SITKA-funded projects map

SITKA GEAR-funded research project locations for Montana State University Ecology grad students.

Twelve ecology graduate student research projects were selected to receive funding from SITKA GEAR® Ecosystem Grants (SEG). SEG only selects projects "of the highest quality" and that "have the potential to advance and transform the confluence of the environmental + social landscape as it relates to wildlife, stewardship and conservation."  Furthermore, SEG selected projects that "contribute to achieving environmental goals principally, where by doing so, society at large and the ecosystems we are inextricably bound to benefit. This includes wild, suburban and/or urban ecosystems alike."

This year's recipients, 9 PhD and 3 MS students from the Department of Ecology, were all awarded funds that will help carryout a myriad of research topics--from pollinators to grizzly bears.  See below for the awardees and a description of their SEG-funded research.

“We are very grateful to SITKA GEAR® for their generosity in supporting a broad array of graduate student and postdoctoral research at Montana State University through the SITKA GEAR® Ecosystem Grant program.  Their support will allow each of these students and postdocs to add an important dimension to their research."

 --Diane Debinski, Ecology Department Head              

Grant Recipient


Project Photos & Location Map

Claire Bresnan

Claire Bresnan

Degree Program:

PhD, Ecology & Environmental Sciences

Bison Collective Movement

Description: For thousands of years, millions of bison moved across the Great Plains of Montana, engineering the grasslands through their grazing, wallowing, and trampling. Today, large free-roaming herds are largely absent from the prairie, and many consider bison to be "ecologically extinct," no longer playing a significant role in shaping the landscape. I am studying how reintroduced bison form social groups, move across the prairie, select foraging sites, and affect grassland productivity. I am utilizing novel GPS ear tags to track the movements of entire herds, genetics to uncover the relatedness between individuals, and observations to quantify social bonds and behavior. I am combining satellite imagery, drone imagery, and nutritional analysis of vegetation samples to understand how bison impact the growing stages of grasses. By understanding the social organization of herds and how collective group movements shape the prairie, stakeholders can make more informed decisions on how to manage the rapidly growing bison herds across North America.


Location:  Northeastern Montana (American Prairie Reserve and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation)

Bresnan Project PhotoA herd of bison moving across the prairie.

Bresnan Project imageBison GPS ear tag.


Bresnan 2022 SITKA map

American Prairie Reserve & Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Northeastern, Montana

Michelle Briggs

Michelle Briggs 

Degree Program:  PhD, Fish & Wildlife Biology

Evaluating the current status of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake

Decription:  The population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake is nonhybridized and occupies protected habitat, making it among the most important conservation populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout. However, the population is threatened by the presence of invasive lake trout and by climate change. Despite efforts spanning 25 years to suppress lake trout and conserve the population, Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake have remained understudied during this period, with little known about the current population status. The research proposed here will determine population size (abundance), which of the historic spawning tributaries are currently being used, the overall genetic diversity and structure of the population, and the response of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout to lake trout suppression netting. Our results will be used to update recovery benchmarks for Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake and will guide future conservation and management of the population.

Location:  Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Cutthroat TroutYellowstone Cutthroat Trout (C. Guy)


Michelle Briggs Project MapYellowstone Lake, YNP

Lauren Gedlinske

Lauren Gedlinske

PhD, Ecology & Environmental Sciences

Consequences of intraspecific variation in floral scent on pollination and plant reproductive success

