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You are here: Home / Manager's Tool Kit / Early Detection and Rapid Response / The Early Detectives / The Nature Conservancy - Hell's Canyon SWAT TEAM
Manager's Tool Kit
Early Detection and Rapid Response

The Early Detectives: How to Use Volunteers Against Invasive Species, Case Studies of Volunteer Early Detection Programs in the U.S.

The Nature Conservancy - Hell's Canyon SWAT TEAM:
Strategic Weed Accelerated Treatment TEAM

Contacts: Art Talsma, The Nature Conservancy
E-mail: atalsma@tnc.org
Phone: (208) 343-8826 ext. 15


In 1989, the Nature Conservancy took ownership of preserving the Hell's Canyon area of Idaho. This 1.15 million-acre site was a beautiful tract of land that the Conservancy wanted to preserve for generations to come. However, in the early to middle 1990's, the Conservancy noticed that invasive species of grasses and weeds were beginning to take over the Hell's Canyon area. By the end of the 1990's, invasives had become the number one threat to the grasslands of canyon area. Beginning in the 2000 growing season, the Nature Conversancy began to monitor and fight the invasives problem. By actively using volunteers to help with the monitoring and controlling methods, the Conservancy found that the process of eradicating or controlling the worst invasives species was more efficient.

A large number of the volunteers are outdoor sportsmen who canoe, raft, hunt, jet boat and fish. The Conservancy utilized the special abilities of its volunteers to tackle the difficult challenge of monitoring invasive species along the steep canyon walls of the Salmon and Snake Rivers. This monitoring was achieved through multi-day jet boat trips up the rivers. From these jet boats, the volunteers use Quick-bird satellite imagery, digital imagery from fixed-wing flyovers, and past surveys to locate any possible infestations of invasive species, particularly Yellow Starthistle.

These various pieces of technology are interrelated in the field of remote sensing imagery. This type of imagery produces pictures based on the reflectance of the earth's surface (i.e. vegetation will reflect as a different color than pavement). The volunteers can easily use these types of maps to find even the smallest patches of invasives. Once they found any infestations, they recorded the exact coordinates of the infestation using IPAC handheld computers loaded with GPS units. They took the data to the GIS expert, who provided maps of the exact location of each reported infestation. They added these types of maps and any aerial photographs to a weed database. This database is open to the public to help with the location and eradication of any new or dangerous invasive species in the region. The use of current technology like Quick-bird satellite imagery, low altitude aerial photos, IPACs, remote sensing, laptops, GPS, and GIS, has enhanced the volunteers' effectiveness.

The boating trips are not the only place that the Conservancy uses its volunteers. Art Talsma, one of the two full time employees working with the invasive species program of the Idaho Conservancy, said that the biggest successes of the volunteer program have been the collection of biological control agents and the restoration of the native ecosystem. The collection of native bio-control agents is an easy but labor-intensive job that requires the volunteers to use nets to catch various species of insects. In 2002, the Nature Conversancy released bio-control agents sixty times to keep the Yellow-Starthistle in check. The use of bio-control agents is the future method for control in the rough terrain of the canyon. In addition, the Conservancy uses the volunteers to collect native grass seeds for use in restoration projects. These grass seeds are sent to private growers where the seed stock grows exponentially. Then, the volunteers help spread the seed back on areas where invasives have been removed.

Recruitment and Funding

The Conservancy looks for volunteers who truly care about the work they are doing to help the outdoors. As indicated earlier, most of the volunteers come from sports-related interest groups. However, the Conservancy does publicize volunteer days through various media like posting the announcement on the Web site, emailing members of the Conservancy, or informing the local communities. Talsma indicated that these volunteer days bring out one to two dozen volunteers, which is a good and controllable number.

The Conservancy gets its funding for these early detection programs from the same type of groups that provide its volunteers. The sports groups will donate money each year to help fight invasives in order to save the areas where they recreate. Additional funding comes through public and private grants. However, Talsma indicated that the biggest obstacle in its fight against invasives is the low level of funding. With more funding, the monitoring program for invasives could be much more extensive, detailed, and cover a wider area. Right now, monitoring programs run about $10,000 per year and that is about 10 to 15 % of the overall Hell's Canyon Project's budget.


The Conservancy likes to recruit people with expertise, but most of the volunteers don't have prior botanical knowledge. The Conservancy gives each volunteer a weed identification book that contains a broad list of targeted invasive species. The Conservancy trains the volunteers, during a two to three hour session and then for a day or two in the field, to spot three to four invasive species in the Hell's Canyon area. The list could consist of toadflax, loosestrife, knapweed, skeleton weed, and scotch thistle. The volunteers are taught to catch the invasives in the correct phenological stage of the species, which makes eradication simple. For instance, the Conservancy knows that toadflax is most vulnerable when it is in its budding stage. They train their volunteers to spot toadflax in this stage thus, the weed is eradicated before it can do any damage. Through this method, the invasives cannot reach their flowering and reproductive stage.

