Metchosin's Bioblitz

By Maleea Acker, September 2016

Metchosin uses citizens and volunteer scientists to create a low-cost but impressive inventory of species.

Moralea MilneFIVE YEARS AGO, a group of naturalists in the Capital Region realized there was no comprehensive list of species that inhabited the varied ecosystems in their rural district of Metchosin. Despite containing rare ecosystems like coastal bluffs, Garry oak meadows, and Douglas-fir forests, naturalists Kem Luther, along with Moralea Milne and Andy McKinnon (the latter two now serving on Metchosin’s council) decided to see who they might be sharing their community with (other than humans).

The result of their work, which continues to expand today, is one of the most complete species listings of any community in Western Canada. And the actual search for those species? “It’s like a treasure hunt,” Luther tells me proudly. Come November, it’s a hunt in which local residents can also participate.

Since 2002, Luther, Milne and McKinnon have been working to empower the public and increase knowledge of local ecosystems—Metchosin’s in particular—through citizen science. They started the Metchosin Biodiversity Project—metchosinbiodiversity.com—in 2002. They began with a now-popular Talk and Walk series, inviting local experts to lead a Saturday evening talk followed by a local ecosystem walk the next morning. The project has hosted 87 events so far, on topics ranging from local butterflies to fungi, amphibians and songbirds. When they started, Milne tells me, they had to convince people to show up; now they regularly host 70-100 attendees. 

Metchosin occupies a distinct place in the CRD. It is the only municipality to experience a drop in population over the past 20 years (from 6170 people in 1986 to just under 5000 by 2012). It also has a higher- than-average population per dwelling unit than most of the rest of the CRD (2.8 persons per dwelling as opposed to the CRD average of 2.3). Home to over 50 red- and blue-listed species, its official community plan’s objectives are pointedly conservation-centred, foregrounding the support of biodiversity, protection of sensitive ecosystems and minimization of development impacts. 

This ethos, felt Luther, made Metchosin an ideal place to begin a species count known as a bioblitz, one of only two bioblitzes that occur in Western Canada (the other takes place in the municipality of Whistler). Specialists in botanical, animal, and insect species volunteer from around BC; together with local residents, they help count the huge variety of species found within Metchosin’s boundaries. “We let the experts nerd out together” during the one-day blitz, McKinnon tells me. The scientists work for free, but, says McKinnon, “a lot of those people will come up at the end of the day and thank us. Every year we find new things.” Though Luther and his colleagues would like to see expansion of the bioblitz to other municipalities in the CRD, they also recognize that their expert volunteers create a kind of catch-22. If interest were greater, they might not be willing to do all the work for free.

Bioblitzes provide a key method of tracking the diversity of distinct ecosystems. They are usually volunteer-run, grassroots efforts without ties to government funding (of which there is little), and take place within a short time period. “We wish there was some international or national organization that could step in and tell people how to do this,” Luther says. Instead, he, Milne and McKinnon plan their events from the bottom up, which aids a feeling of community but makes the coordination and dissemination of information gathered harder down the line. 

The Metchosin Bioblitz allows amateurs to accompany experts as they count species in the field. It’s a kind of collaboration that Luther wishes would happen more often in North America. For Luther, there are currently two main approaches to natural science. In North America, he writes in his 2016 book Boundary Layer, science is affiliated almost exclusively with universities and government; to be credible, one has to be academically trained. In Europe, however, citizen science forms a large part of the naturalist work done in the field. Passionate amateurs are encouraged to contribute their knowledge of species and ecosystems, and they’re respected for doing so. “If there was a way of getting that going here,” muses Luther, “that would be lovely.” 

Involving citizens in science, however, means less ground can be covered during the day a bioblitz takes place. To attempt to streamline the event, Luther, Milne and McKinnon tried a different approach this past spring. Rather than sending professional biologists out with resident volunteers, a team of six naturalists travelled together by car to specific sites throughout Metchosin. They ultimately recorded a different species every 40 seconds over six hours. The final count this spring was 2300 distinct species, including many that had never before been identified in the area. Still, the count was collaborative, with a botanist finding a bluebird and a birder discovering a rare violet.

Key to the success of Metchosin’s Bioblitz events, however, is the collaboration between volunteers and scientists and, surprisingly for such a quantitative activity, a feeling of connection with the natural ecosystems that surround residents. “It’s more fun than Christmas,” says Milne. Though the data gathered during Metchosin’s events helps local government clarify the biodiversity value of an ecosystem, the point is also to build understanding about the natural world. “We have to try to respect and preserve this environment in order to have somewhere for all of us to coexist,” says Milne. 

The Metchosin Biodiversity Project has a budget of a few hundred dollars; results are posted online and passed to local government, parks and Whistler’s bioblitz organizers. “As councillors, we’re often talking about biological value,” McKinnon tells me at the Broken Paddle café in Metchosin’s village centre. “It’s very practical to be able to say ‘this is where these species are living.’” 

The best example of how species information translates into practical information for residents, says Milne, might be the Propertius duskywing butterfly, which overwinters in last year’s oak leaves when they are left lying under the trees. When people rake leaves off the grass, they destroy nesting sites for these rare butterflies. “It’s not the oak trees that are the [whole] ecosystem,” clarifies Milne. The more residents can learn about the interdependencies of these species, and how many we share the region with, Luther concurs, the more an ethic of protection can be built. 

The species lists can be used when Metchosin’s council makes decisions about possible development projects. It’s also used by the properties that the teams roam over when making their discoveries—William Head prison, the Department of National Defense lands at Rocky Point—and as an inspiration for future bioblitzes. Both Parks Canada and Government House have expressed interest in doing their own identification events. The group has visited schools and they offer templates to share with communities that would like to start their own projects.

This November, residents can participate in the project’s final 2016 activity. In the Pacific Northwest, fungi aren’t as visible as other species in the spring. So this fall the Biodiversity Project will hold their fourth mycoblitz event. Scheduled for early November (check their website for final dates and locations) this year’s blitz will feature a scavenge for local mushrooms, a talk on local species, and an opportunity to peruse the findings, which will be laid out and identified by expert mycologists from as far away as California. Says Luther, with a smile, “As an analogy, imagine you’d collected a house full of junk, and then an antiques collector came through and pointed out all the rare objects. That’s what it’s like. We’re told we have something special.”

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.