Description:   Floral scent (floral volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) mediates important interactions between plants and pollinators, and therefore can influence the structure of plant-pollinator communities. Previous work has shown that floral scent varies within and among species and across the season. Floral scent can also be sensitive to environmental and climatic changes, resulting in changes in floral VOC emissions (i.e., different scents and emission rates). Anthropogenic changes in the climate have resulted in more extreme weather conditions, such as the hotter, drier summers experienced locally in the Gallatin Valley. These environmental stressors can result in shifts in floral scents which in turn affects the ability of plants to attract pollinators. Because pollination is an essential ecosystem service, small changes in pollinator attraction could result in larger scale changes to plant reproduction and whole communities. However, we don’t know if or how variation in floral scent alters pollination services and plant reproduction. I am investigating the consequences of variation in floral scent for wild bee attraction and subsequent reproductive success of the plant by linking bee visitation to variation in floral VOCs (sampled in the field and analyzed in-lab), and then collecting seeds to determine effects on reproduction. To isolate and establish floral scent as a driving mechanism, I will be using 3D printed flowers to control visual cues and experimentally manipulate scent. Importantly, these 3D printed flowers will allow further exploration of the significance of seasonal patterns in floral VOCs, and provide possible predictions for the effects of climate change by testing pollinator attraction in novel mixes of plant species anticipated to occur in the future climate. The combination of observational and experimental approaches will provide new insight on the importance of floral scent, plant-pollinator community assembly, and elucidate how climate change will affect plants and pollinators in the future.

Location:  Mount Ellis, Bozeman, Montana

Bumble bee collecting pollenA bumble bee feeds on arnica blossom.


Gedlinske Project PhotoA super "high-tech" contraption (a slushie cup) to collect floral scent.




Fort Ellis near Bozeman, MontanaFort Ellis, near Bozeman, Montana

Katie Furey

Katie Furey

Degree Program: MS, FIsh & Wildlife Management

Feeding ecology and trophic structure of salmonids in Georgetown Lake



Our research will investigate the trophic relationship among salmonid species in Georgetown Lake, which will provide insight into whether predatory mechanisms are influencing the abundance and size of kokanee. Our specific objectives are to: (1) use a diet analysis study to determine the dietary habits of Gerrard-strain rainbow trout, Eagle Lake-strain rainbow trout, Arlee-strain rainbow trout, brook trout, and kokanee by age and size; (2) use stable isotope analysis of dorsal muscle to determine the trophic relationship among Gerrard-strain rainbow trout, Eagle Lake-strain rainbow trout, Arlee-strain rainbow trout, brook trout, and kokanee; and (3) use our estimates from the diets and stable isotope analyses to determine if rainbow trout and brook trout are consuming kokanee and if so, (a) what strains of rainbow trout are consuming kokanee; (b) what size of kokanee; (c) what is the estimated consumption rate on kokanee by rainbow trout strain and brook trout; (d) would the consumption rate influence population abundance and size structure of kokanee? Results of our work will allow Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to refine the stocking program in Georgetown Lake to continue providing a premier sports fishery.


Location:  Georgetown Lake, Montana








Georgetown Lake, MT

Georgetown Lake, MT




Nate Heili

Nate Heili

Degree Program:  

MS, Biological Sciences

Irrigation ditch ecology: implications for water management in the Gallatin River watershed

Description:   European settlers arrived in the Gallatin valley around 1850 in the search for gold. What they found was a floodplain that was abundant with life, fertile soil, and water resources. Quickly, settlers altered the floodplain for agricultural production. Through time, diversion structures (i.e., irrigation ditches) were built to precisely spread water across the valley. Today, a 2,000 mile long ditch network conveys surface water from the Gallatin River to individual farms for irrigation. This rerouting of water has altered hydrologic patterns in the valley and the response from organisms to adapt and reclaim these structures as aquatic habitat is not well known. My research aims to provide a foundational understanding of aquatic insect diversity and abundance within irrigation ditches, and investigate the potential for aquatic insects to provide food resources to birds through emergence events. 

