Story and Photos By BRETT FRENCH, originally published in The Billings Gazette, June 22, 2017
On visit to Yellowstone, Montana teens find wildlife is 'pretty cool'
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — On a sagebrush-covered hillside where bitterroot flowers were in full pink blush, Montana teenagers lounging and lunching lazily under a hot noon sun witnessed something totally wild.
“How many of you woke up this morning and thought you would see a pronghorn chase a badger?” asked Forrest Shafer, a 23-year-old Ecology Project International instructor.
Even veteran park wildlife biologist Rick Wallen had to admit the spectacle was “pretty cool.”
The female pronghorn could be seen in the basin below occasionally charging through knee-high sagebrush in an attempt either to stomp the badger or simply to scare it away from what the group suspected was a vulnerable and unseen newborn pronghorn fawn. Or maybe she was ready to give birth and wanted the badger gone. Either way, she made several charges, slowly getting closer to the students who took turns watching the event unfold through binoculars while providing play-by-play commentary.
Earlier and throughout much of the rest of the afternoon, the teens were trying to locate collared pronghorns using radio telemetry. The tagged animals are part of an ongoing Yellowstone grazing study. The search on Monday proved unsuccessful, especially disappointing for some of the students who were told by instructor Tess Kohler that they could be “turd burglars” and collect feces from the collared wildlife to see what they were eating.
The pronghorn-badger duel was just one highlight for the 13 teens and three instructors who spent five days tent camping alongside the babbling waters of Eagle Creek, just outside Yellowstone’s northern border. Each day was different as they explored the area to learn about the ecosystem’s wide boundaries and the variety of wildlife that occupies the 12- to 22-million acre temperate zone, which has the national park as its wildly beating heart.
The next day’s outing was an early-morning wolf-watching session, and throughout their stay the students helped with food preparation and washing the dishes as elk wandered through the campsite’s willow bushes and bison grazed on the mountainside. To break up the rigor of educational lessons and chores the group would play tag and tongue-twisting games.
D.C. Stewart, a 13-year-old Lodge Grass student, seemed to thrive in the setting, smiling and often munching on a granola bar, cheese stick or pretzels to fuel his lanky frame.
“It’s Yellowstone. It’s beautiful,” Stewart said matter-of-factly when asked why he signed up for the course as he reclined in his tent to avoid an afternoon rainstorm.
George Kraft, a 14-year-old from Libby, registered because he wanted to see “a big ol’ grizzly bear.”
“I wanted to come for the experience,” said Rebecca Tazer, a 13-year-old Eureka student. “I’ve never been to summer camp.”
Not The Same
Tazer still hasn’t been to summer camp since the Ecology Project International trip isn’t like other summer opportunities offered to students. That was one of the lessons the instructors had to teach during the outing — a readjusting of expectations.
“They’re the youngest group we’ve taken,” said Ike Wallace, a 26-year-old instructor who grew up in Missoula, went to college in Bozeman and taught school in Billings before taking on this new job.
Middle school students can be the toughest to teach. The “tweeners” are awkwardly caught between still being a child and struggling to be more adult-like. They can be vocal — sometimes with little or no filter — and endlessly restless. Screams and performing dance moves while sitting in their car seats punctuated the day, along with the occasional outlandish statement.
Chase Benner, 14, of Libby, wanted to dart a pronghorn with a tranquilizer gun or ambush it by hiding behind a clump of sagebrush to gather data for the Yellowstone study on grazing. When Kohler told Benner the group would do no such activity, he said, “Ah, you just ruined the whole trip.”
Kassandra Medrano, 12, of Harlem, was an exception. The inquisitive girl had a variety of questions for Wallen, such as: Could a bison wade across a river without being swept downstream? Yes, at 2,000 pounds an adult male with his long legs can wade or swim most of the rivers in Yellowstone, he answered. But the babies will occasionally get washed downstream. Wallen also said bison are incredible athletes. He has seen big bison jump a wheeled irrigation pipe in a farm field and a 6-foot high fence around a hay yard.
Engaging most of the students in weighty subjects like ungulate grazing, however, is not easy. But Wallen said that’s OK.
“Keeping things interesting and people focused is a challenge for everyone — our own staff and volunteers, too,” he said.
So at the core of every tutorial or research project is one basic message.
“The biggest lesson of these volunteer groups is public engagement so they become supporters of the park and wildlife,” Wallen said.
Without public interest in the resource, there would be no support for maintaining a unique place like Yellowstone National Park, he noted. Then, the wildlife might as well be in a zoo. But what zoo could ever have a performance as unusual as a pronghorn chasing a badger?