|By Caroline Lupfer Kurtz
In the summers of 1805 and 1806 along the
upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in Montana, Lewis and Clarks Corps of
Discovery found the scene that later generations have come to embrace as the very essence
of wild America animals of every description abounding in an open land
shared with diverse Indian cultures.
From buffalo and grizzly bears to magpies and prairie dogs, the expedition journals are
full of the variety of species living in the region and of Lewis attempts, in
particular, to collect and describe as many as possible, especially those not yet known to
Nearly 200 years later the picture has changed. Today it is impossible to open a
Montana newspaper without finding at least one article about the ongoing struggle between
people and wildlife. Debates rage about the reintroduction of large predators, economic
development versus preservation of habitat, and the value of preserving biological
diversity in general.
Yet while land use, past hunting practices and the growth of cities and towns have had
an indisputable effect on the numbers of wildlife and their habitats, to believe that
there are no more wild animals is wrong.
A lot of wildlife issues are playing out here in Montana because this is where
the wildlife is, Professor Dan Pletscher says. Almost all the species that were ever
here are still present, he says, which is not true of most other states. In effect Montana
has become a laboratory of sorts for wildlife and conservation research that is attracting
Pletscher heads UMs wildlife biology program, a joint effort of the School of
Forestry, Division of Biological Sciences and the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research
Unit. Additional laboratories, facilities and research units on and off campus
and collaborative programs with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service extend research opportunities for faculty and students even further.
UMs program now is ranked fourth in the country for undergraduates and attracts
more than a hundred applicants each year for a handful of graduate student openings. This
June 1,500 members of the Society for Conservation Biology will attend their annual
meeting here, drawn partly by the Montana locale and partly because of the
Universitys tradition of pioneering wildlife conservationists, including John
Craighead, Les Pengelly and Dick Taber.
Oh give me a home
Much of the programs research has practical applications, Pletscher says. Outside
agencies, such as the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, often ask faculty to
study a particular animal or set of conditions and come up with recommendations for
conservation and management practices. The driving issue behind almost all conservation
efforts today, Pletscher says, is habitat.
Even where native habitat still exists, farms and ranches, subdivisions, logged areas
and dams have chopped it up into smaller and smaller pieces. Depending on a species
needs for food, a home or a mate, such fragmentation creates smaller and more isolated
populations, with consequences for their overall health and long-term survival.
Research projects in UMs wildlife biology program reflect these concerns.
Projects range from surveys for the presence of rare and uncommon species to tracing the
genetic relationships of separated populations to how wildlife adapts to human alterations
of habitat. The following stories offer a few examples.
Despite the proximity to wilderness Montanans have, knowing for sure all the types of
creatures that inhabit it is difficult. Wildlife Biology Professor Kerry Foresman has been
working with the U.S. Forest Service to create simple, standard methods for documenting
the occurrence of rare or uncommon animals that dont involve trapping or handling.
One technique uses bait placed inside a tunnel-like enclosure to attract all kinds of
small and medium-sized forest creatures, including species of special interest such as
marten and fisher. To get to the bait the animals must walk across a carbonized metal
plate and then onto sticky paper, which captures their footprints in exquisite detail.
These creatures are comfortable hunting around in dark spaces for food,
Foresman says, so the tracking plates work well for them. Other animals, such as lynx and
wolverines, are more wary. They will, however, approach bait in the open, such as a
hanging deer carcass. Foresman focuses a flash camera, triggered by infrared and microwave
sensors, under the carcass. The sensors ensure that only warmblooded, moving things are
caught on film.
Both survey methods have been tested repeatedly to prove their reliability in the field
and can be adapted easily for a variety of terrains and animals, Foresman says. Using
these as standard techniques means the results from diverse studies can be compared to get
a more complete picture of a species presence or absence over large
regions. Foresmans work in the Bitterroots, near where Lewis and Clark first
floundered through, is being used to help make decisions about how, where or whether to
reintroduce scarce species.
Halfway across the state, second-year graduate student Jo Ann Dullum is working with
Foresman on reintroduction techniques for prairie dogs in the Charles M. Russell Wildlife
Refuge. The refuge covers more than a million acres along both sides of the Missouri River
north of Lewistown all the way to Fort Peck.
Barking squirils, as Lewis called the sociable rodents, once were
ubiquitous from Canada to Mexico between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.
Now their numbers are estimated to be just over 1 million in the entire area. Considered
pests and actively eradicated from many areas, prairie dogs are also highly susceptible to
the bubonic plague, which swept through colonies in Montana in the mid-1990s.
Reintroducing prairie dogs into dead or sparsely populated colonies or into new
territory is not simple. It appears they may need to be relocated in social groups, not
singly or in small numbers. They also need to be able to hide quickly from predators.
Dullum is experimenting with starter holes as a way to help the critters survive and stay
Prairie dog conservation is more controversial even than wolves because they are
so hated, Foresman says. Contrary to popular opinion, however, he says research has
shown prairie dogs compete little with cows for the same grasses, and their foraging
actually stimulates more nutritional forbs to grow. Furthermore, their burrowing tills the
soil and has been essential to the development of the prairie ecosystem.
A fine kettle of fish
Trout dont suffer the same bad reputation as prairie dogs, but are nevertheless
under pressure. Fred Allendorf, a biological sciences professor, runs UMs wild trout
and salmon genetics lab. His particular interest is native species primarily bull
trout and westslope cutthroat trout and threats to their existence from habitat
fragmentation and hybridization with non-native species. In both cases he uses
genetic-mapping techniques to identify relatedness of fish within and between populations.