Location:  Irrigation ditches in the Gallatin River Watershed

Irrigation Ditch

Irrigation ditch in the Gallatin RIver watershed


Gallatin River irrigation ditches

Irrigation ditches in the Gallatin River watershed

Kadie Heinle

Kadie Heinle

Degree Program:  MS, Fish and Wildlife Management

Using conservation genetics to inform management on multiple life histories of Yellowstone cutthroat trout

Description: My research will use conservation genetics techniques to better understand the genetic structure and variability present in Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri) in the northern part of their range throughout tributaries of the Yellowstone River in Montana and part of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The overall goals of this project are to (1) gain a better understanding of how connected Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations are in this part of their range across a gradient of land use, (2) document which tributaries contribute the most to the migratory population of Yellowstone cutthroat to inform management and conservation actions into the future and (3) provide baseline information to inform future management approaches based in conservation genetics techniques. 

Location: Tributaries of the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley, MT and parts of Yellowstone National Park

Measuring Yellowstone Cutthroat TroutMeasuring Yellowstone cutthroat trout

Yellowstone River in Paradise ValleyTributaries of the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley, Montana and parts of Yellowstone National Park

Elise Loggers

Elise Loggers

Degree Program:  MS, Fish and Wildlife Management

Physiological Responses of Recreation and Diet in Grizzly Bears

Description: Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) are flexible foragers who meet their nutritional needs by consuming diverse foods - from low-calorie vegetation to calorie-rich seeds, fungus, fish, and vertebrates. When bears consume low-calorie foods, like vegetation, bears may not compensate for their energy expenditure, instead using their fat reserves for sustenance. Although elevated stress hormones (cortisol) in grizzly bears have long been attributed to anthropogenic activity, recent work in Yellowstone National Park suggests diet also induces bears to produce more cortisol. This work aims to differentiate the roles of human activity and diet in stress hormone production of bears by measuring cortisol and chlorophyll (a metric of diet quality) levels in scat. We will collect scat at the McNeil River Bear Sanctuary and Game Reserve in Alaska, where bears show no physical response to people, and in Yellowstone National Park to tease apart how diet and human activity cause bears to use their fat reserves outside of denning season.

Location: McNeil RIver Bear Sanctuary and Game Reserve, Alaska, and Yellowstone National Park

Grizzly with cubs (NPS Photo)Grizzly with cubs--NPS photo


Loggers 2022 Sitka Project Map

McNeil River Bear Sanctuary and Game Reserve, Alaska & Yellowstone National Park

Thomas Meinzen

Thomas Meinzen

Degree Program:   MS, Biological Sciences

Idaho Roadside Pollinator Research and Conservation Project

Description:   This research project aims to identify priority locations of monarch breeding habitat along roadsides in southern Idaho and to assess pollinator distribution and diversity in right-of-way zones, with a goal of recommending specific management strategies to enhance pollinators along roadsides in Idaho and beyond. Using NDVI-stratified transects and rapid assessment techniques, the project will evaluate the ways that road class, habitat type, and management regime relate to bee and butterfly community health. 

Location:  Snake River Plain of southern Idaho

PollinatorsRoadside milkweed.  Photo by Thomas Meinzen


Meinzen 2022 SITKA mapSnake River Plain  of Southern Idaho

Teodora Rautu

Teodora Rautu

Degree Program: MS, Biological Sciences

Hydrologic effects of whitebark pine on snowpack and streamflow

Description: Whitebark pine trees (Pinus albicaulis) have suffered extensive mortality in the Rocky Mountains due to bark beetle infestations, blister rust infections, drought, and climate change. However, the effect of this mortality on watershed hydrology remains poorly understood. My research will be the first to quantitatively assess the effects of the keystone whitebark pine species on streamflow and snowpack within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). I will conduct streamflow sampling and snowpack assessments across whitebark pine stands with different canopy attributes including levels of mortality (low vs. high canopy damage extent) and stand densities (open, moderate, and closed canopy cover). Field measurements collected in 2022 and 2023 will be used to calibrate a daily water balance model to assess the partitioning of precipitation into runoff and evapotranspiration in whitebark pine stands. The ability to forecast hydrologic changes within whitebark pine stands will contribute to more successful water conservation and species preservation management strategies across the GYE.

