Citizen Science ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife.  To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research.  Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”  ~  Rachel Carson

I recently had the opportunity to support one of Yellowstone Forever’s naturalist programs, Citizen Science.  Although I have now supported many field seminars, this program continues to evoke special memories for me. Along with seeing breathtaking sights, as we do with all programs; e.g. wildlife, birds, plants, etc., and studying new and interesting topics, this was an opportunity to take the knowledge and data we collected and give back.  The research we conducted and data we garnered from the field was passed to the National Park Service, with whom we have a collaborative relationship.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is the name given to projects and activities sponsored by a broad array of organizations, state and local government, community environmental groups, and international organizations.  It is a wonderful way for “non-scientists” to make a difference.  Citizen Science programs allow the average layperson to contribute to scientific studies by supporting professional researchers.

Who can participate?

Volunteers of all ages who are concerned with the environment can participate in Citizen Science programs.

The Citizen Science program I supported through our Yellowstone Forever field seminar was three-pronged.  The first day we hiked to a one-hundred meter transect that had been laid out earlier by our instructor, Joshua.  We collected data on the specific wildflowers we located there, broken down into quadrants.

Students inspecting wildflowers along the transect

Our second day was focused on the invertebrates feeding and pollinating these wildflowers.  This study was led by the park entomologist, Erik.  We set up pit-fall traps at the transect the evening before and the next morning hiked back to the transect, doing net-sweeping to capture insects in the area, checking and emptying our pit-falls to see which insects had visited the previous night, and participating in timed observations to see which insects were actively pollinating the plants.  We returned to the classroom to look at these interesting little invertebrates under the microscope and learned how to mount insect samples, like you might find in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Our final day found us gleefully standing in the pouring rain and hail to study collared cow bison.  This bison survey was led again by Joshua.  Our research took us to a specific area of the park where telemetry had given him the information we needed to locate the collared cows within a herd.  Our task was to count how many cows, bulls, and yearlings we found, determine if the collared cows had any calves, and collect fresh scat and grasses found in the area where the herd was congregated.

Many of the yearlings were quite inquisitive but never aggressive as we approached.  It bears mentioning that wildlife should not be approached in this manner without a professional guiding the way.  It took some time for us to determine if one little “red dog” belonged to the collared cow, but eventually the adorable little calf wandered over to mom, touching noses, a tender moment that registered success.  We collected our necessary samples and moved along, letting the bison do what they do best, munch their way across the meadow.

We had an incredible three days, learned an immense amount about the landscape we walked, and left with the students feeling euphoric about what had been accomplished.

If you have a passion for nature and would love to give back, here are a few organizations that have established Citizen Science programs, also known in some circles as Citizen Naturalists:

Look for Citizen Science programs in your area.  Happy researching!

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

Intro to Wolf Management & Ecology ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series

After a few weeks of preparation, it was finally time to support my first field seminar, Intro to Wolf Management and Ecology.  Since the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995, debates relative to this alluring creature have been tireless and complex.  Wolf watchers in the park are enamored by them, ranchers and hunters not so much.

Sunrise at Slough Creek, site of an active wolf den.

I had heard several park employee discussions on the topic of reintroduction of the wolf, namely Doug Smith, project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project, since our arrival to the park.  He has studied wolves for the past 20+ years and still brings the same passion to the topic as he did as a Yellowstone freshman.  I was anxious to hear some fresh views on this subject from our class instructor, Jon Trapp.  Beyond  embracing many of the views presented by Doug, Jon also spoke on the topic of wolf denning, subject of his master’s thesis.

Our classroom time took us through the past couple of decades since reintroduction, how many of the wolves have been collared and tracked, the family dynamics of how they hunt together, and what happens when an alpha member of the pack is killed.  It was most informative and supporting this field seminar added another dimension to my time at the Buffalo Ranch.

Field time at the Slough Creek den

Wolves get a bad rap, some of it deserved, as they do kill some livestock.  No rancher wants to work hard to grow their herd, only to have a predator take from him.  The good news is that when this happens, the rancher is compensated for his loss.

Hunters who share the sentiment that the only good wolf is a dead wolf feel that the elk population has been jeopardized by the reintroduction of the wolf.  It is true that the mainstay of the Yellowstone wolf’s diet is elk; however, statistics have shown that many more elk are taken down by cougars than wolves.  I learned that 85-95% of the time when hunting an elk, the wolf is not successful, and their elk hunting is compensatory, killing weaker elk who were most likely going to die anyway.

