Chasing Rabbits

Department of Energy & Environment Seeking Citizen Scientists

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The Fisheries and Wildlife Division of the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) is recruiting residents to help conduct a study of cottontail rabbit and chipmunk populations in the District.

Are You a Citizen Scientist?
According to the District’s 2015 Wildlife Action Plan, citizen scientists are members of the public who collect information and forward it to a principal scientist. They are a great resource and an efficient way to provide biologists with crucial data, while encouraging public observation and education about wildlife.

“A lot of organizations have citizen-scientist programs for whatever they need assistance with at the time,” notes Lindsay Rohrbaugh, a biologist with DOEE who has conducted surveys of District wildlife, “and we have a couple of citizen-scientist projects at our agency.” The DOEE’s program began in 2013. Volunteer-reported sightings helped establish the location and population size of the eastern cottontail rabbit. The program has been so successful that it is expanding to include the eastern chipmunk and hopes to increase reporting from across the District.

Online Reporting
Residents can report sightings of eastern chipmunks and cottontail rabbits to DOEE online. Reports help to establish areas with greater wildlife population density. Due to “the exceptional efforts of residents,” DOEE has a good understanding of the rabbit population in the Northwest quadrant. Rohrbaugh has received enough data from Wards 3 and 4 to establish transects, paths that can be walked in order to make scientific observations of the appearances of cottontail rabbits.

DOEE is looking to enlarge participation in rabbit reporting, particularly in Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest. Capitol Hill residents are encouraged to go to the Eastern Cottontail and Chipmunks Reporting Form on the DDOE website and report sightings at any time. The form asks for the date, time, type, and number of animal, location of sighting, and any additional comments.

Few Reports from Capitol Hill
According to Rohrbaugh, Capitol Hill is a better habitat for rabbits than for chipmunks, but it lacks transects for either species. “We need more reporting,” she says. “I don’t know enough about where the rabbits are [in Capitol Hill] to set up that type of survey.” She is uncertain why Capitol Hill has offered fewer reports than for other areas such as Rock Creek.

Dog Walkers: A Critical Resource
Citizen scientists contribute reporting and resources in a way that goes well beyond the resources and abilities of DOEE. Rohrbaugh explains that DDOE gets much of its reporting from people who say, “Oh, I was out walking my dog, and I saw a rabbit.” That helps in determining population density, at least in that area. “Some report wildlife in their yards, or similar places that professional DOEE scientists are less likely to go.”

Given DOEE’s finite resources, which limit staff coverage of geographic areas, citizen scientists make a tremendous contribution to knowledge of wildlife. “We need to get an idea of what the wildlife population is doing, because in the action plan a lot of these are listed as species of greater conservation need (SGCN), mainly because we don’t have a lot of information on them,” says Rohrbaugh. The eastern chipmunk is identified as a SGCN in DC. “From information we’ve collected ourselves there’s been very little to support if the species is actually stable, or increasing, or declining and needs to remain a species that we should focus our efforts on.”

The Wilder Side Of DC
For Rohrbaugh, the benefits of citizen reporting extend past data collection. “DC has some really great wildlife habitats,” she says, “and it’s all right at our fingertips to see. Go out, take a walk or even a drive. And report what you see!” She adds, “You might see more than just rabbits and chipmunks. You might just see the wilder side of the city. Which is completely fascinating.”