Location:  Custer Gallatin National Forest (Hyalite Canyon & Beehive Basin, MT) and Shoshone National Forest (Republic Creek, WY)

Rautu Project PhotoDead whitebark pine


Rautu SITKA project mapCuster Gallatin National Forest (Hyalite Canyon & Beehive Basin, MT) and Shoshone National Forest (Republic Creek, WY)

Alzada RocheAlzada Roche

Degree Program:  MS, Fish & Wildlife Management

Cross Boundary Temperature Regimes and their Effects on Aquatic Insect Emergence

Description: Salmonflies, an important food source for riparian consumers, depend on spring water temperature cues to time their emergence with favorable conditions in the terrestrial environment for mating and oviposition. With climate change, air temperatures in the Greater Yellowstone Area are projected to rise uniformly throughout the year, while water temperatures are predicted to rise in the summer and fall, but remain consistent or even display a slight cooling trend in spring and winter. The disparate trends in water and air temperature due to climate change have the potential to create a mismatch between spring temperature cues and subsequent temperature conditions in water and air at the time of emergence during early summer. This project tests the effects of water and air temperatures on salmonfly lifespan and survival during the time of emergence using a laboratory experiment that simulates likely air and water temperature combinations under climate change.

Location:  Madison River, Southwest Montana

Roche project_salmonflyAdult Salmonflies emerge on the Madison RIver between mid-June and early July.  (Photo by Mike MacDonald)


Roche SITKA project map

Madison River, Southwest Montana

Carlisle Segal

Carlisle Segal

Degree Program:  MS, Biological Sciences

Investigating heterogeneity as a driver of diversity in grassland plant and arthropod communities.

Description:   Environmental heterogeneity can increase biodiversity, by creating diverse conditions that support the needs of different species. In grassland ecosystems heterogeneity has historically been driven by disturbance from climate, fire, and megaherbivore grazing practices. In Yellowstone National Park (YNP) American Bison (Bison bison) are dominant grazers on the landscape creating a differential mosaic in vegetation structure as they graze across the landscape. My research focuses on the structure of arthropod communities as a function of vegetation heterogeneity across the gradient of disturbance in bison-grazed grasslands of YNP. We are hoping to learn whether certain conditions provide an opportunity for increased richness among arthropod functional groups.

Location:  Northern range grasslands of Yellowstone National Park

Bison roaming in Yellowstone National Park study site.

Bison roaming through Yellowstone National Park study site.


Segal SITKA project mapNorthern range grasslands of Yellowstone National Park

Keith Wellstone

Keith Wellstone

Degree Program:  MS, FIsh & Wildlife Management

An Evaluation of Trout Monitoring Strategies in the Lamar River Watershed, Yellowstone National Park

Description:  The Lamar River watershed, in Yellowstone National Park, is a large, fluvially-connected river system that was once considered a stronghold for native, genetically-unaltered Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Despite the federally protected status of aquatic habitats in this watershed, Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations are threatened by competition, predation, and hybridization with nonnative rainbow trout. These hybrid trout are abundant in the lower Lamar River watershed, and because of the fluvial connectivity of the system, appear to be invading the upper watershed. The National Park Service has acted to remove rainbow and hybrid trout to mitigate the threat of further hybridization in the upper Lamar River watershed. Whereas the National Park Service is taking actions to remove rainbow trout and hybrids from the watershed, a standardized monitoring protocol is desired to assess the response of fish populations to these management actions and to monitor existing populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Our research focuses on evaluating monitoring strategies for Yellowstone cutthroat, rainbow, and hybrid trout in the lower Lamar River watershed. Specifically, we will explore the use of electrofishing, snorkeling, and standardized angling to evaluate cost-effective strategies for monitoring the success of Yellowstone cutthroat trout recovery efforts in the watershed.

Location:  The Lamar River watershed, Yellowstone National Park


Keith Wellstone Project PhotoOn the Lamar River, Yellowstone National Park


Lamar River

The Lamar River watershed, Yellowstone National Park