Georgia used to be home to expanses of open areas within forests with wildflowers and grassland species, but now, these grasslands have all but disappeared.
The State Botanical Garden of Georgia at the University of Georgia has conservation efforts in place to help preserve and repopulate these native species. Now, efforts are underway to encourage community members around the state to help track remaining existing wild populations to aid in conservation using iNaturalist, a digital app that allows everyone to upload photos. The iNaturalist application identifies plants and animals and tracks them to help guide conservation work.
Will Rogers, conservation research professional at the State Botanical Garden at UGA, is coordinating efforts to support the Georgia Grasslands Initiative project to identify existing populations by using iNaturalist.
It was theorized that before European settlement, the southeast part of the U.S. had more widely spaced trees and grassland areas. Rogers said sun-loving plant populations that used to exist in these areas are now clinging onto the roadsides and utility rights of way, or anywhere it’s sunny.
Bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife depend on these plants for survival. For example, one of the declining sun-loving genera, Asclepias, or milkweed, is the primary larval host for Monarch caterpillars, an at-risk species.
The project aims to get an inventory of the plants on public lands to help guide conservation and restoration efforts, and the public can help.
“Partnerships are critical to managing natural resources,” said Joanne Baggs, an ecologist with the USDA Forest Service. “The partnership with the State Botanical Garden of Georgia has leveraged community science to collect information on high-quality habitats and engage many different groups that are participating in natural resource management.
“This information can be used to identify and manage high-quality grasslands and unique habitats and assist in the development of plant material for restoration.”
Rogers said the iNaturalist project generates a lot of data, some that can be used immediately and some that will be utilized in the future.
So far, the project has over 130 members who have made over 28,000 observations about nearly 2,300 different species.
The top producing project member, Sarah Kelsey, whose iNaturalist username is “botanylicious,” has contributed nearly 6,700 observations.
Kelsey, a disability civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, has been active on iNaturalist for about five years and started posting more observations during the pandemic.
“It was something I could do that was safe,” Kelsey said. “My job is high-stress. I see people going through terrible things, and there’s only so much I have the power to change. iNaturalist helps me de-stress and find some joy.”
“iNaturalist is a great way to learn,” Kelsey said. “It gives you a lot of suggestions. People who aren’t plant experts find important things all the time.”
All you need to participate is a smartphone, visit public lands in Georgia, and take high-quality close-up photos of the sun-loving plants you see. iNaturalist will identify the plant for you.
Rogers has traveled across the state, sharing with groups about the critical conservation work of the State Botanical Garden at UGA and demonstrating how to use iNaturalist to contribute to conservation efforts.
“The State Botanical Garden has taken significant steps to advance our knowledge of native plants in the southeast, and Will Rogers has been at the forefront of this important collaboration. We all have benefitted from Will’s work,” said Duke Rankin, USDA Forest Service Threatened and Endangered Species program manager.
Rogers said the project was built to be inclusive for all Georgians. Hikers, bikers, birders, fishermen, college students and all people from across the state are encouraged to help with photo documentation.
“It’s really cathartic and a beautiful experience to get out there and hear the birds singing and see all the plants,” Rogers said. “You can help a cause and reconnect with nature.”
For more information about the project, visit www.inaturalist.org/projects/georgia-grasslands-initiative-ggi. For more information about the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach, visit botgarden.uga.edu.
Writer: Laurel Clark, firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: Will Rogers, email@example.com