Montana State University

Ecological observatory could be located near Yellowstone Park

May 19, 2008 -- From MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN -- A long-time effort to locate an ecological observatory near Yellowstone National Park has advanced another step, Montana State University officials said Monday.

A site just north of the park in the Gallatin National Forest has been selected as one of 20 candidates for the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON. With funding pending from the National Science Foundation, the next step is for NEON staff to visit the area and present their findings to the NSF.

"If all goes well, this means a long-term commitment by the land and resource management agencies for the field sites, and a university for the NEON staff to call home," said MSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs David Dooley. "We are very pleased they have chosen MSU to base some of their operations."

Science staff at NEON said the Montana site could be one of the core observatories for the system, but it is described as a candidate site at this point. The core observatories will all be located on wildlands. Together, they will monitor ecological and climate conditions on the continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The goal is to understand and forecast the impacts of climate, land use and invasive species on the nation's ecology.

The Montana observatory, if plans go forward, will look like a weather station, but it will be highly complex, said John Varley, director of the Big Sky Institute at MSU. The unmanned observatory will use telemetry and satellites to collect information for at least 30 years. Most of the data will come from within eight miles of the observatory, but it will be sent electronically to scientists at MSU and NEON. It will also be available to the public.

MSU officials emphasized that the effort to obtain the Montana observatory has been highly interdisciplinary and praised the team for developing the proposal and making it competitive. For the past several years, MSU ecology professor Andy Hansen has directed a team of researchers and agency managers who included MSU researchers in ecology, land resources and environmental sciences, earth sciences and the Big Sky Institute, as well as scientists from the University of Montana, the Flathead Lake Biological Station and the University of Idaho.

Hansen said strong support also came from Dooley, MSU Vice President for Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer Tom McCoy and managers from Yellowstone National Park, Gallatin National Forest and the U.S. Geological Survey.

After Montana's candidate site was approved, Dooley and McCoy appointed Hansen director of MSU's NEON Initiative and senior research scientist with the Big Sky Institute. Hansen will work half-time for the institute and continue his current duties as an MSU professor.

"I am grateful for the recognition that MSU has given me, but I am even more pleased our site was selected for the NEON effort, as I know the criteria was stringent," Hansen said. "The northern Yellowstone site represents an extraordinary example of the Northern Rocky Mountains domain because its footprint is located in Yellowstone Park, Gallatin National Forest and interspersed private lands."

The natural landscape is an outstanding setting for understanding how climate, soils and water interact with plants, fish and wildlife, Hansen continued.

"Measurements will also be made along gradients extending to Bozeman and Big Sky in order to better understand how agriculture, rural homes and urban development influence ecosystems," Hansen said.

David Schimel, head of the overall NEON project, said, "The Yellowstone Northern Range candidate site is highly representative of wildland conditions in the Northern Rockies, where some of the largest and most intact functioning wilderness systems in the lower 48 states exist.

"It also offers NEON a compelling exurban research gradient adjacent to a major intact ecosystem," Schimel continued. "We look forward to working with all of our colleagues throughout the United States to maintain the logistical, technical, scientific and administrative infrastructure required for long-term ecological observation."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu