Our Yellowstone Threatened and Sensitive Species Program will take place in the wild mountains and valleys of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, biologically diverse wildlands that provide critical habitat for grizzly bears, grey wolves, bison, elk and other sensitive wildlife populations. Our field study takes place in and around Yellowstone National Park, the heart of the largest intact wilderness region in the temperate zones of the Earth. Much of our fieldwork will take place in wild forest backcountry and watersheds, prime locales for Yellowstone’s wildlife. Not only does Yellowstone provide crucial wildlife habitat, it is also North America’s premier location for observing and studying wildlife and multi-species interactions. Thus, it has become an immense natural laboratory presenting unparalleled opportunity for field work. While our primary foci on this program will be the gray wolf and grizzly bear, our wide-ranging explorations will allow us to investigate everything from butterflies to bison.
The Greater Yellowstone area is a highly complex and biologically diverse ecological system. It is one of the last ecosystems that still supports its entire pre-European compliment of species in the lower forty-eight states. Some of the biological components that are most emblematic of Yellowstone’s high ecosystem integrity, such as wolves and bears, are continually shrouded in controversy. Complex issues addressing these fragile resources present difficult management problems with few easy decisions.
Extirpated in the 1920s, and restored in 1996, wolves remain Yellowstone’s most controversial species. Every year thousands of people come to Yellowstone hoping for the chance to see a wolf in the wild. At the same time, record numbers of people are lining up for the chance to hunt wolves in Idaho and Montana. Thus, in addition to examining wolf ecology and behavior, we will also address the controversial issues of reintroduction and management.
Team members will participate in a firsthand investigation of major Yellowstone wildlife/habitat issues in and around the nation’s first national park. With Yellowstone’s Northern Range as our base, we will undertake field studies and conduct wildlife observations. This will include both day hikes and a multi-day backpacking exploration. Our hands-on field activities will be augmented by information exchanges with wildlife management experts and conservation community leaders as we explore the ecology of our study species and the complex management issues and controversies surrounding them.
Program Goals and Activities
Gray Wolf Reintroduction
Gray wolves (canis lupus) were restored to Yellowstone National Park under the Endangered Species Act, in one of the first attempts to introduce a large carnivore to former habitats. Recovery efforts have been tremendously effective and have been hailed as one of the greatest conservation successes of the twentieth century. Among the results are a population of hundreds of wolves, unprecedented opportunities to observe and study these top predators, and widespread public acceptance. However, the efforts and achievement are not without critics, including local sportsmen and livestock growers whose opposition has challenged managers to work with difficult situations. This summer, we will examine on-site the successes and failures of the wolf recovery project, as well as ongoing obstacles to the full realization of long-term goals of restoring wolves to the west.
One of our goals will be to understand wolf ecology, habitat use, and the impact of wolves upon other wildlife. Bear in mind that there are approximately 500 wolves spread over a landscape nearly as large as the state of Maine. While we will likely discover physical evidence of wolf presence (tracks, scat, etc.) and/or hear wolves, actually seeing illusive wolves in the wild remains a quite fortunate event, not a certainty. Together we will also examine how other land uses such as livestock grazing, logging and recreational development have influenced and affected the wolf reintroduction process. In addition to exploring the role of wolves in the ecosystem, we will also discuss the human relationship with wolves historically, as well as the current management issues.
Grizzly Bear Recovery
The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is another top predator that is listed under the Endangered Species Act. The current population of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Area has increased from 250 in the 1970s to about 700 today, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on the verge of delisting grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone (and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem that includes Glacier National Park). Critics, however, are still very concerned about the long-term future of the Yellowstone grizzly bear. Grizzly bears reproduce slowly and require large areas to meet their ecological requirements, yet shrinking habitat through roads and other human developments has left fewer places for bears to exist. Many sources of food are unreliable and face a questionable future, as do the bears themselves. We will examine bear habitats, actively search for signs of their presence and investigate firsthand the distribution and recolonization success of bears in Yellowstone. As with wolves, actually seeing elusive bears in the wild should be considered fortunate. Today research is being conducted to determine the extent to which bears are utilizing expanded wildland habitats, habitats that if found to be critical to bear survival could be excluded from human development options (road construction, timber harvesting, mining, etc.) that would otherwise fragment the wilderness and jeopardize grizzly bear persistence. Through our explorations, we will attempt to gain knowledge of the distribution, behavior and recolonization success of bears in Yellowstone wildlands.
Yellowstone National Park hosts the last free-ranging bison (Bos bison) herd in North America. They are managed under a policy of natural regulation that allows for natural process to determine the size and health of the herd. But when bison leave Yellowstone National Park and enter the state of Montana they are hazed, captured, or killed for fear of transmission of the disease brucellosis to livestock. However, transmission of the disease requires conditions that rarely, if ever, occur. The park, as well as outraged protesters, has fought the practices of the state in an on-going debate over the future of bison management. We will view several bison herds on their summer range in Yellowstone, talk with stakeholders in this debate and explore areas where bison management takes place.
By the end of the summer, each of us will have gained firsthand knowledge of Yellowstone’s habitats, wildlife populations, and controversial management challenges. All field methods and data collection techniques will be taught on-site. No prior research experience is required, but we expect participants to arrive excited and prepared for a rewarding and challenging field study experience. We hope you can join us for personally exciting and academically rewarding wildlife field studies.
Students will receive 5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits from Western Washington University. Our staff will be happy to explain the program in further detail to the applicant’s advisor, if necessary. This field studies program gives credit in one course: ESCI 437A, Environmental Wildlands Studies: 5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits.
Students will be evaluated on their field journals, the quality of their fieldwork, exams, and participation in seminars/discussions.
Team members are expected to conduct themselves in a mature and responsible manner. Wildlands Studies reserves the right to require any student to withdraw from the program if their conduct is detrimental to or incompatible with the interests, safety, or welfare of any course participants. We ask all students to read the Student Program Manual before joining the program on-site.
We will first meet in Bozeman and then establish base camps in our Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem study areas. From here, we will go on daily field study explorations, which can involve early morning departures and long hours in wildland habitats waiting for wildlife observations. For much of the program we will undertake both short and long day hikes from base camps. We will be backpacking for several days through a selected study site as well. Therefore, physical conditioning, adequate equipment, and preparation are imperative.
Supplies will be purchased during the program. When team members arrive in Bozeman, we will break into cook groups and do most of our shopping for the program. There will also be time during the program to purchase supplies in small towns with limited selections. Any special foods that you would like for the latter part of the program should be bought on the first day of the program in Bozeman. All reasonable efforts will be made to follow the activities outlined above. However, please understand that on our program in Yellowstone, travel arrangements can remain tentative until the traveling actually takes place. Weather conditions and road closures may affect our plans.
Wildlands Studies has put together an innovative, unique program in Yellowstone, and team members need to be flexible, patient, and prepared to adapt to unexpected situations. Being flexible also allows us to take advantage of unique opportunities that inadvertently arise during our journeys, often producing some of the program’s most memorable moments.
Primarily camping and backpacking.
If you are a non-U.S. citizen, you will need a current passport that does not expire until after the end of the program. Contact your country’s Consulate Office to determine if you need a tourist visa to enter the U.S.
This program is taught in English.
Detailed information regarding travel/flight information, equipment/gear requirements, food costs, meeting plans, group expenses payment, medical recommendations, and academic preparations will be sent to all team members in a logistics letter emailed about ten to twelve weeks before the program initiates. Stay in good shape and get ready for an exciting wildlife program.