Locality Release Online – A Level-headed Approach

Originally posted on Field Herp Forum by Jim Bass on 11/22/2011

Locality Release Online
‘A Level-headed Approach’

Given the advent and tremendous growth of online forums devoted to specific fields of biological interest, such as ‘Field Herping’, the subject of Specific Locality has generated a considerable amount of controversy, regarding the why, where, when, and how much information should be made available publicly. As the Ca. Chapter Education Officer and an International Board Member of the North American Field Herper’s Association, I have taken it upon myself to try to develop a set of standards regarding ‘locality specificity’ for the NAFHA, the FHF, and any other online forums where these standards might possibly be utilized.

One of the most contentious issues contained within the Nafha paradigm is that of what constitutes too specific a public posting of locality information. This is understandable, as our membership is comprised of a broad array of levels of experience, from professional herpetologists to novice hobbyists trying to find and photograph their first creature. We also run the gamut from pure researchers collecting data for publication, to professional photographers, to field herping hobbyists, to reptile breeders selling captive-bred reptiles for a living. Not to mention the unscrupulous element who may access posted locality information purely for profit, and with no concern for conservation or the environment.

Additionally, we (Nafha) seem to have built-in diametrically opposed warrants contained within the scope of our Purpose Statement in our Bylaws, in that we propose to both conserve natural bio-diversity and habitat, while simultaneously inspiring “all people to enjoy and protect wild herpetofauna”. Indeed, it is the dichotomy between ‘enjoy’ and ‘protect’ that gives rise to the various opinions concerning the dissemination of ‘Locality Specific’ information. I would humbly suggest that the word ‘and’ is in fact the means to bridge this divide, by identifying the best level of publicly releasing locality information that will assist those seeking to ‘enjoy’ and satisfy those seeking to ‘protect’ while providing the unsavory element little to no advantage.

I would propose that we employ a tiered system of locality release, with the correct level of release realized through an examination of several salient factors.

These Levels of Release’ would be:
  • Level 1—None to Co. level
  • Level 2—Region to major feature/city
  • Level 3—Specific locality
  • Level 4—GPS Data
Which level to choose depends upon what type of post one wishes to submit, and I would suggest that they could be broken down as follows:
  1. Photo post
  2. Field Reports
    1. Researcher Request/Report
    2. Citizen Scientist Request/Report
    3. Hobbyist Field Request/Report
    4. Novice Request/Report
Next, the contents, or subject of the post must also be taken into consideration. How commercially valuable, or even difficult to find a given species might be, and/or how fragile a given habitat may be, plays a deciding role in which level of release to choose. I would suggest these, as levels of sensitivity:

  1. Sensitivity
    1. Low
    2. Medium
    3. High
Also, one must consider ‘when’ to post… immediately, in-season/off-season, or year-end posts.

Finally, when considering either the intentional or unintentional release of locality information, one must consider how much information is contained within the habitat shots one might choose to include.

Taking all these factors into consideration, I will now try to provide some real-life examples of determining which level of release to utilize.

Type of Post

Along with collecting and submitting data, many of our members are exemplary photographers, and the focus (pun intended) is on presenting the herps they find and the places they visit in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. Little to no locality information is required, and one should keep locality information to a Level 1, and at the most, Level 2.

Next we have the ‘Field Reports’, which can be broadly broken down into four classes: Researcher Requests, Citizen Scientist report, Hobbyist Report, and Novice report. Often, Researchers will request specific locality information towards determining range, intergradation zones, occurrence, and the like. Most researchers are discerning enough not to publicly request information for sensitive species and/or sensitive spots, without requesting that replies be sent via e-mail or private message. In the case however, when the information requested ranks Low on the sensitivity scale (say, Zebratail lizards) there should be no problem releasing locality information at Level 3, right down to precise GPS coordinates. That said, information that precise is just-as-well sent privately. It should also be noted that these types of ‘researcher requests’ typically result in what could be considered extreme or ‘outlier’ data, wherein the species in question is so rarely found at the revealed locality, that only a researcher would bear the expense and effort for confirmation… for all the other types of herpers out there, (including the unsavory element) it’s just not logical or fiscally practical to pursue these herps where they are so rarely encountered.

