How does citizen science support your research?
Citizen science supports my work by maximizing the impact of my research. Citizen science supports me personally as a scientist by giving me great hope in these challenging times for conservation. My co-researchers and I study how keystone forces—wolves, fire, and bison—affect whole ecosystems. Earthwatch participants provide essential help with data collection, of course, but as importantly, return home filled with insights about why “rewilding” ecosystems by restoring key ecological components—predators, fire, and herbivores like bison that function as ecosystem engineers—can create healthier landscapes more resilient to climate change. Many participants stay in touch and tell me inspiring stories of how they are advancing conservation by applying what they learned on our project in their communities.
What do you enjoy most about working in Waterton Lakes National Park?
I love spending time deeply immersed in nature measuring relationships between plants, herbivores, predators—what we refer to as community ecology. However, my passion is exploring these vital relationships with other people, especially with members of the local community—the Kainai (Blackfoot) First Nation—and Earthwatch citizen-science participants. My work as Earthwatch Chief Scientist involves spending time afield on many projects around the world besides my own. This has enabled me to see how universal these relationships are, and why it’s equally important to rewild ecosystems worldwide by restoring missing ecological components, such as wolves, lions, elephants, bison, rhinos, killer whales, sea turtles, sea otters—and many others.
Why study wolves, fire, and bison?
I saw wolves hunting on my land in Montana one day in the 1990s, and later heard a group of adult wolves with their pups howling—evidence that they’d formed a pack. The deer and elk became much more alert to avoid them. Soon our heavily browsed meadow became lush with shrubs and young trees. As wolves returned, so did fire. revitalizing overgrown forests that hadn’t burned in nearly a century. The Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, where I lived for many years, and where I do my research, contains all the ecological elements present 200 years ago, except for wild, free-ranging bison. You can think of this ecosystem as a three-legged stool. The “legs” are keystone ecological forces: fire, predation by wolves, and bison. Historically, bison worked with fire and wolves to keep grasslands healthy. European settlers eliminated all of these elements in 1880, but today this landscape is gradually being rewilded. While wolves and fire have returned, they aren’t enough to stabilize our ecological three-legged stool. Accordingly, bison reintroductions are underway in Alberta and Montana. Our study site lies between two proposed reintroduction areas: Banff National Park to the north, and the Badger-Two Medicine area in Montana, to the south. This creates an exciting opportunity for us to study not just wolves and fire, but bison—the last missing, and essential, ecological piece!