Montana State University

MSU doctoral student co-authors paper describing how citizen scientists contribute to mountain goat research

February 14, 2017 -- By Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Elizabeth Flesch, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Ecology at Montana State University, co-authored a paper detailing how citizen scientists have contributed to mountain goat research.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezCitizen scientists use scopes to observe mountain goats and other wildlife activity in Glacier National Park in July 2014.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth FleschA mountain goat is observed scaling a mountainside in Glacier National Park in September 2016. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Flesch

Elizabeth Flesch, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Ecology at Montana State University, co-authored a paper detailing how citizen scientists have contributed to mountain goat research. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University doctoral student Elizabeth Flesch has co-authored a paper that compares the mountain goat data that volunteers collected to data career scientists collected and confirms the importance of citizen scientists in mountain goat research.

The paper, “Comparing citizen science and professional data to evaluate extrapolated mountain goat distribution models,” was published Feb. 14 in the ecology journal Ecosphere. The study focuses on Glacier National Park’s High Country Citizen Science Project, which enlists volunteers to act as citizen scientists by participating in backcountry surveys to collect information on the number and location of the park’s mountain goats.

The paper details how, through their data collection, citizen scientists have played an important role in mountain goat distribution research in Glacier National Park as part of the study that spanned Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

An interdepartmental graduate student in MSU’s Department of Animal and Range Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Department of Ecology in the College of Letters and Science, Flesch previously worked as coordinator for the High Country Citizen Science Project, along with the paper’s co-author Jami Belt, now a biologist/natural resource program manager at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Flesch is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in ecology and environmental sciences under ecology professor Robert Garrott and Jennifer Thomson, assistant professor of genetics.

For their research, Flesch and Belt compared mountain goat locations that citizen scientists in GNP recorded during field observation with those that professional scientists collected. They determined that park managers can use mountain goat location data that volunteers collected to evaluate distribution models. Such models are developed to assist with wildlife monitoring by predicting where a species is likely to be found on the landscape.

Extrapolating and evaluating a distribution model built in the Greater Yellowstone Area to the Waterton-Glacier region increases understanding of mountain goat habitat use and could improve upon estimates of mountain goat population trend from data collected by citizen scientists, the paper states.

Garrott, who also leads the Greater Yellowstone Area studies, said he was pleased to see that the model built using data from the Yellowstone studies worked well in another region.

“Such model validation is an important aspect of developing reliable ecological knowledge,” he said.

The number of citizen science programs is increasing exponentially as a way to get help from the public in answering research questions, Belt said, adding that the work contributes to the emerging body of literature evaluating whether citizen science efforts yield data that can be used for wildlife management.

Flesch said the findings show that citizen scientists’ work can benefit biological research while providing the volunteers a chance to support the places where they recreate.

“We hope our effort will encourage further use of citizen science, which provides a prime opportunity for meaningful public engagement and stewardship during the scientific process,” she said.

Brian Johnson, a citizen scientist from Polson who contributed to this project, agreed.

“The citizen science program has given me a way to contribute and gain a better appreciation of Glacier National Park while enjoying the beauty and solitude of the backcountry,” Johnson said.

The Glacier National Park Citizen Science Program also conducts research regarding common loons, pikas, bighorn sheep and invasive plants. Training sessions for the public are available every summer. For more information, visit

To access the manuscript, go to:

Contact: Elizabeth Flesch, Department of Ecology, or (406) 570-1138