Even though the sun won't scramble above the 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park for another two hours, Shana Dunkley throws one leg over a snowmobile, squeezes the throttle and launches into the icy blackness.
Her 35-pound pack includes the tools of her trade: a notebook, telemetry equipment, bone saw, tooth extractor and necropsy kit. Dunkley soon nears an elk kill site, where her work is to be done. She stops the machine, buckles on snowshoes, and trudges through deep snow. Once at the site, she gathers data using techniques that seem straight out of the CSI television series to learn details about the animal's death and how and when it occurred.
Dunkley is repeating a litany of research procedures that Montana State University students and scientists have practiced in Yellowstone National Park many thousands of times since 1991. That's when MSU researchers began one of the longest and most important ecological studies ever conducted in one of the world's most beloved environments.
Under the direction of Bob Garrott, MSU ecology professor, the Yellowstone ecosystem study, now in its 17th winter, is notable for its longevity and the sheer amount of information his team has amassed. This "robust database," as Garrott calls it, is considered one of the most important research projects done about the Yellowstone ecosystem.
The MSU study is also significant because of another twist that Garrott could not have foreseen when he first began the project -- the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
"The MSU team had been intensively collecting data in Yellowstone for long enough prior to wolf reintroduction that we had a good understanding about how climate drives ecological processes for big mammals," Garrott said. "So when the wolves came into the system, we had a wonderful opportunity to learn how the predator affected the system we knew so well."
The result is information that not only helps wildlife managers in the Northern Rockies arrive at their decisions, but that also will help scientists understand ecosystems worldwide.
Tom Olliff, chief of the Yellowstone Resource Center, says this data collected over the course of major management and ecological changes in the park has already proven invaluable.
"His pre- and post-data are gold to us," said Olliff, who is the park's chief science officer. "From an ecological standpoint, he has told a compelling story. But from a management standpoint, having these 17 years of scientific data is responsive to our needs."
Now, Garrott and his colleagues' years of research will be documented in a new book, Large Mammal Ecology in Central Yellowstone: A Synthesis of 16 Years of Integrated Field Studies, to be published this fall by Elsevier in its Academic Press Terrestrial Ecology Series. In the book, Garrott and 40 fellow researchers, most with MSU roots, detail scores of important interrelated studies about the Yellowstone ecosystem. Key findings in the MSU work have already led to international news and impacted wildlife decisions, including:
- Winter recreation and plowed Yellowstone roads have had little effect on migrating patterns of bison. "Winter recreation use is so regulated that it is highly predictable to the animals, and therefore generally benign," Garrott said. Bison use the plowed roads only when they coincide with what are likely their traditional migrating patterns, and they largely ignore vehicles in the park in winter and summer.
- The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone has had impacts on other mammals, but the size of those impacts also varies with climate and topography. For example, a non-migrating elk herd that lives in the central area of park that receives deep snow and is therefore less mobile is now smaller as a result of the predators. Another herd that is located 40 miles down the Madison River near Ennis, in an area where snow blows clear, continues to grow as the elk that flee from wolves aren't hindered by deep snow.
- Fluoride -- naturally occurring in the park's famous geothermal waters -- has caused tooth problems called fluoride toxicosis that affects the life expectancy of elk living in the geothermal areas of the park.
"What (Garrott) has done that is remarkable is a long-term ecological study," Olliff said. "All his funding came from a competitive grant-funding process. His science speaks for itself."
Only the hardy should apply
The MSU study has focused on Yellowstone's Central Range for 17 years. Courtesy of Bob Garrott.
As part of Garrott's team of backcountry technicians and graduate students, Claire Gower spent seven winters based in Yellowstone Park's Madison Junction ranger station. She is now back on campus working on her doctoral dissertation that contrasts elk behavioral patterns in the presence and absence of wolves, but the petite native of Britain recalls that in past winters she snowshoed five to 15 miles a day, seven days a week to conduct the fieldwork in the Firehole, Madison and Gibbon River drainages. In all, MSU researchers will cover just about the entire 76,000-acre study area during the 160-day field season that runs from mid-November to early May.
"Our days are never the same as the day before" said Gower of her work. "We never know what the day ahead of us will present, as the work is governed by the behavior and interactions of the animals."
When Garrott first initiated his study about the park's non-migratory elk herd with then graduate student P.J. White (now supervisory wildlife biologist for Yellowstone), little was known about many of the ecological processes occurring in the west-central portion of Yellowstone. The methods Garrott developed then are still used by his students today to study bison, elk, climate and other aspects of park ecology. The consistency of studies, combined with their long duration, have provided an unusually clear picture of the ecological processes influencing large mammals in the park.
Matt Becker, another MSU doctoral candidate who studied the wolf predation rates and prey selection, explains that a key tool in the project is following elk from the time they are fitted with radio collars until they die. Four percent to 8 percent of the elk population wear tracking collars.
MSU students Johnathan Felis and Shana Dunkley use CSI-like techniques to conduct Yellowstone research.
"In some cases, we've followed elk since the beginning of the study," said Becker, a Bozeman native and self-described campus brat (his father, Mike, is a retired English professor and mother, Stephanie, a retired assistant director of the Office of International Programs). "In the Madison Canyon, we have one 17-year-old cow that was collared as a yearling in 1991; she's seen a lot of winter, a lot of changes, eluded a lot of wolves."
In addition to tracking elk fitted with radio collars, the students also track radio telemetry signals coming from wolves that have been fitted with collars by the National Park Service. Once the radio telemetry signal from a wolf's collar is within range and detected -- eight miles away or less -- the researchers travel as close as they can by snowmobile, then don snowshoes to follow the wolf's trail.
"We don't want to disturb the wolves," Gower said. Instead, she explains, they find the wolf's tracks, and then backtrack from there to find recent kills, which are then documented.
