Montana State University

Greater Yellowstone concept applied to managing lands around other national parks

May 6, 2011 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

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Bozeman -- Work by a Montana State University professor and colleagues from around the U.S. may offer a framework for future management of areas surrounding national parks and other protected areas.

Ecology professor Andrew Hansen and fellow researchers make the case for delineating "protected-area-centered ecosystems" around 13 national parks as well as protected areas globally.

"National parks and protected areas are often dependent on larger, surrounding ecosystems for their health. Human population growth and land use change has been especially fast around national parks in recent decades. Mapping and management of these park-centered ecosystems is critical for maintaining the condition of these parks under these land use pressures," Hansen said.

"The important linkage between parks and surrounding lands was recognized soon after creation of Yellowstone in 1872, the first national park. The concept of a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has long been recognized. But the concept has not been applied to most parks due to private land rights and other issues. The concept and approach is increasingly embraced by the U.S. Department of Interior and there is potential for interest and application globally," Hansen said.

Hansen and his fellow researchers published their work on the park-centered ecosystem concept this week in BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. They will be expanding the scope of their work thanks to a recent grant by NASA's Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate. The project is one of 15 chosen for funding from 151 applications and will receive support for the next four years.

Although the concept that land surrounding a protected area is critical to its health is not new, how to identify the boundary of that area - and how to prioritize it - has never been as extensively articulated as in the paper by Hansen and his fellow researchers.

"This could be a tool for park managers to systematically and scientifically identify those lands outside of a park that play a role in the park's ecological processes and then to categorize those lands in terms of importance," Hansen said. "Some lands around parks are more important than others because of the way wildlife move, because of water flow and many other factors."

Hansen and his co-researchers looked at 13 national parks for the study and found the surrounding ecosystem that supported the park to be, on average, 6.7 times larger than the park itself.

In addition to helping to identify these important areas, the "protected-area-centered ecosystem," or PACE, framework could help park managers, local citizens and governments better understand the connection between protected areas and surrounding lands. The framework could also help identify key areas that need to be monitored, researched and conserved.

Hansen and his co-researchers focused their work on the effects of land use on areas surrounding national parks for the paper in BioScience. More recently, the effort has been expanded to 57 U.S. parks in a study by MSU doctoral student Cory Davis and Hansen. This work has been accepted by the journal Ecological Applications and is expected to be published before the end of the year. Under the new NASA grant, the research team will expand its efforts to look at what role climate change will play in their PACE framework.

Co-authoring the BioScience paper with Hansen were: MSU doctoral students Cory Davis and Nathan Piekielek; John Gross, an ecologist with the National Park Service's Inventory and Monitoring Program; David M. Theobald, a research scientist in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University, Fort Collins; Scott Goetz, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, in Falmouth, Mass.; Forrest Melton, a research scientist at California State University Monterey Bay; Ruth DeFries, the Denning Professor of Sustainable Development in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University, in N.Y.

For a complete list of the projects funded by NASA's Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate, visit:

Contact: Andrew Hansen, MSU Department of Ecology, 406-994-6046,; Steve Cole, NASA, 202-358-0918,