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Yellowstone, Not Just a Pretty Place

November 19, 2004 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News and Sarah Alexander, College of Letters & Science

College Office

Bison. Wolves. Geysers. These are the images that come to mind when people think about Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding ecosystem.

At Montana State University, however, each of the 15 departments in the College of Letters & Science sees Yellowstone through the lens of its own discipline. The result is a kaleidoscopic view that takes in bacteria as well as large animals and characteristic features. L&S researchers who work in the park are looking at tourism. They're finding parallels between wolves in Yellowstone and in Japan. They're devoting themselves to things like economic diversity, structural tectonics, and statistical modeling.

"Our faculty members provide multi-disciplinary expertise that contributes not only to improved understanding and management of Yellowstone, but has national and international implications as well," said Sara Jayne Steen, dean of the College of Letters & Science.

Yellowstone National Park has always been a scenic and recreational draw for MSU students and faculty, but increasingly the park's role as a natural laboratory and historical archive is playing a crucial role in the research and creative work of the L&S community. And more significantly, this work is receiving national and international recognition.

"Many students are initially attracted to MSU because of the spectacular outdoor setting, but once they're here, they find that our natural setting supports quality research projects for our faculty and students," said MSU president Geoff Gamble.

Dave Lageson, head of the Department of Earth Sciences, came to MSU 24 years ago. He consistently emphasizes the importance of Yellowstone National Park to science education and research.

"In the geo-sciences, the reason many faculty are at MSU is because of the opportunity for field studies," Lageson said. "You might gain a higher salary at another university, but here we can literally walk out our door to spend a day in the field. Having Yellowstone, and the surrounding ecosystem, at our doorstep is analogous to a physics or chemistry professor having one of the world's best-equipped laboratories—with all the latest technology— at his or her disposal. It's not just that YNP is cool and unique. It cuts deeper than that."

The ecology department, too, has long reaped the benefits of its proximity to the park's wildlife and plants. Professor Scott Creel recently received widespread attention for his findings on wolf-elk interactions in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  Professor Robert Garrott continues to look at the spatial dynamics of the central Yellowstone bison herd. Several graduate students are involved with the integrated ecological science project (see article page 6).

Historian Brett Walker found Yellowstone so enticing that he left Yale University and moved to Bozeman and MSU because of it. Living in an area that was experiencing wolves was crucial, he said, for his research on environmental history in Japan and to his upcoming book, Creating and Killing the Wolves of Japan: Reflections on the History of Science, Culture and the Environment.

Researchers in the Department of Microbiology are prospecting for bacteria that grow in Yellowstone's geyser basins. Scientists Joan Henson and Kathy Sheehan, for example, have discovered a fungus that allows a grass in Yellowstone National Park to withstand soil temperatures up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Seeing the potential for widespread and varied applications of heat and drought tolerance in plants, the National Science Foundation has committed $5 million towards more research.

"Where better to conduct this study than Yellowstone?" asked Matt Kane, director of the NSF's Microbial Observatories Program. "The variety of environmental gradients and habitats probably harbors more microbial diversity than any other single site on our planet."

In the realm of social sciences, political science professor Jerry Johnson has focused his research on the impact of tourism in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, as well as the social, political, and economic dynamics of communities near pristine natural areas. Johnson uses economic information to look at the effects of what he calls "tourism-stimulated in-migration" to rural communities. His research is relevant outside of the Yellowstone region as well.

"Every county in the Rocky Mountains is undergoing similar growth and similar patterns," said Johnson, "and amenity-rich communities across the globe — in Australia and Spain, for instance — are dealing with similar issues."

So what's next for Yellowstone research?  What kinds of advances are possible because of Yellowstone National Park?

"Pick a field," said geologist Lageson.

President Ulysses Grant set aside Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres in 1872 as a "public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." In the last few decades, however, the Park and the greater Yellowstone ecosystem have been recognized for more than their roles as recreational playgrounds. Because of their size and relatively pristine environment, they are increasingly valued for contributions to academic research and science, a paradigm shift that ultimately may impact the way the park and surrounding region are managed.

Updated: 04/15/2011