Another important shortcut tool in studying elk is old-school.
"We look for the magpies, ravens and eagles to tell us where to find the carcass," said Becker, adding that they then treat it like a crime scene, documenting the habitat, landscape and animal tracks and blood.
"Sometimes it's obvious how the elk or bison died," Becker said. "You can visualize the whole event. But we want to know if the animal was killed or if the wolves found it dead and scavenged it. We find the tracks to be sure it was wolves. Then we look for a chase scene, signs of a struggle, blood sprays and trails, and hemorrhaging beneath the skin indicating that the animal was attacked while still alive."
The researchers also take an incisor or canine tooth from elk. Teeth represent an important component to the study, well worth the daylong trudge.
"The tooth is like a tree stump," said Becker. "The incisor is the best tooth for aging because it has cementum annuli rings, like tree rings that indicate the animal's age."
In fact, one of the surprising finds of the study was connected to the teeth of elk that live in geothermal areas of the park. Over the years, Garrott's team discovered a large number of winterkill in the Madison-Firehole area, and collected lower jaws. That discovery led to the finding reported worldwide that fluoride in large amounts, such as found in the park's geothermal areas, changed the wear pattern of elk teeth. Fluoride in small amounts is beneficial to humans.
The researchers also collect bone marrow, the metatarsus bone, fur samples for a different research project, and take meticulous notes about the approximately 90 wolf kills they find each winter. Over the 17 years, Garrott's crew has followed collared cow elk every winter day, tracked and observed them to determine how big the herd is, how many cows, calves and bulls exist, documented their behavior and delineated the habitats they use -- that's a remarkable 9,000 researcher days on snowshoes.
Gower and Becker explain that the work is physically demanding. The researchers must avoid scalding thermal areas, climb over deadfall from the burned remains of the 1988 fires buried in snow, hike up and over treed ridges and even slosh across rivers -- wearing waders. The work is exhausting and students involved in the project are often formally trained in wilderness survival, safety and medicine.
"In one season I may have hiked (nearly 500 miles)," Gower said. "Dr. Garrott has a huge emphasis to conduct on-the-ground research."
One study, many contributors
Garrott's on-the-ground research emphasis has paid off. The study that was started on a shoestring has had continuous National Science Foundation funding since 1998 at about $100,000 a year. The National Park Service contributed an average of $30,000 per year for the past decade. The study currently is funded for two more winters, through its 19th year.
Garrott adds that for seven years he has collaborated with a team of earth systems scientists at California State University-Monterey Bay that has about $2 million in grants from NASA. This funding enabled the team to examine the abiotic, or non-biological, attributes of the system -- the snow, geothermals and landscape that strongly influence the big mammals.
Working in the park from mid-November to May, because that is when animals are stressed by winter and predation is the heaviest, Garrott and his crews have had a prominent field presence in the vast wilderness surrounding the three river drainages that make up the headwaters of the Madison River.
Through the years, a large collection of MSU professors, Yellowstone National Park research scientists, Fish, Wildlife and Parks researchers, U.S. Geological Survey research biologists, and graduate and undergraduate students have cycled through the project, working in the field or providing the analytical framework. Many of them have contributed to the book.
Writings by Becker and Gower, for instance, join work by Garrott and former MSU students Andy Pils, Dan Bjornlie, Ben Kocar, Rose Jaffe, Adam Messer, Eric Meredith, Eric Bergman, Julie Cunningham and Jason Bruggeman. MSU professors Jay Rotella, Steve Cherry, John Borkowski, Jim Berardinelli, Bill Inskeep and many former technicians also contributed, as well as MSU undergraduates through their fieldwork. The list of additional authors reads like a Yellowstone Who's Who: Doug Smith, P.J. White and Rick Wallen, Yellowstone's wolf and ungulate experts oft quoted in the international media.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is that these aren't all bigwig scientists that have written this book," Garrott said. "Many of the chapters are written by MSU students. We have done something really unique. Students at the beginning of their career have been given an opportunity to contribute in a big way. They went down there and got the job done and contributed substantially to this body of ecological knowledge."
Garrott said park officials and state wildlife groups already use the MSU data to help make decisions for management plans, which was the scientists' intention.
"Natural resource professionals responsible for managing the park are charged with the dual mandate of providing for public enjoyment while ensuring that resources remain unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations" he said. "The success of managers in meeting this challenge is unequivocal, as the park accommodates approximately 3 million visitors annually while still managing nearly 90 percent of the landscape as de facto wilderness."
The MSU/Yellowstone connection
Even after nearly two decades within the 2 million wild acres that compose Yellowstone, Garrott remains in awe of the landscape, and the species and organisms that still exist as they did before European settlement.
That Garrott feels this way is not insignificant. He has traveled the world studying mammals in extreme environments -- feral horses in the western U.S., the ecology of arctic foxes in northern Alaska, mule deer spatial dynamics in Colorado and Weddell seals in Antarctica.
Shana Dunkley and Johnathan Felis cross Yellowstone's Gibbon River to conduct a necropsy on an elk carcass on the far bank. Members of MSU's Yellowstone team hike 500 miles in one winter season.
It is from this perspective that Garrott emphasizes the importance of MSU's location in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem to the project's success.
"One of the things that universities can really do well is contribute to understanding the ecology with long-term studies," Garrott said. "One of the things that MSU can really do well is contributing to the understanding of ecology in the Greater Yellowstone, because it's out our back door."
Garrott believes MSU's long, careful work in Yellowstone will have big implications in helping science understand eco-relationships universally.
"The ecological processes that we study in a place like Yellowstone are operating everywhere," Garrott said. "All of this Yellowstone science, this large case study, contributes to understanding basic ecological processes across the globe."