Lightning cracks 360 degrees around us at the campground outside Gardiner, Montana. Inside the Ecology Project International van, EPI instructor Lila, Jess—a science teacher from the small town of Deer Lodge, Montana, six junior high school students, and I all huddle. Giant raindrops smack on the windows, then pebble-sized hail. In the white flashes, Electric Peak looms inside Yellowstone National Park.
EPI’s safety policies dictate that we’ll be in the van until instructors can count to ten after a lightning flash before hearing thunder. We’re at less than a second right now, thunder shaking the van. It’s our third time waiting out a storm in the van this week, and we’re all a bit slaphappy. We tell jokes, riddles, storm stories, and already wax nostalgic for moments we shared just earlier today in the Park.
I’ve joined my first EPI course, Yellowstone Wildlife Ecology, after starting my work as the Content Creator (think: story recorder and teller) for EPI. I just identify myself as the “paparazzi” on this trip for the students.
In the van, Connor, the resident student technology and photography buff, is giving me tips on how to capture a lightning strike with my cell phone. Students are “unplugged” on course, but the batteries on the EPI camera have died and we are off the grid, so my cell phone has become my documenting device. After just a few days, I and my cell phone are already full of stories.
Yesterday evening, we sat at picnic tables in the rich, golden sunlight of early evening. On a small whiteboard was a handwritten timeline of the history of bison. Megan, one of three EPI instructors, walked the students through the image of teeming grasslands with millions of bison, blanketing the continent with their broad shoulders and grunting chuffs, hundreds of years ago. She didn’t shy away from the candid history of settlers destroying bison, sometimes not even for their own use or trade, but with the specific intent to cripple Native American populations whose wellbeing, culture, and spirituality rests with these animals. This difficult history is not widely taught in an honest way, and I am proud that our instructors are shedding light on the destructive legacy that colonization continues to bear on the people and wildlife who have lived here since time immemorial.
In the 1500s, there were 30-60 million bison across the country. Now, in Yellowstone, there are only 4,500. Each year, their population continues to rebound a little, and they attempt to return to ancient migratory routes. A simple explanation is that they move from the high plains in the summer to the lower valleys in winter, where the snowpack is thinner and they can access grasses more easily through the thinner snow. In winter, bison spend 1/3 of their time just pushing snow out the way to get at the forage underneath. But the land is not unoccupied surrounding Yellowstone National Park. There are ranchers and farmers who established livelihoods after the extirpation of predators and bison, some of whom now take issue with their renewed presence.
Bison can destroy fencing, and they can carry brucellosis. As Megan got to this most current and controversial stage of the timeline, questions arose from the students: What is brucellosis? What does it do to cattle? How many bison have brucellosis in YNP? Are there programs to help ranchers whose fencing has been destroyed? Didn’t I hear elk can carry brucellosis too? Their curiosity and critical thinking were clearly piqued.
Most of these questions can be answered by scientific inquiry, which is exactly what EPI’s programs offer.
A chance for students to become part of scientific research and help answer questions like these, and in turn, shape what wildlife management looks like.
The next day, we left camp to tackle the question, “How do bison move across the landscape in Yellowstone?” To do this, we’d have to find some bison. Early in the morning, we headed into the Park, and Lila hopped out at our research partner’s laboratory to collect tracking equipment. We curved through the park on still-empty roads until we reached the Lamar Valley—a vast river-bottomed expanse, where white clouds rode low over gold hills spotted with black specks—the bison.
At any given time, approximately fifty bison (out of the 4500 in the park) are radio-collared. These animal beacons help the Bison Ecology and Management Office at the Park understand what bison are eating, where they are moving, and what their herd dynamics look like. Sarah, the third EPI instructor, asked the students, “Why would we want to know the answers to these questions?” Students paused, thinking, and then responded. “To figure out the most important grazing areas?” one student suggested. “To see how they share space with other animals?” All those reasons and more, including a critical one: “What role does grazing play in creating a robust and healthy grassland ecosystem?”
