|Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Student Program, Wyoming|
This program ran for the first time in Summer 2010, with more possibilities and enthusiasm for future efforts than could have been anticipated. We have always said that getting involved early on research projects was one of the most dynamic periods because so many of the questions are still being formulated. This program is allowing students to have significant input in the direction of subsequent work. The overall theme of the Wyoming-based program is looking at issues related to climate change and how that is affecting local ecosystems and the people and animals living there.
We started the program in Grand Teton National Park with a stay at the historic Murie Center beneath the iconic Teton Mountains. Local writer, Jack Turner, spent a day with us talking about what he calls "Local Warming", which is the examination of what effects climate change will have on a specific area, like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is a particularly interesting topic because we are often exposed to larger, global changes like melting ice fields at the Poles, and thinking critically about the changes that will occur in our respective homes is a more tractable notion. It was with Jack that we were introduced to issues such as the regional decline of the Whitebark Pine due to the Mountain Pine Beetle and also the sensitivity of the American Pika to alterations in temperature. Further, we discussed not only how changes are affecting the ecosystem, but how that will influence people and where we live and work. It was a particularly relevant discussion as it set the context for two of our larger projects involving the Whitebark Pine and the Pika. These two projects will occupy our time for two-thirds of the program, but first we headed over into the Bighorn Basin to work with federal and state management agencies, local landowners, and other non-profits on a riparian restoration project.
The group was graciously provided a place to stay at the LU Ranch in the foothills of the Owl Creek Mountains. This particular location is interesting because it is within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and deals with many of the issues of the region, but receives less attention and visitors. The perfect place for us. We worked alongside local agencies and landowners on a project dealing with the treatment of invasive plant species and the subsequent changes to the stream system. It provided a lot of insight into collaborative resource management and offered an opportunity to spend quality time with biologists, ranchers, and oil company representatives. It also set the tone for what is the most important aspect of any Round River program: getting out on the land and becoming familiar with natural history. The people we are with in Wyoming are excellent mentors in this process.
Following our time in the Basin, we went into the high country to witness the extent of the Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak, meet with researchers working on this issue, as well as researchers from the University of Wyoming and the Craighead Environmental Research Institute who are working with the Pika. It was an opportunity to better define the second part of the program and gain further insight into the particular issues while sitting in talus slopes listening to the Pika calling, and amongst the red-needled pine trees. As stated earlier, the greatest strength Round River student programs can offer is getting people out on the ground learning and caring about natural history. This is a lifelong process of direct observation and exploring, not the sort of activity that one student group can start and finish, but something to be built upon and extended from one group to the next by walking across the landscape ourselves and meeting and learning from local people that know it best.
All of this is building on field efforts by two Round River alumni that have been in the field the last two summers. Colin Peacock and Dena Adler, helped with photo data collected during Whitebark Pine aerial surveys that will be used to model the rate of infection and to predict areas of future mortality. Students will ground truth these surveys to determine their accuracy. Stand analysis is conducted through extensive backpacking trips into the deepest, highest reaches of these mountain ranges. The student group will also be helping establish a monitoring protocol for a citizen science effort that hopes to document and understand wildlife interactions with the Whitebark Pine -most notably the Clarks Nutcracker, Red Squirrel, and Grizzly Bear. Additionally, we are collecting data contributing to presence/absence information on the Pika. There is a lot going on during this program, which seems to reflect the fact that there is a lot going on in Wyoming.
Most of the program is, and will continue to be spent in the field, based out of remote areas. Students will be backpacking and hiking through quintessential Rocky Mountain terrain.
We will be working with and speaking with a variety of people from diverse perspectives. To name a few: The Natural Resource Conservation Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, The Nature Conservancy, the LU Ranch, Marathon Oil Company, Craighead Environmental Research Institute, University of Wyoming, Geo/Graphics Inc.
Check out updates at the Round River Blog: Notes from the Field.
Summer Session: July 2 - August 13
The Conservation Context
Within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of western Wyoming, the Wind River Range rises into the highest elevations of the region. The high alpine crest of the Winds has created a line of glaciers that forms wide swathes with cooler microclimates, offering refuge for temperature sensitive species such as the rabbit-like Pika. This mountain range is arguably one of the wildest remaining places in the contiguous United States.
Yet even in these high and remote places an ecologically significant species, the Whitebark Pine, is quickly succumbing to the Mountain Pine Beetle. According to our most recent aerial surveys, Whitebark Pine populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have decreased by 80 percent. The Wind River Range harbor the most intact stands.
Much attention is being placed on the loss of Whitebark Pine, as its rich seeds serve as an important food source for species such as the Clarks Nutcracker, Red Squirrel, and the Grizzly Bear. These fatty pine nuts help grizzlies to survive through their winter hibernation. Most Yellowstone grizzlies traditionally trek to higher elevations to feed on these nutritious tidbits, and as the Whitebark Pine population plunges questions arise as to how grizzlies will deal with the loss of a primary late-autumn food source.
Our conservation efforts focus on utilizing the most current Landscape Analysis Survey tools for the monitoring of pine beetle outbreaks on pines, along with over 30 years of annual climate change studies on the alpine dwelling Pika. Ultimately, our work in the Wind River Mountain Range is about creating greater connectivity between the Winds and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to increase the long-term health and conservation of biodiversity therein.
"I felt very privileged to be a part of the whole experience in Wyoming this past summer. As for Round River in general I was very surprised with how pragmatic and well rounded the experience was. There is work which needs to be done in the environmental realm and Round River does an excellent job of getting people out on the ground dealing with these issues first hand. Too many of the environmental initiatives reside in never-ending, ring-around-the-rosey debates in urban centers and I salute Round River for getting people out and interacting with these ecosystems first hand. I was worried at the beginning of the program that it would be heavily based on the scientific aspect without giving much attention to the intuitive aspect of nature and I was pleasantly surprised at the way these differing and often conflicting worldviews were interwoven within the curriculum, as both empirical data and a genuine natural connection are essential in being a well-rounded scientist. Round River is doing the work which needs to be done. As a resident of the Rocky Mountain bioregion I enjoy becoming the most well informed, widely traveled, and well educated citizen I can be. I am so thankful for having had this opportunity to expand my knowledge." - - Phillip Krening (Wyoming 2010, Taku 2011, Naropa University ‘11)
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