New book covers 16 years of MSU research in Yellowstone Park
By EVELYN BOSWELL
For the Tribune
BOZEMAN — A multitude of findings about life in the heart of Yellowstone National Park are described in a new book covering 16 years of Montana State University research.
The book titled “The Ecology of Large Mammals in Central Yellowstone: Sixteen Years of Integrated Field Studies” covers many of the large charismatic animals that receive national and international attention, said editor and MSU ecologist Robert A. Garrott. It also deals with ecological processes that interest the general public, scientists, policy makers and park managers.
Wolves were reintroduced halfway through the study, so the researchers were able to document their effect on the behavior and population dynamics of elk and bison, Garrott said. As the park’s winter recreation policy became controversial, the scientists also became involved in studying wildlife responses to snowmobiles and snowcoaches and the potential effects of grooming the roads in winter on bison migration and movement patterns.
The purpose of the book is to provide readers a synthesis of a diverse body of research, Garrott said. He added that the effort was unique in its length and breadth.
Initial chapters describe characteristics of the landscape, climate, precipitation and snow pack dynamics. The core of the book presents several studies on elk, bison and wolf ecology and the interactions mong them. The authors conclude with an introspective discussion of the strengths and limitations of science to contribute to the contentious debates about wildlife and natural resource management in Yellowstone.
“My hope is that lots of people can pick up the book and understand everything we did, what we learned, what we didn’t learn, the surprises and the uncertainties about where the system is going in the future,” Garrott said. “The themes are ecological processes that are pervasive in all ecosystems and communities throughout the world.”
Garrott edited the book with P. J. White, his long-time collaborator and the supervisory wildlife biologist in Yellowstone, and Fred G.R. Watson, an earth systems scientists from California State University, Monterey Bay. Garrott also oversaw and coordinated the work of approximately 66 scientists and professionals and 15 graduate students whose research is explained in the book.
“It was difficult to keep collaborations going for 16 years and keep it integrated, but we worked really hard on it,” Garrott said.
The book demonstrates the value of long-term interdisciplinary collaborations, Garrott continued. Researchers in MSU’s College of Letters and Science worked with scientists in the College of Agriculture, for example. Research projects not only involved MSU, but the National Park Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and other state and federal agencies. Eight of the book’s 30 chapters represent doctoral theses of Garrott’s students. Jason Bruggeman, one of those students, focused on bison movements. Matt Becker studied wolf predation. Claire Gower studied elk behavior in response to wolves.
Garrott started the Yellowstone research in 1991 while a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He continued it after moving to MSU in 1995.
As a new professor, he didn’t want to muscle his way into the crowd of researchers already established on Yellowstone’s northern range, so he focused on the park’s interior, Garrott said. It was a unique, diverse and largely-ignored area that includes the range of the largest migratory populations of bison in North America. It’s also home to a unique non-migratory elk population associated with geothermal environments.
He suspects few researchers wanted to work in the harsh and isolated winter conditions in the park’s interior, Garrott said. Garrott, who had research experience in the Arctic and Antarctica, was undeterred.
“I saw really exciting opportunities that nobody seemed to recognize or just didn’t care to pursue,” Garrott said. “It was a good place for a new professor.”
Garrott and his teams of researchers were able to work relatively unnoticed for a decade until the arrival of the controversies surrounding wolves and winter recreation, Garrott continued. Suddenly, people who had been concerned about the debates of over-population of elk and bison focused their attention on these new issues. The profile of MSU’s research raised dramatically.
While the Yellowstone book is academic in nature, it is written and organized in a manner that will be useful to scientists, resource managers, policy makers, students and anyone interested in wildlife ecology, Garrott said. More than 100 color charts, maps and photos are interspersed over 736 pages.
The book — published by Elsevier in its Academic Press Terrestrial Ecology Series — is available through Amazon.com for $99.95.