Yellowstone| Course Description
Essential Question: What is the scientific and cultural value of a National Park like Yellowstone?
The grandeur of Yellowstone in winter provides a dramatic setting in which to learn about and take part in
conservation biology, wildlands management, earth science, and the unique, extraordinary winter ecology
of the world’s first national park. The park sits within the caldera of an ancient supervolcano, and it has
endless forests defended on all sides by majestic mountains. Yellowstone boasts upwards of 10,000
geothermal features including boiling springs, fumaroles, mud pots, and more geysers than the rest of the
world combined. Yellowstone is no ordinary wilderness.
While in Yellowstone we will track animals and, with luck, observe wolves in the Lamar Valley.
Additionally, we will collect genetic samples for the park’s cougar study, take part in park research on
winter movements of bison and elk, and learn from park researchers as they share their work with us. Park
biologists are particularly interested in Yellowstone’s northern range, where the population sizes of iconic
ungulates, such as bison and elk, have shifted in recent decades. As a result of these changing population
dynamics, bison have become the dominant grazing force across Yellowstone’s northern range. The study
we will collaborate on aims to understand how Yellowstone’s bison partition resources with other
ungulates, including elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and mule deer. Data collected will help biologists
better understand how the park’s ungulate species share the landscape as they search for food, water, and
protection from predators. This research will support the National Park Service’s mission to preserve the
Yellowstone ecosystem by offering a more holistic understanding of ungulate interactions. The
Yellowstone Bison Team will place GPS-enabled tracking collars on twenty-five individuals across five
ungulate species. The ungulate location data will be transmitted daily, and students will visit reported use
locations the following week. On snowshoes, students will survey the use site to collect data about the
ungulate’s behavior, including available forage, site characteristics, and the presence of other animals.
Before departure to Yellowstone, we will spend two days earning wilderness first aid certification, a wise
investment before venturing by snowshoe from our rustic lodge into and around the northern section of
the park. Snowshoeing will be a typical and physically demanding mode of transportation in Yellowstone.
You can expect a potentially harsh winter environment, made accessible in part by your willingness to
bring and use proper winter gear. Evenings will be spent at the North Yellowstone Lodge outside of the
community of Gardiner, the northern entry into the park. After a day in the field, you’ll return to warm
beds, electricity, and hot water at the lodge, and we will spend the evening preparing dinner and gathering
in the main house to discuss the day’s findings.
Instructors: Natalie Hanson and Greg Johnson