The ‘Citizen Scientist’ is a rather new and unique approach employed chiefly by the North American Field Herpers Association (NAFHA) towards the collection and storage (via the database) of herpetological data. The reports range from confirmations and surveys of well known populations of herps, to remnant, new, and/or introduced populations and range extensions of the herps in their regions, or in some cases for other herps they have traveled good distances to collect data on. With typically a keen eye towards conservation and habitat preservation, their field reports are typically kept to at Level 1, and at the most, Level 2, with Level 3 information passed privately. While often the citizen scientist may be satisfied with ‘voucher-level’ photos, some combine their passion for data collection with a passion for top-notch photography, resulting in simply breath-taking field reports.

The Field Herping Hobbyist is another comparatively new manifestation in the herpetological milieu— often a former reptile keeper who has come to realize that maintaining a digital collection of the herps they see is cheaper, more lasting and ecologically more morally justifiable than maintaining a collection of wild caught reptiles and amphibians. Many new members, recently developing an interest in field herping, are choosing the digital paradigm as the mainstay of their herping endeavors.

Finally we come to the Field Herping Novice, for whom this article is primarily intended, as they are typically unaware of the problems that too specific a release of information can cause. This is compounded by the fact that it very exciting to find ‘lifers’ and the impulse to share every detail is difficult to control. I would politely suggest that they try to keep their releases of locality information to Level 1 or 2.

Eager to find lifers, but not yet knowing many people, we more-seasoned herpers often get novice-level request for the where, when and how to find all manner of target species, from very low on the sensitivity scale to very high. As Education Officer, I consider assisting those new to our hobby/vocation a critically important task, in that we are shaping the next generation of Field Herpers. When a ‘newb’ asks for help finding something medium to low on the sensitivity scale, it behooves the more seasoned members to help, either online or by pm, lest a novice herper inadvertently damages some sensitive habitat, searching on their own. Additionally, this gives the more season herper the chance to teach the less experienced how to herp properly, further reducing the possibility of damage from a ‘lack of experience’ in the field.

Quite often, the Novice has been attracted to the Fieldherping hobby by viewing exceptional shots of some of the more attractive and hard to find herps… Alterna, Zonata, Pines, ect, and set their sights on these lofty targets. My advice to them is to set their sights a bit lower, gain some experience in the field, and ideally try to get to know (by herping with) the more seasoned herpers in their area, towards earning the trust required, for more seasoned herpers to accommodate requests for assistance/advice with the more sensitive species.

Sensitivity

Species Sensitivity is often the hardest factor to contain. When we find something exceptional, the urge to share our success is hard to resist, even for the most seasoned herpers. Fortunately, the more seasoned herper will usually be wise enough to keep locality information to a minimum. But the problem is, different people consider different herps sensitive, especially with the trend in Herpetoculture moving towards ‘Locality Specific’ captive breeding. Here in Ca., many people (myself included) consider specific localities of rosys and kingsnakes very sensitive, due to the amazing locality variability of these snakes, and the loss of their habitat to development. Other species, such as Ca. Tiger Salamanders and Arroyo Toads are, or are becoming very rare, and require special permits to pursue, for any reason, and are by law, considered either sensitive or protected.

And often, it’s not so much that a given species is ‘sensitive’— its more that their habitat gets damaged by careless and/or inexperienced herpers… rocks not replaced, outcrops torn apart, ect. Great care and consideration must be given to potential habitat degradation, as sometimes, even footsteps can cause a great amount of habitat degradation, as is the case here in the Mojave Desert. I would suggest that when trying to figure out ‘where’ to find any given herp, additional research on the given herp’s habitat should be done, to avoid unintended damage. As a Californian, I can only speak to what I (personally) would consider ‘sensitive’ and ‘non-sensitive’ in my area, but a ‘sensitivity scale’ should be applicable for any given area.

