain types of monitoring. Local buy in is critical with residents in one project area logging observations of banded weka to build a more complete picture of local bird population dynamics/characteristics.
How groups’ data are being used
The picture now
Groups mostly use their data to feed back into the management of their projects, support new funding applications, and to report back to funders. For larger AC-led projects on public land e.g., Tawharanui, and Shakespear Regional Parks, groups’ data supports AC-led management. Groups may also share their data with their local communities as a ‘motivational tool’. This finding is consistent with a recent national study of community groups (Peters et al. )
Waicare invertebrate counts have been compared with professionally conducted invertebrate counts (Moffet & Neale 2015), as part of a move to determine wider uses for Waicare data. The study concluded that despite variation between data sets, data collected by volunteers can be used to supplement professional data for state and trend assessment. Future opportunities include wider studies using data from predator-focused tools e.g., Walk the line, CatchIT and Trap.NZ. Eventually, the ability to aggregate community data will provide ‘bigger picture’ information for reporting (e.g., on national level indicators). Taking a longer-term view (e.g., on weed control on a project site basis to overall changes in the catchment) will help with measuring longer-term achievements.
Workshopping the Guide
Despite all modern contrivances for communicating, we still need to bring people together into a room to share their knowledge, network, nut out answers, and invariably, raise more questions. Our team ran a 3-hr workshop on July 27 with AC (29 staff from Biodiversity, Biosecurity, Parks, Education, Monitoring and Water) to harness their technical expertise as well as experience with community groups. We needed to know what works and what doesn’t, which methods to include and whether the selection criteria for the monitoring methods was on track.
Feedback from the workshop and community group interviews are combined in the following sections.
What’s currently working well
- Face to face contact between AC staff and group members/coordinators
- User friendly kits e.g., Waicare that provide easy to use equipment and standardised methods. Tracking tunnels also rate highly for public engagement, though monitoring utility varies depending on context
- Clear annual monitoring programmes that build on existing activities
- Using simplified methods e.g., only counting tui, fantail and kereru so that a broad audience can understand project achievements
- A well-trained, consistent team and buy-in from the local community. One project provides ‘green therapy’ for volunteers identified by medical professionals. While this can be challenging, the therapy helps volunteers with depression and isolation
Personnel changes are frequent, introduced initiatives are often short-lived, the people our volunteers make time to meet with are not usually the decision makers… we are constantly having to take time to explain and ‘prove’ ourselves to new personnel (Community group)
AC has issues with staff capacity with the delivery and support of monitoring kits such as Waicare changing from coordinator-led to community-led. Community hubs are being established e.g., in schools where kits can be housed and borrowed by community members. Ecological monitoring is complex and there is a lack of understanding of outcome monitoring both by staff and community members. This includes the suitability of methods for different spatial scales as well as knowledge of how much or little Standard Operating Procedures for monitoring methods can be adapted to suit local needs. Sustaining the monitoring effort is hard, with a ‘drop-off’ often occurring after a year for individual volunteers on AC-led monitoring initiatives.
What groups dislike about monitoring (feedback from groups only)
- Monitoring to report to funders when the monitoring outcomes are already known e.g., if rats are below 5%, then weta increase.
- Frustration with not understanding results: Why more bait uptake at these sites? Why the seasonal differences?
- Perceived lack of credibility of groups by funders and local Government
What do groups want to monitor in the future? (feedback from groups only)
Everything we have been monitoring, but in a better / quicker / easier way (Community group)
There is increased interest by groups (particularly longer established) for simple outcome monitoring as well key indicator spp., and less visible spp. (e.g., mosses, fungi, lichens). There is also strong interest by some groups in using more technology e.g., GIS and Naturewatch NZ, the latter to capitalise on crowdsourcing potential for wider data collection.
Criteria for assessing monitoring methods
An important part of the guide is to help groups select the right tool. While I was conducting the interviews, my colleagues, Peter and Karen came up with 11 criteria: Scientific robustness; Broad applicability; Skill level required; Precision / sensitivity; Data management; Data analysis; Cost & equipment; Time; People; Safety, and Permits (e.g. lizard handling).
Additional criteria may include future applicability i.e. how a method or tool may be used in the future given the rapid pace of technology.
The Guide should…
The workshop wrapped up with considerations for developing the Guide with points raised by community groups and AC staff across a number of areas:
- Consider the information needs of well-established groups
- Provide clarity around terms used e.g., outcome monitoring
- Create the Guide firstly for community and simplify contents into factsheets e.g., for schools
- Encourage groups to use a workbook to document their decision-making
- Take a modular approach
- To avoid confusion/ too many choices, provide one monitoring tool to answer one question
- Include ‘where to go for support’
- Include a section on Why monitor? – i.e. when logging trap catch data may suffice
- Define monitoring questions from the start (right methods, realistic)
- Provide a matrix under each category – size limitation of method / project scale as a starting parameter for using the matrix, or consider location (e.g., urban, rural)
The technical aspects of monitoring
- Clarify the purpose of the monitoring, e.g., biodiversity monitoring and/or community engagement, including a discussion on what level of accuracy is required and for what purpose
- Define the boundaries/limits of monitoring methods, and be clear on what can be inferred from data
- Clarify limitations – scope and nature of data and their meaning; discuss levels of uncertainty
- Highlight the relationship between simplified monitoring methods and those used by professionals; calibrate simple tools with more complex tools by linking the simplified method back to the source method
- Clarify the feedback cycle from monitoring method to management objective and activities
- To encourage iterative and adaptive management, include methods that can be adapted by groups to suit their management needs. Also, including tools that can show quicker or more short-term results and provide rapid feedback will help with adaptive project site management
- Correlations – highlighting that exceptions do exist e.g., RTCs and kokako numbers
- Highlight how to deal with uncertainty, and the adverse effects of monitoring (e.g., monitoring can be invasive/disruptive
- Manage community expectations where monitoring results may show negative trends
Where to from here?
It makes sense that funders and adjoining councils (Waikato and Northland) be included in the development of the guide – some groups’ projects span different regions, and they may also receive advice from other councils. This will also ensure all key monitoring methods are included. Data storage will be addressed in a ‘Next Steps’ document prepared for AC following the delivery of the Guide.
Workshopping… Round #2
In a few months, we will have produced a draft version of the Guide… then we will need feedback from AC staff and community groups on whether it meets their needs, and which content needs tweaking. Looking forward to it!
Lastly, many thanks to the 10 groups interviewed and AC staff for sharing their thoughts, expertise and experiences of restoring the environment and measuring ecological change.
Moffett, E. R., & Neale, M. W. (2015). Volunteer and professional macroinvertebrate monitoring provide concordant assessments of stream health. New Zealand journal of marine and freshwater research, 49(3), 366-375.
Peters, M. A., Hamilton, D., Eames, C., Innes, J., & Mason, N. W. (2016). The current state of community-based environmental monitoring in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 40(3), 279-288.