- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Colorado wildlife officials are trying to turn visitors to state parks and trails into amateur naturalists, creating an app that can be used to photograph animals and create a database that will be used by scientists to study whether climate change is altering the state’s habitats.

Users of iNaturalist can post their photos and sounds, or view the observations of other park visitors. They can also alert others about their finds, so people can add to their collections. The app is especially attractive to birdwatchers.

The app is available for free from Android and iPhone stores, and can also be downloaded from the Colorado wildlife tracking web page. The application automatically records observations with photos and GPS locations. People can also see other reports and get updates on wildlife sightings.

Steamboat Lake State Park administrator Julie Arington said it’s a great project to attract more people to Colorado parks, and get help from people who already love nature and the outdoors.

It is also an attempt to attract more people to explore state forests and trails.

“People like to share what they find, and this is a chance to share. They can also get help from other people identifying what they found,” Arington said.

In Colorado, about 60 people have turned in more than 300 observations on animals, insects and plants after Colorado Parks and Wildlife posted notices at 42 campgrounds and numerous trails asking people to document their findings.

Odd reports in Colorado so far include bugs called “Hanging Thieves” that are flies with long legs found near Walsenburg, a Purplish Copper butterfly with fuzzy wings found near Steamboat Lake State Park and a rabbit-eared Albert’s Squirrel photographed near Durango.

Wildlife officials say if someone spots a rare or protected species, like the imperiled lynx that was reintroduced into the Colorado wilderness, the finding is reported but the details are obscured on the Internet to protect the animals and allow wildlife specialists to check it out.

The program is part of a larger international project called iNaturalist.org, which has more than 130,000 members around the world who have contributed nearly 2 million observations.

International project co-founder Scott Loarie said crowdsourcing nature findings can help scientists determine if climate change is affecting local species, forcing them to move to areas where they have not been found before.

Loarie said some of the findings have been surprising.

He said a snail that was found and recorded in California was quickly identified by naturalists in Australia as an invasive species, allowing California to take steps to eradicate it before it can cause serious damage.

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