Instructor Jon Trapp balanced over an abandoned wolf den

Our field studies were the most exciting, taking us to an area of the park where we could view an active wolf den using spotting scopes.  Watching the pups emerge from the den, tumbling over one another, frolicking in the sunlight, delighted us all.  Jon also took us to one of the first acclimation pens, Rose Creek, where we read the story of the first alpha female to the reintroduced to the park.  On another outing we inspected an abandoned wolf den.

With the wolf’s return to the world’s first national park, Yellowstone has regained its balance of historic mammals and is now described as the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate world.  We now see this region as it was before the Europeans arrived.

Biologists and scientists spend significant time in the field tracking the wolves of Yellowstone, but in the end what matters most is that we carved out another little piece of wildness with their reintroduction.  We need these wild spaces, their coarseness, erratic ebbs and flows, the magic and mystery.

Photo of the white wolf from September 2010, recently shot and killed within Yellowstone NP.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

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A Yellowstone Forever Summer

Planning for our summer began in earnest several months ago but we just arrived at our destination, Yellowstone National Park, a few weeks ago and what a whirlwind it has been.

Giving back by way of volunteering is a passion of ours and this year we have elected (and been chosen) to be program volunteers for Yellowstone Forever.  Formerly known as Yellowstone Association, a merger in October 2016 between the Association and the Yellowstone Park Foundation created Yellowstone Forever, the educational and philanthropic partner of the park.  We will be supporting the naturalists who conduct the Field Seminars and soaking up every bit of knowledge we can along the way.  Their subject list is diverse, ranging from wildlife, birding, photography, geology, sketching, hiking, Native American studies, backpacking, fly-fishing, and an entire new Naturalist Series.  It is going to be an active and educational summer, one in which we feel fortunate to participate.

Training for our Yellowstone summer adventure spanned a couple of weeks and covered a broad spectrum of activities; e.g. orientation, bus driver training, an intensive two-day wilderness first aid class, course preparation, and camp duty…whew!

When we finally arrived at our summer home, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, we hit the ground running with a dedicated group who travel from near and far to ready the campus for the upcoming summer season.  From top to bottom we scrubbed and scoured the bunk house, bath houses, and cabins, in anticipation of a busy summer.  If it sounds like a lot of prep, it is, but the care taken by Yellowstone Forever to ensure happy field seminar participants has resulted in numerous returnees year after year to consume the knowledge eagerly shared by the engaging naturalists who conduct the classes.

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Yes, it has been a whirlwind few weeks, tiring yet exhilarating.  Although far from being expert program volunteers, we both have one field seminar under our belts, “Intro to Wolf Management and Ecology” and “Bears, Bones, Signs, and Stories”.

As I sit on the back porch of our bunkhouse looking out over the heart of the Lamar Valley, known as the “Serengeti of North America”, I listen to the resounding thunder rolling across the landscape. Countless bison can be seen grazing, while their young “red dog” calves frolic.  I am humbled by the wonder of this magical landscape. I have no doubt that my Yellowstone Forever summer will change me in ways I cannot foresee.

Rumi said:

“There is a voice that doesn’t use words.  Listen.”

I believe that voice can be found in the wilderness, in places like Yellowstone National Park.  I plan to spend plenty of time listening.  As time and the internet permits, I hope to share what I have learned.

Hope you are all having a great start to your summer!

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

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“Les Trois Tetons” ~ Grand Teton NP

Fur trappers, when first gazing upon the Teton Range, dubbed the South, Middle, and Grand peaks “Les Trois Tetons”, meaning “the three breasts”.

With less than three days to explore one of nature’s finer creations, Grand Teton National Park, we knew we would be leaving much for another time.  A day of hiking and one dedicated to exploring the park’s beauty through a lens seemed the best approach. Fortunately this wasn’t our first visit so we didn’t feel compelled to maintain a crazed, frenetic pace.

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Bison at Antelope Flats

Waiting in a long line at the entrance station, hubby turned to me and said “remind me why we decided to visit a national park during peak season and while the National Park Service is celebrating their centennial year”.  Yes, probably not our most prudent decision.  Shoulder season is typically our time for exploring these treasures but a planned visit to friends in the area and another adventure already scheduled for the fall found us rubbing elbows with hordes of tourists.

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Grand Teton reflection on Jackson Lake

With map and park newspaper in hand we pulled away from the entrance station and were immediately reminded of why we are drawn to this park.  Without any rolling foothills to soften the visual effects, Grand Teton’s massive, craggy peaks rose dramatically off the Jackson Hole valley floor, a sight likely to leave most breathless.

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Terry on the trail

The 2.7 billion-year-old rocks found in the core of this range are some of the oldest in North America, but these magnificent mountains rank among the youngest in the world.

