Outside of protected areas, environmental regulation is a vital policy tool for conserving at-risk species. An underappreciated potential for citizen science is to augment locality databases used in regulatory review to provide greater certainty to regulatory decisions.
To characterize current use of citizen science data in regulatory review, we surveyed 61 state and provincial natural heritage programs, agencies that perform field surveys and maintain databases of at-risk species in the United States and Canada. Most (82% of U.S. and 88% of Canadian) natural heritage programs participate in regulatory review, and of these 52% of the U.S. and all Canadian programs currently use citizen science data.
eBird and iNaturalist are the most commonly used schemes. In a test case with the New York Natural Heritage Program's database, the inclusion of eBird records for 6 at-risk species increased the currency and the number and spatial extent of areas known to be utilized by these species. Although citizen science data did not change subnational conservation status categories, they demonstratively complemented information collected by professional field biologists.
Challenges to using citizen science data in this context include extracting useful information on rare species when most records are of common species and filtering records with sufficient spatial precision and documentation. To enhance the utility of their data, designers of citizen science schemes should encourage their volunteers to provide useful ancillary data, such as breeding activity for birds, and make data, including for sensitive species, easy to access by program data managers.