AMES, Iowa – Teenage 4-H scientists say they are “restoring something old with something new.” The something old is a bur oak savannah in the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. The something new is geographic information systems (GIS) mapping using mobile phones.
The Iowa 4-H’ers are one of four teams of 4-H members in four states that are carrying out GIS mapping with national wildlife refuges, fish hatcheries or other ecological services offices, said Jay Staker, director of Iowa State University Extension Science, Engineering and Technology (E-SET). ISU Extension is leading the effort with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Kansas, Minnesota and New York also are involved in the project. The four states are sharing the $73,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant that funds the effort.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated that GIS soon will become so prevalent in natural resources management that organizations without some GIS capability will be at a severe disadvantage.
Karen Viste-Sparkman, a wildlife biologist at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, was glad to receive the call from Staker. “He was working with 4-H groups and they had a grant to work on a national wildlife refuge. We got excited about it because they wanted to do GIS work … and that’s one of the things we really need more of here,” Viste-Sparkman said.
The Iowa 4-H’ers are using GIS on iPhones to map the locations of remnant bur oak and shagbark hickory trees that have been invaded by exotic non-fire tolerant trees in the wildlife refuge.
“We have an iPhone app that talks with the ISU GIS department server, so we get real-time interaction,” said 4-H Tech Team member David Runneals. “What’s cool about this project is we actually get to use technology and that we also get out in the field to get experience.”
Volunteer 4-H leader Debbie Stevens noted the need for GIS, “but a lot of folks, especially nonprofits or governmental entities cannot afford to just hire someone. Our youth in 4-H are learning real world skills. This is a professional-level occupation now. … So not only are they having fun, they’re gaining knowledge, they’re learning technology skills, information management and personal development for future careers.”
The 4-H’ers will continue to do GIS mapping over the summer months to identify the locations of as many bur oaks, hickories and other species as possible, Stevens said. Then in the winter months when the ground is frozen, the refuge staff can do maintenance, removing dead or diseased trees as well as trees that don’t belong in a bur oak savannah.
“This GIS mapping project engages 4-H youth as citizen scientists to conduct relevant research that will have an impact for both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the 4-H’ers,” Staker said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service gets data for habitat protection, conservation, restoration and other uses. The youth get opportunities to serve their states with meaningful research. They also develop skills that could lead them to pursue degrees and careers such as wildlife biology, natural resource management, science, community planning, recreation or agriculture.”