Montana State University

MSU researcher investigates potential role for microbes in central Montana refuge

December 4, 2014 -- By Suzi Taylor, MSU News Service

MSU microbiologist Amaya Garcia Costas takes samples from Hailstone National Wildlife Refuge in central Montana. (Photo courtesy of Amaya Garcia Costas). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented the impact of salinity and selenium on shorebirds, such as this one, at the Hailstone National Wildlife Refuge in central Montana. (2003 photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

MSU microbiologist Amaya Garcia Costas takes samples from Hailstone National Wildlife Refuge in central Montana. (Photo courtesy of Amaya Garcia Costas).

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BOZEMAN -- Few Montanans have heard of -- let alone visited -- Hailstone National Wildlife Refuge, a 3,000-acre site located off a dirt road near the central Montana town of Rapelje.

A century ago, the natural wetland was a pristine sanctuary for migrating birds and northern plains game, but in 1938, a well-meaning public works project inadvertently transformed the site into an ecological disaster. The Work Projects Administration built an earthen dam designed to increase habitat for migratory fowl. Instead, the dam ended up channeling runoff from saline seeps into the new reservoir, which also became a repository for naturally occurring selenium deposits.

Meanwhile, developments in nearby dryland agriculture practices meant more highly saline water was flowing horizontally across the area, generating dangerously high concentrations of salts and selenium.

By July 2002, the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service released cringe-worthy photos of birds encrusted in salt. Increasingly saline conditions of the reservoir was resulting in salts precipitating on feathers of ducks landing on the reservoir, making them flightless. Unable to leave the reservoir for better water, ducks would drink the saline water, eventually causing them to succumb to sodium toxicosis. That report led the national conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife to label Hailstone as one of America’s 10 Most Endangered National Wildlife Refuges in 2007.

The reports spurred the government into action. The dam was removed in 2011, and reclamation efforts began. Several experts – including some from Montana State University – have visited the site to offer advice on restoring native plants.

Now, an MSU microbiologist has joined the effort at Hailstone, offering a different piece to the puzzle. She is researching what role the area’s tiniest residents -- its microorganisms -- can play in reclamation and restoration. 

Amaya Garcia Costas is an environmental microbiologist and postdoctoral researcher in John Peters lab. Garcia Costas’ Hailstone research dovetails nicely with other Peters Lab projects that draw upon biochemistry to study the role microbes can play in everything from agriculture to renewable energy.

Garcia Costas’ approach is two-pronged. She analyzes DNA from soil samples to measure microbial diversity and paint an accurate picture of the current landscape at Hailstone. And, she uses soil samples to isolate and culture the microorganisms found in Hailstone. She hopes her research might one day assist land managers at Hailstone and other high-saline sites in choosing plants and soil treatments for reclamation, as well as introducing microorganisms that can naturally precipitate out selenium and other minerals that are toxic in high concentrations.

“The Hailstone site is like a black box,” Garcia Costas said. “We know the inputs -- nitrogen runoff, selenate and a lot of sulfate -- and we know the outputs: what’s coming out. But we don’t know what’s going on inside the box. We want to understand that and be able to manipulate that.”

Working with Eric Boyd in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Garcia Costas says she has already discovered a diverse community of sulfate-reducing microorganisms and is cultivating several bacteria in the lab that can utilize selenite.

Garcia Costas isn’t the first university researcher to take an interest in Hailstone. 

Jim Bauder, a member of the MSU land resources and environmental sciences faculty (now retired), first began working with Robert Dunn and Laura Smith of Bozeman-based Westscape Nursery to conduct a study on the soils and plants around the Hailstone Reservoir. Russell Smith, a restoration practitioner, also joined the research team while earning an MSU master’s degree. LRES professor Cathy Zabinski later joined the research team. She, along with Bauder, was co-adviser for Smith, who has now graduated from MSU and remains working on the site through Westscape.

Garcia Costas believes the research, which is funded by Montana EPSCoR (the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), could have implications across the West.

“Salinity is a problem in eastern Montana and Wyoming,” said Garcia Costas. Other areas of the West -- like California’s San Jose Valley -- face similar contamination issues as chemicals from agricultural runoff pool in low-lying basins and require reclamation strategies.

Garcia Costas said the project has the potential to involve many more interdisciplinary scientists -- from plant ecologists who could study the symbiosis between salt-tolerant plants and the microbes that live in their roots, to biological engineers who could cultivate the microorganisms she has gathered and exploit their abilities to remediate the soil. 

Tony Hartshorn included Hailstone on a northern Rockies soils tour as part of his MSU graduate class called Land Rehabilitation Field Problems (LRES 562), and Stephanie Ewing has investigated salinity effects in two other areas: agricultural lands in the Judith Basin and another site at the American Prairie Reserve north of the Fort Peck Reservoir. Both Hartshorn and Ewing are with MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences as well as the Montana Institute on Ecosystems.

Garcia Costas said that, in addition to the excitement of researching such a microbiologically unique site, her involvement also has a personal connection. A native of Spain, Garcia Costas came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student, placed in the tiny town of Reed Point, less than an hour away from Hailstone NWR.

“At the time, I didn’t understand the landscape and geography,” she said. “Now that I’m a scientist, I can go back and hopefully help.”

Suzi Taylor at (406) 994-7957 or taylor@montana.edu