As EPI Yellowstone Wildlife Ecology students, instructors, and staff, it is our job to provide the Bison Team with additional “legs on the ground.” So we set out to find one or more of these radio-collared bison, who were somewhere in the 2.2 million acres of the Park. We were to identify all the individuals in the radio-collared bison’s group, and if we could, safely collect a fecal sample to see exactly what they had been eating.
Down the hill, off the side of the road, Lila and Sarah handed off the Park’s telemetry equipment to two small groups of students. “Go ahead and put it together.” Of course, no one had seen telemetry equipment before—maybe not even a picture. Three young women, Natalie, Jamey, and Taylor, eye each other for a second, shrug, and carefully pull out and start assembling, with much productive discussion, how and where the metal pieces extended and connected.
This is what student empowerment and collaboration looks like.
Soon, telemetry equipment was set up, and students were silent as faint beeps began to emerge from the connected handsets. Without even an explanation, students deduced that the stronger signals were what we sought. Connor and Cadence paired up with the other telemetry system, and after a bit of turning in circles together, Cadence marked the signal direction with a scuff of his foot. Only then did Sarah provide a little more explanation, and we headed off in the direction of the strongest signal, Bison 126.
We hiked for a mile, leaving the road behind. Students became quiet, and we could begin to imagine how Yellowstone looked a hundred, a thousand years ago. Short stalks of deep violet lupine covered the grassland, interspersed with silvery-green sage. Plumes of dust erupted across the land where male bison rolled in grey dirt “wallows"—announcing their immenseness and testosterone. Their low grunts and rumbles echoed through the valley.
Our goal was to get a visual of bison 126 and be able to read the alpha-numeric printed on her collar And maybe get a fecal sample. We stepped off-trail a few times to carefully circle around wandering males, giving them the park-required berth of 75 feet, and stopped here and there to use our binoculars to see if we could spot our target yet. But our signal was growing weaker, not stronger. Students were getting hot and dreamy; we were at least two miles in now, and we took rests for water and to wonder at the flowers.
Then: “There!” someone yelled. Everyone pulled out their binoculars, and the spotting scopes (that a few helpful and hardy students had been carrying this whole way) were set up. I could see her and her collar now, brown leather with the alpha-numeric B-7. The instructors pored over their list, looking for her collar number. But after all this, it turns out to be a dead end.
The instructors relayed the information that this collar was not an active collar—the signal we’d been following was somewhere else. Students were visibly disappointed, but instructors and their teacher rallied them, reminding them that exactly what we were doing is still a valid part of wildlife biology. Dead ends and failures can only help lead us to the right path. It HAS been a beautiful hike, students concurred. Watching this herd of bison from a hundred feet away HAS been incredible. Tre turned to ask me about a strange green beetle on a lupine plant, and all our spirits picked back up with the breeze for our return hike.
Later that day, without our telemetry equipment, we found another collared bison – right alongside the road, and this time with an active collar. Within fifteen minutes we conduct our entire study, from bison herd observation and classification to collecting three bags with five fecal samples each. Which is good, because the herd is on the move.
Students were thrilled at our success. Skyla, a student who’d gone on course with EPI and her school before, and who knows she wants to become a wildlife biologist, proudly held up her fecal sample with a giant smile for my picture. Natalie, Skyla’s best friend, gagged a little as she held up her own bag, but clearly was proud of herself for going out on a limb for National Park research. Jess, their teacher, grinned from ear to ear.
Back in the van at the campground, the lightning passes, and although we still have a few unanswered riddles, everyone tumbles out of the van and into their tents to sleep, images of electric webs over the campground and dust clouds from wallowing bison seared onto the insides of our eyelids.
As I lie in my tent, listening to the rain patter and swirls of student whispers, I realize that I already feel like part of this budding young scientist family. So this is what we do at EPI, I think to myself. And go to sleep content.
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