New endeavors in citizen science and aquatic plant management: The AIS Trackers Program

By Megan Weber, Extension educator, Aquatic Invasive Species
Citizen science is a field on the rise.  Around the globe, researchers are harnessing the power of engaged members of the community to help contribute to important research questions.  As defined by the Citizen Science Association, citizen science is “the involvement of the public in scientific research – whether community-driven research or global investigations.”

Now, University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center are joining the movement and breaking new ground (or should we say, water) by bringing citizen science to the world of invasive aquatic plant management.  Many state and local agencies already utilize citizen scientists as part of their water quality monitoring programs and volunteers are becoming a key component for aquatic invasive species (AIS) monitoring.  The AIS Trackers program is bringing together these forms of citizen science to help answer the question: How can AIS control be maximized while minimizing impacts to non-target species?

Answering this question requires large amounts of data to be collected in a consistent manner so that each individual case study can be compiled into a larger database -- with which statistical analyses can allow important trends to be identified.  Time, money, and person power are the main limits on researchers’ ability to collect large amounts of data.  For a very seasonal research question, like aquatic plant management in Minnesota, those factors become even more limiting.  Citizen science can potentially fill this gap by providing a large number of trained volunteers to collect and contribute data to the project from across the state.  

In Minnesota, 200 + permits are issued each year for invasive aquatic plant management.  In 2015, control of Eurasian watermilfoil alone resulted in the application of 16,500 lbs and 7,300 gallons of 2,4 D (a common aquatic herbicide) to Minnesota water bodies.  Researchers at the U plan to use data collected by citizen scientists participating in the AIS Trackers program to help improve the way these herbicides are applied by providing recommendations to achieve desirable levels of control for species like Eurasian watermilfoil while limiting potential non-target impacts to native plant communities.

High quality training is needed to lay the groundwork for the success of this program.  Building off of our accomplishments and insights from the recently launched AIS Detectors program, we are in the process of creating the AIS


Sampling rakes are used to learn which aquatic plant species are present and their abundance (Credit: Dave Hansen, University of Minnesota)

Trackers program curriculum.  We plan to use a mix of online learning and hands-on field experience to provide participants with the ability to learn the essential foundations at their own pace from the comforts of home while getting the necessary hands-on field time under the direction and supervision of program leaders.  AIS Trackers will learn everything from the basics of aquatic plant management to plant ID and water sampling protocols.  After completing the training and passing a competency assessment, the certified AIS Trackers will be ready to head out into the field.

The program will launch in 2018 with a select group of volunteers on one to two lakes.  We will be working very closely with these individuals to help iteratively develop the field training portion of the program.  This type of naturalistic development is a critical step to ensure we are providing the right information in the right way so that Trackers volunteers feel confident in their ability to carry out the monitoring protocols on their own.  

Watch for a larger-scale launch with fine-tuned curriculum and training in 2019.  We will be soliciting lakes that conduct Eurasian watermilfoil treatments to participate in the program.  Lake associations, lake improvement districts, and other lake managers that enroll their lake will have access to their lake’s data to help track what is working on their individual lake while the same information feeds into the Trackers database to help develop broader recommendations for the state and beyond.

For more information about the AIS Trackers program and other ways you can get involved, contact Extension Educator Megan Weber at