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Integrated Ecological Science in Central Yellowstone

November 1, 2004 -- By Linda McGurk

College Office

As a high-profile destination, it is not surprising that natural-resource policies in Yellowstone National Park sometimes spark public controversy, such as the reintroduction of wolves, the management of bison and wildfires, and the effects of winter recreation. In addition, management often has to rely on short-term studies to resolve the issue.

A unique research project between Montana State University, California State University - Monterey Bay, and the National Park Service (NPS), 13 years in the making, is about to change that. The project, entitled Integrated Ecological Science in Central Yellowstone, is led by Dr. Robert Garrott of the Department of Ecology at MSU and takes a multidisciplinary approach to Park ecology. “Given the very modest beginnings of this project, it is quite satisfying to see what we have been able to accomplish,” said Dr. Garrott.

When Dr. Garrott co-founded the project with Dr. Patrick White, now of NPS, in 1991, they struggled from year to year to get enough funding to keep it afloat and had no real plans to turn it into a long-term study. They had to rely on old equipment and minimum gear, but “we had a passion for what we were doing and simply wouldn’t accept the possibility that we couldn’t do it,” Dr. Garrott said.

They managed to keep the ball rolling and today the project has accrued some of the most comprehensive databases available for large mammals in the Park, including data on population estimates, pregnancy rates, reproduction, recruitment, mortality rates, and migratory patterns.

Three Ph.D. candidates and one M.S. student from MSU’s Ecology department are currently involved with the Yellowstone program: Matt Becker, Claire Gower, Jason Bruggeman, and Julie Fuller. “It is rare to have such extensive research and the integrated skills of so many people in one single project. Each person tackles a question and builds onto the database,” said Matt Becker, who is studying wolf predation rates and prey selection in the Madison-Firehole drainage of the park since the animals’ return in 1996.

The ultimate goals of the project are to understand the ecosystem dynamics, to educate the public about these processes, and to incorporate research results into management decisions. In the case of ongoing controversies like snowmobiling in the Park, for example, policy makers can use research produced through the project to determine the effect of groomed trails on bison migration. “We can provide the science and then it’s up to the public and policy makers to decide what to do with it,” Matt Becker said.

In the next three years, the research team hopes to produce a series of interpretive videos and publish the most data-rich book on ecological processes in Yellowstone to date. In the future, visitors to Yellowstone may also be able to access the results of the research through “interpretive kiosks” placed at the Park’s visitor centers. Computer visualizations of the Park ecosystem, or a “Virtual Park,” would enable the user to simulate the effects of a combination of specific climates, management policies, and animal populations. “We’re putting the research back to the public. This data is not only intended for scientific publications – we want people like our moms to be able to go down to the Park and have access to it,” Matt Becker explained.

For now, the project has secured another three years of funding. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. “Perhaps it will be time to pull the collars off the animals and start a new project someplace else…All research projects come to an end and we have been unbelievably fortunate to keep this effort going for so long and to attract such a great group of students and researchers,” Dr. Garrott said.

Updated: 04/15/2011