In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, Allendorf and post-doctoral Fellow Paul
Spruell are studying bull trout and their requirements for a viable population at Lake
Pend Oreille in Idaho. As in previous studies in the Flathead River, it appears that bull
trout that spawn in one creek are genetically distinct and reproductively isolated from
those that spawn in nearby tributaries and therefore cannot be considered part of one big
Cutthroat trout have a different problem. They are especially vulnerable to genetic
erasure through interbreeding, in this case with rainbow trout introduced throughout the
state decades ago from the West Coast. By comparing samples of DNA, Allendorf can tell
which trout are native and which are hybrid. Native fish generally do not interbreed with
other native fish species, he says, because they tend to occupy different niches in the
Mechanisms of reproductive isolation evolved naturally over a long time, he
says. Introduction of a non-native species disrupts the established divisions and leads to
interbreeding and the loss of biodiversity.
Even in the Bob [Marshall Wilderness] and Flathead [River], which are doing the
best, there is still hybridization, Allendorf says. The range of native
westslope cutthroats is now less than 5 percent of what it was 100 years ago for native
Why do bears cross the road?
Habitat range also is an issue for grizzly bears, which now occupy only a small fraction
of the area they once did in the continental United States. Doctoral student John Waller
is studying how roads, in particular, affect grizzly bear movement within their range.
His work, funded largely by the Federal Highway Administration, centers on U.S. Highway
2, which is the only major paved road between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier
National Park and cuts through perhaps the densest grizzly bear population left in the
lower 48 states.
We know bears cross, but now were finding out exactly where, when, how and
whether they are keying to certain topographic factors such as drainages, riparian areas
or whatever, Waller says. This would be good to know when considering where to
put crossing structures.
In addition to being a student, Waller is a research biologist for the School of
Forestry, working with Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. Since spring 1998, Waller and Servheen have been capturing and
collaring bears, first with radio devices and, last spring, with Global Positioning
Systems capable of more precise and more frequent position monitoring. Radio telemetry can
identify a location to roughly 500 feet, Waller says, while error-corrected GPS units can
pinpoint an individual to within 50 feet. The collars are equipped with an auto-release
mechanism and programmed to drop off on a certain date.
Waller, who previously worked for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks,
calls his study a bear researchers dream come true.
In a 10-year FWP study, he says, we collected roughly 3,000 positions
for 50 bears by radio telemetry. Last year, we had 1,300 locations for one bear in four
months using GPS collars.
The work is not without frustrations. Of the five bears identified in 1998 as good
candidates for GPS units the following spring, one was killed by a train and the others
were never recaptured. Waller suspects they spent most of their time out of reach on
private property or in terrain too difficult for the researchers to get to. Three new
bears were caught and equipped with GPS collars, two of which worked well and collected
2,000 positions in 110 days. So far, he says, the bears never have gone near the highway.
There seemed to be a clear line of demarcation; they wouldnt come closer
than half a mile. But thats helpful information, too.
Roads do not impact the movement of birds as much as they do bears, but manmade changes to
landscape impacts birds just the same. A new study to begin this spring in the Flathead
Valley will focus on mountain bluebirds, their population characteristics and how they
move about in a landscape of different habitats, ranging from grassland to timbered hills.
Not to be anthropomorphic, but birds have to make a decision about where to nest
and breed when they return [from their winter grounds], says Mark Lindberg, an
assistant professor of wildlife biology. Where will I have the greatest ability to
reproduce and survive?
By putting up bluebird houses in different locations and banding the residents,
Lindberg and graduate student John Citta will try to understand what decisions bluebirds
are making about nesting sites and what the consequences are.
Citta and Lindberg have received a McIntire-Stennis grant to conduct this research and
will get some help from Charlo resident Erv Davis, a retired school administrator and
Of the 30,000 or so bluebird boxes that have been put up in western Montana, the
majority are thanks to Erv Davis, Lindberg says.
Davis also is an expert in banding the delicate creatures. The bands act as social
security numbers for individual birds, providing a way to track information on age, sex,
where they go and when.
John will be walking into an established banded population, Lindberg says,
which will be an enormous help.
REAPing the rewards
The work of wildlife biologists typically requires long hours in the field, followed by
even longer hours sorting through data and subjecting it to mathematical analysis. Many
studies demand numerous field workers to cover large geographic areas over a period of
As part of a National Science Foundation grant to study the ups and downs of snowshoe
hare populations in the northern part of the United States and how this may affect lynx
their principal predators Wildlife Biology Associate Professor Scott Mills
came up with a way to meet his field help needs and improve undergraduate research
experience at the same time.
In collaboration with the Montana Natural History Center, Mills created the Research
and Education Activities Program, which recruits five to 12 undergraduates each year who
have little or no research experience. The NSF grant pays their room and board for the
summer, and the following semester the students work at the center sharing what
theyve learned via Montana Public Radios Field Notes program or in educational
At the end of the grant, Mills says, the researchers will have four years of insight
into the population dynamics of snowshoe hares in the southern part of their range and,
hopefully, an ongoing program in undergraduate research education.
In the past, he says, good research hasnt given much reward to
teaching and vice versa. (But) good research informs good teaching, so at the college
level you become better educated if you are good at research.