During the training, the volunteers are also taught to use the vast amount of technology at the Conservancy. Talsma indicated that the volunteers learn how utilize the technology much quicker than they learn to identify the invasives.

Suggestions, if the Conservancy could start again

Talsma said that if he were to start the Hell's Canyon invasives project over again, he would have started the program much earlier. He suggests that the Conservancy should have started early detection and eradication programs as soon as the invasives were found in the area. This way, it could have thwarted the problem while all the invasives, like the Yellow Starthistle and Leafy Spurge, were only scattered throughout the area. He indicated that the volunteer early detection program could have been much more effective if it had started earlier because, the volunteers could have had a weaker and more confined opponent.

If the Conservancy could go back to the stage before it started its volunteer program, they would have arranged a common meeting area where everyone involved in fighting invasives in the Northwest could have come to establish a region-wide plan of action. Talsma pointed out that in the beginning stages of all the regional early detection volunteer programs, it took too long for everyone to begin to work together. Each managing entity was unwilling to compromise about how much it would be willing to do to fight invasives in the region. This created a harsh environment for starting each of the programs.

With this awkward beginning, the Conservancy has been satisfied with progress of its volunteer programs including early detection. One of their major satisfactions is that its volunteer programs have caused an increase in the awareness of the invasives problem. The Conservancy found that a ripple effect occurs with its volunteers, because they will discuss the problems of invasives with others in their community. In addition, the interest groups consisting of hunters, boaters, and fishermen will tell other interest groups about protecting their outdoors against the invasive species problems. Both of these situations have brought more volunteers and money into the system.

Suggestions for Beginning Volunteer Early Detection Programs

For groups beginning their volunteer-based early detection programs, Talsma provided a few suggestions that can make a program more effective and efficient. First, he suggested that the organizing party should try to work with existing volunteer based organizations and interest groups. The Conservancy has greatly benefited from the volunteer programs of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other outdoor interest groups. He said that with these organizations, the structure and resources for the volunteer program are already built into the system through the help of existing groups.

Secondly, Talsma recommends that groups should not underestimate coordination time and small costs. In the case of Hell's Canyon, much of the prep-time before a river monitoring trip is spent organizing the small details like methods of travel to the starting point of the trip, the amount of food, and where the group is going to stay. If groups try to get by with little coordination time, they may have problems with the production of the programs. In addition, most of early detection costs can be small but frequent costs. If these costs are not monitored, then the group may be facing future financial problems.

Talsma advocates that beginning volunteer programs need to invest a lot of money in technology. He emphasized that the Nature Conversancy has been effective in locating invasives in the area because of its use of LANDSAT imagery, digital imagery, GPS units, IPAC units, and aerial photography. These assets provide the volunteers with detailed maps and images that show the exact location of the invasive species in the area. Then, the volunteers have a better idea where to look for the invasives to identify them and report them if they are a new or rapidly spreading species. Even though many of these technologies are expensive, Talsma feels that they are essential to a properly run early detection program.

Two other small suggestions for starting volunteer programs are a 3-5 year funding strategy and connections with a good network of weed associations. First, Talsma advises groups to start to plan medium to long range funding strategies in order to smooth out the fluctuations in gifts and grants. He indicated that with a 3-5 year funding plan, most groups could establish a sound program without worrying about funding all the time. He also suggests that groups join the information networks of weed associations like the Cooperative Weed Management Association. Through the weed associations, groups are included in comprehensive weed databases that would provide the necessary information about each species in their area. Information about necessary control methods and physical characteristics of invasive species are easy to retrieve and free to the group.

Quick Facts

Staffing: 2 full-time positions with the Conservancy (work closely with 2 more full-time employees in the Idaho Department Game and Fish and 3 more employees in the Bureau of Land Management)

Operating Budget: About $2 million a year ($170,000 a year for Hell's Canyon Project)

Species Targeted:
Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula)
Toad Flax (Linaria maroccana)
Skeleton Weed (Chondrilla juncea)
Yellow Starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis)
Cheat grass (Bromus tectorum)
Other invasives monitored:
Scotch Thistle (Onopordum acanthium)
Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa)
Diffuse Knapweed (Acroptilion repens)
Russian Knapweed (Acroptilion repens)
Sulfur Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta)
White Top (Erigeron strigosus)
Crupina (Crupina vulgaris)
Perennial pepperweed (Lepidium latifolium)
Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense)

Habitats patrolled: Aquatic (rivers and streams), Interior land, Canyon walls

Report prepared by: Brian Webb

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Last Modified: May 18, 2016
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