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You are here: Home / Manager's Tool Kit / Early Detection and Rapid Response / The Early Detectives / Early Detection & Spot Removal Team of The Nature Conservancy's Southern Lake Champlain Valley Program
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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.

Early Detection & Spot Removal Team of The Nature Conservancy's Southern Lake Champlain Valley Program

Contacts: Mary Droege, The Nature Conservancy's Southern Lake Champlain Valley Program in Vermont and New York
E-mail: mdroege@tnc.org
Phone: (802) 265-8645


This pilot program began in the 2001-2002 growing season in the Southern Lake Champlain Valley region of New York and Vermont. It used approximately ten volunteers at the beginning of program. However, that number dwindled to six by the end of the season. These volunteers worked in teams, each of which monitored one specific site. In these trips, the volunteers document the presence of fifteen priority invasive species.


One of the major successes of the program is that the Nature Conservancy has learned many lessons from the inaugural year. At the end of the first year, Nature Conservancy staff asked the volunteers to provide feed-back on what worked well and also to make suggestions for improvement.

One of the problems was that the list of species was too extensive for most of the volunteers to confidently master in one field season. Mary Droege, a staff worker at the Nature Conservancy, indicated that the ideal volunteer is one that has enough training in botany to be able to identify an invasive species fairly easily. The typical volunteer is someone who wants to do something productive with his or her time with an emphasis on aiding the environment. Thus, the typical volunteer may not have the necessary botany training to recognize all fifteen invasive species on the hot list.

Another problem was that some of the invasive species looked very similar to the native species. Thus, the Nature Conservancy staff has modified the program so that volunteers will be looking for fewer than six invasive species in a designated area and thus, they will be more likely to become confident in their identification of those species.

Another area for improvement is the field forms. Many volunteers thought they were too detailed and cumbersome. This task of documenting the species overwhelmed volunteers because they had to fill out moderately detailed information each time they found the species on the site. The Nature Conservancy has adapted its documentation forms.

Another challenge cited by volunteers was that some of the species put on the hot list were already too established in the ecosystem for any type of early invasion control methods. With early detection, the Conservancy's goal is to find an invasive species before it has become established in that ecosystem. If the species has already become established, it must be dealt with differently than if it were barely present in the system. Often the volunteers found that some of the more prevalent invasive species were found so frequently that the repetitive work of mapping and filing out the field form was too cumbersome. In addition, the Nature Conservancy found that these established species take too much time and effort to eradicate, so they had to be treated in a different manner than the true early detection species.

The Nature Conservancy slimmed down the intentions of its program to only search for the species that are at the stage where eradication at the site level is still possible. If the Nature Conservancy feels that they can eradicate or sufficiently control a species at a site with the proper time and effort, then they will include that species in the early detection program. This change will provide the volunteers with more gratifying and time-efficient work.

One final point that came out during the feedback sessions was the challenge of the repetitive work of monitoring the same tract of land three to four times in one season. Mary Droege said that if the volunteers visited the same area three or four times and found the same species on that spot of land, they became frustrated with having to repeatedly fill out the forms for the same species. In order to correct this deficiency in the project, the Nature Conservancy is going to change the area and the list of species that the volunteers are looking for. Instead of giving each volunteer the responsibility to watch for fifteen different species on a smaller area, the Nature Conversancy is going to give the volunteers three to four target invasive species to look for over a much larger area. This change in the program will allow the volunteers to become much more efficient in locating and processing the invasions and increase the volunteer's level of enjoyment as well.

By analyzing the needs of the volunteers, the Nature Conservancy has started the planning of a second pilot program for 2003. The lessons learned in the first program led to the changes that will be enacted in the second program. One of the major successes of the Early Detection and Spot Removal team has been its willingness to adapt its program to the comments, concerns, and needs of the volunteers.

The first pilot program of the Early Detection and Spot Removal team was successful in its opening year, in terms of monitoring and eradication. Mary Droege indicated that they have a more accurate picture of where the invasive species are and what types of habitats they are most likely to pop-up in. One major early detection success was the monitoring and quick eradication of one small plot of Garlic Mustard that had the potential to break out into a massive invasion in a floodplain habitat. Mary Droege indicated that a group of volunteers noticed the patch of Garlic mustard in its early stages and the necessary steps were taken to eradicate the species from that area.

To show their gratitude for this type of service and overall volunteering, each year the Nature Conservancy has a volunteer appreciation party. At that party, gifts are given to each volunteer who has volunteered a certain number of hours and a major gift is given to the person with the most hours.

What they wanted to know when beginning the program

More information prior to the beginning of the program could have avoided some of the early problems they had. Droege indicated that, when beginning the program, they only had their staff's knowledge of invasive species, a few regional surveys plotting some invasive species, a few similar programs in nearby states and the Internet as resources to start this program. If the Nature Conservancy had more information about other volunteer-based early detection program methodologies (i.e. What are other programs doing?"), cost-efficient technologies (i.e. What would be the best GPS unit, within a certain price range?), and methods to make data entry into GIS systems easier, then they would have been able to better start their program.

Challenges of the Program

Since funding has been limited, their monitoring capabilities have been limited as well. In addition, volunteer turnover has been somewhat of a problem. They found that it was frustrating to go through the full-day training session with the volunteers and then have some volunteers decide not to participate a few weeks later. In order to correct this, the Nature Conservancy will carefully select a few volunteers and hope that they will have a higher probability to stay over a prolonged period of time.
Deciding on the Hot-List

When gathering the information for their hot-list of invasive species, the staff at the Nature Conservancy decided to prioritize the species based on which invasive species were the greatest threat to their conservation targets instead of looking at the entire broad landscape of the Southern Lake Champlain eco-system. This allowed for a more concentrated list. They decided on the fastest-moving and most threatening species through personal knowledge and web-based research. The goal of listing a species was to anticipate the movement of those invasive species that were just on the edge of getting into the area or recent arrivals.

Quick Facts

Staffing: In 2001 this project was the primary responsibility of one full time staff person. Now in 2003, 3 full-time employees share time in the program. In 2001 staff worked with roughly 10 trained volunteers at the start, which diminished down to 6 by the end of the invasive season.

Operating Budget: Small amount of funding through public grants and private trusts. Not much money comes through the regular Nature Conservancy operating budget

Species Targeted:
Barberry (Berberis thunbergii and B. vulgaris)
Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum)
Black swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum nigrum)
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)
Frog Bit (Hydrocharis morsusranae)
Phragmites (Phragmites australis)

Habitats Patrolled: deciduous forests

Location: USA, Vermont, New York

Report prepared by: Brian Webb

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Last Modified: May 18, 2016
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