After passing a couple of full campgrounds and another long wait, we quickly set up camp at Colter Bay.   With map and newspaper in hand we charted our course for the next two days.

The Forks of Cascade Canyon Trail at Jenny Lake became our hike of choice. Instead of taking the boat shuttle across the lake, an option for many as it shaves about four miles off the hike, we opted to start our trek from the String Lake trailhead.  It made for a nice 12.5-mile hike, with a 2000’ elevation gain.

We even got a peek at a moose feeding in the willows across a meadow, a wonderful treat. They have been known to dive up to 18 feet under the water’s surface and stay there for up to a minute, in search of aquatic plants, which makes for a rather uncooperative photography subject.

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Moose munching on willows

The next morning found me rubbing sleep out of my eyes at 4:30 am, heading out in the hopes of capturing sunrise shots without the crowds.  Tucked into a warm bed, hubby graciously declined the offer to join me.

Both artists and photographers flock to the Tetons.  With her sagebrush flats, wet and alpine meadows, lakes, ponds, and forests, there is plenty available for a creative mind.

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Moulton Barn on Mormon Row

A favorite stop to complete a wonderful day of sightseeing was the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center.  This plot of land south of the village of Moose offers 8 miles of trails and showcases Mr. Rockefeller’s vision and his legacy of conservation stewardship.  A small circular room allows you to quietly sit, enjoying the sounds of the park: crickets chirping, owls hooting, wolves howling, male ruffed grouse flapping his wings in courtship, an elk’s mating call, wind blowing through an aspen grove, a thunderstorm…ahhh!

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Just me and my shadow at Oxbow Bend

Wind speaks through pines.  Light animates granite.  An eagle soars – it’s shadow crosses over us. All life is intertwined.  ~ Anonymous

 This is the connectedness felt when we quiet ourselves in nature.

Sacred Space or Climbing Mecca ~ Devils Tower National Monument, WY

Legend of Devils Tower ~ photo credit Google
Legend of Devils Tower ~ photo credit Google

According to the Lakota tribe, while at play, a group of young girls were chased by giant bears. Their escape was to climb atop a rock and pray to the Great Spirit to save them.The Great Spirit heard their pleas and the rock rose to the heavens, keeping the young girls safe from attack.  Deep claw marks in the sides of the rock evidence the ursine’s attempts to reach the girls. These are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.  When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation Pleiades.

There are things in the natural world that induce a stillness of spirit, a sense of wonder. For me, Devils Tower is one of those things.  President Theodore Roosevelt must have felt this same sense of awe as he gazed upwards at this rocky sentinel rising 1267 feet above the surrounding landscape, as this was to be his choice for the first national monument on September 24, 1906.  With a one-mile circumference, it is a sight to behold.

The name “Bear’s Lodge” given to this stately tower by Native Americans became woefully mistranslated by a U.S. Army interpreter to that of “Bad Man’s Tower”, which then became Devils Tower.  Northern Plains Indians have objected to this name and wish to see it changed to Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark but they have been met by local opposition, fearing a name change would affect tourism.

There is an ongoing debate about how this massive tower was formed.  Most geologists agree that Devils Tower was formed by the forceful passage of molten material between other rock formations but they can’t agree whether this magma reached the earth’s surface or how that process took place.  What is known is that this material cooled and crystallized, forming hexagonal (4 to 7-sided) columns separated by vertical fissures, compatible to columns found at Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California, but those at Devils Tower are much larger.  These are the tallest and widest columns in the world, some more than 600 feet tall and 10-20 feet wide.

Many ask, “should this be a sacred tower, a climbing mecca, or is there room for both?” It has long been held as sacred ground by over 20 Native American tribes but has also been sought as an international climbing destination since its first ascent on July 4, 1893.  Out of respect for Native American beliefs, the National Park Service has asked climbers to refrain from climbing the tower during the month of June, when many tribes gather here for prayer, sun dance, sweat lodge ceremonies, and vision quests.

With wind blowing through the pines, the sun's final light sets the tower aglow.
With wind blowing through the pines, the sun’s final light sets the tower aglow.

Records of the tower climbs have been kept since that first ascent by William Rogers and Willard Ripley in 1893, using a wooden ladder to climb the first 350 feet.  Two years later Mrs. Rogers used that same ladder to become the first woman to summit. Remnants of that ladder can still be seen today on the side of Devils Tower.  Annually 5000+ climbers world-wide come to tackle this technically difficult tower and over 220 climbing routes have been established.  Five deaths have resulted from attempting this climb, the most recent being in 2003.  We watched in awe as one climber worked his way up the tower barefoot.

We were content to extol her beauty with our feet planted terra firma. 🙂