In my area, I would consider most lizards and amphibians ‘low’ on the sensitivity scale, depending upon the size of their ranges, and the relative difficulty and/or effort required for finding them. Side Blotch lizards, Fence Swifts, Whiptail Lizards, Western Toads, Garden Slender/Blackbelly Salamanders, and Tree Frogs come to mind as wide-ranging lizards and amphibians that are easy to find, and given no other conflicting factors… there should be no problems (or complaints) with even a ‘Level 3’ release of locality specificity online. That’s not to say, of course, that other examples from those two families, should not rate either ‘Medium’ or ‘High’ on a sensitivity scale.

Generally speaking, I would consider species like Crotaphytus, Gambelia, Phrynosoma and Petrosaurus ‘Medium’ (Level 2 release) and herps like most Xantusia, Coleonyx switaki, and Heloderma suspectum would rate as ‘High’ (Level 1 release) on a ‘sensitivity scale.

With some species, like Sandstone Night Lizards (X. gracilis) and Kern Plateau Slender Salamanders (B.robustus), I won’t be surprised if some take umbrage to me even mentioning them, in this article, which highlights the point that nearly anything anyone posts will have ‘fans’ out there who consider any release of information too much.

Therefore, I chose the examples I used as (hopefully) the least ‘controversial’, and leave it up to each Chaper/Region to draw up what they would consider to be ‘Low’, ‘Medium’ or ‘High’ on a sensitivity scale.

When to Post

While even a bit of research will generally let one know the best times of year to look for about any given species, here in Ca the posting of the first King, Rosy, Zonata, or Rubber Boas of the year, will generally trigger a mad rush to both the general areas and specific well-known spots for these herps, which all to often results in spots getting thrashed. Therefore, many Nafha Members here in Ca. have entered into what we call the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement” wherein we wait until the season for some of the herps that many of us would rate ‘medium’ to ‘high’, is (at the very least) well under way, or over, before posting on them. This may be a factor in some people waiting till the end of the year to post, as well, although for some—they are actually too busy out herping as much as they can while the herping is good, to take the time to make a good post.

Personally… I still have a hard time not posting bout everything I see, the same day I see it, but since I’ve had what could only be described as a very ‘pedestrian’ year, herp-wise this year, I haven’t had to force myself to wait. I think that once the season is fully underway, there should be no problem posting either field reports or photo posts, for species that would range from ‘low’ to ‘medium’ on a sensitivity scale, at the recommended ‘level of release’.

Habitat Shots

Very often, ‘Habitat Shots’ are included in field reports, and great care should be given to how much Locality Information can be gleaned from these shots. In addition to not posting shots from ‘Vista Points’, Identifying signage, and well-known landmarks, I would further suggest not to even post pictures of unique features, such as unusual rock formations or readily identifiable trees. A habitat shot should be kept as ‘generic’ as possible, while still portraying the type of habitat a given herp might utilize. The exception of course, would be where someone post photos of a trip to well-know places like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, and the locality is a given.

Conclusion

My hope in writing this article is mostly that our newer members get a leg up on this often-contentious issue, and gain some understanding as to why some folks post quite differently than they might. My hope is that they, and perhaps even some of the more seasoned guys, consider the type of post, the subject sensitivity, the timing of the post, and the habitat shots they include, to decide which ‘Level of Information Release’ might be considered most appropriate. We go through this stuff every year… with old-timers getting angry, newbies getting ‘flamed’ and some people just getting fed-up and leaving.

We don’t need any of those things, and hopefully, this ‘Level-headed Approach’ to releasing locality information online, will decrease those things. Happy Herping…Jim Bass.

Related Posts

Related:  Snake Bites & Misinformation

About

View all posts by