Thursday 14 January 2016

Master Naturalists: Volunteer Stewards of our Natural Areas

Do you love to hike across the Prairies and wish you could identify more of the plants? Are you a keen birder but would like to expand your knowledge of prairie ecology? Do you love being outdoors, even in the city, and want to help protect our remaining natural areas? Do you like to dig in the dirt or wade in marshes?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you will be interested in joining Saskatchewan’s newly created Master Naturalist program.

Matching Volunteers with Opportunities
Chet Neufeld is the Executive Director of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan. Chet says that the Society has a dedicated membership and he never has a problem lining up volunteers to remove invasive plants or search for rare wildflowers. However, the volunteers don’t always have the necessary expertise and training can be time-consuming. “Often the event is over by the time people are trained,” he says.

Other organizations (Nature Conservancy of Canada, Meewasin Valley Authority, Ducks Unlimited) experience the same problem. The challenge is to provide eager volunteers with the knowledge and tools they need to become stewards of our natural areas.

Over half the States and several Canadian cities and provinces have Master Naturalist programs. The Montana Master Naturalist program “is designed for adults who want to stoke their curiosity and deepen their knowledge of the natural world.” The City of Edmonton has recognized that its natural areas “have tremendous ecological, social, educational and economic value” and that it’s important to “work to protect and enhance them, and to educate others, through meaningful volunteer stewardship”.

The website for the Texas Master Naturalist program says, “What makes the work of a Master Naturalist so important is that they are not only individuals who love nature and offer their time, but are also trained naturalists with specialized knowledge of different ecosystems, species, habitats, and environmental demands that is priceless when determining how to best manage natural resources.”

Program Elements
Master Naturalist programs have three key elements:

1. Educational Modules: Interested individuals sign up for the different educational modules, gaining new knowledge and skills through classroom workshops and hands-on outdoor activities. You can sign up for one module that particularly interests you or obtain Master Naturalist status by completing all the modules.

2. Volunteer Time: Designated Master Naturalists will be expected to contribute a certain number of volunteer hours each year to maintain their designation. It’s also an opportunity for everyone, with course fees being reimbursed after a certain number of documented volunteer hours.

3. Ongoing Training: Master Naturalists will be expected to continue expanding their knowledge through ongoing training.

The Saskatchewan Model
The Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan (NPSS) has obtained funding for three years from Environment Canada in order to establish a provincial Master Naturalist program. NPSS will serve as the lead organization, but many other organizations are also involved. “We’ve found that the more partners you have, the more successful you’ll be,” Chet says. “Native plants are only one component of a comprehensive program.”

A group of stakeholders has started meeting to discuss the development and delivery of the program. They represent a wide variety of local and provincial organizations, including the City of Saskatoon, Meewasin Valley Authority, Ducks Unlimited Saskatchewan, Saskatoon Nature Society, Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Saskatchewan branch. Other organizations have expressed an interest but have not yet made a commitment.

Individuals and organizations will take the lead on preparing and presenting the different modules. The initial modules are designed to provide individuals with a good base of general knowledge and are expected to include: archaeology and Aboriginal traditional knowledge, ecological engagement, citizen science (how to collect and submit data), prairie ecology, forest ecology, aquatic ecology, and urban ecology.

Chet says that there is lots of material already out there that can be adapted. “We want the courses to be interesting and fun,” he says. “We may be teaching the same things as are in a university course, but it can’t be that intense. There will be lots of hands-on outdoor learning as well as classroom stuff.”

The first three modules are expected to be developed by the end of March 2016.

Chet says that the fee for participating in each module will be kept low at $25-50 per module. If you take the course and then contribute a certain number of volunteer hours, your money will be refunded. Participants could end up taking the entire course for free.

Volunteer opportunities will range from monitoring wildlife activity in the Northeast Swale to pulling down fences on Nature Conservancy of Canada properties or rooting out invasive plants.

For more information about the Saskatchewan Master Naturalist program, contact Chet Neufeld at

Further information: Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan

Photo Credit: Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan