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Sentinels of the Lake

The oldest active biological station in the U.S. keeps researching Flathead Lake despite sharp funding cuts

Hidden on the east shore off Montana Highway 35 between Bigfork and Polson, one of the oldest active biological stations in the U.S. continues to keep a watchful eye on a keystone feature of the Crown of the Continent: Flathead Lake.

The Flathead Lake Biological Station is in its 114th year of operating in Yellow Bay, providing extensive research of the largest freshwater lake in the West and its surrounding ecosystem while compiling one of the longest continuous water quality databases in the world.

Last week crowds of visitors spent the day touring the shoreline campus, viewing educational presentations of wildlife and fish species and listening to presentations from on-site ecologists, including Dr. Jack Stanford, the station’s longtime director. Stanford has worked at the station since 1971 and became director in 1980. For almost his entire tenure he has lived year-round at the site with his wife, Dr. Bonnie Ellis.

Stanford and Ellis, along with their team of researchers, are the scientific sentinels of Flathead Lake.

Research conducted through the station over the years has provided a better understanding of the influence of natural and cultural interactions in mountain and river valleys and insight into how the entire landscape is interconnected.

Studies based out of Yellow Bay, like a paper by Ellis published in 2011 on the legacy of Flathead Lake and how it has changed due to the introduction of new species, have been cited globally and garner many of the highest research awards.

Just recently, ecologists at the biological station played a major role in raising awareness of the threat of aquatic invasive species and the deleterious effects of upstream mining in Canada, leading to a watershed agreement between the U.S. and Canadian governments to protect the Crown of the Continent.

Yet despite their success and high standing in the global scientific community, the local biological station has been met with increasing challenges because of funding cuts. Nearly half of the station’s funds have disappeared since 2006, according to Stanford.

“In recent years there just doesn’t seem to be any funding for anything except agency salaries, so not much cascades down to us taking samples and figuring out what the status of the lake is,” Stanford said. “It’s disconcerting.”

Due to the reduced budget, the station’s monitoring activities were scaled back to “the bare minimum” and the staff of researchers shrunk, from a peak of more than 50 during the summer to roughly 35. The biological station has an annual budget of about $4 million, Stanford said. The University of Montana, which runs the station, provides roughly 5 percent of the station’s entire budget and the rest comes from competitive grants, private donors and nonprofits.

“I would like to see the university support its facility better,” Stanford said.

“At Lake Tahoe, the communities spend millions per year because the economy of that whole area is dependent on that lake. We just haven’t wised up to that same level, at least not in terms of funding for ongoing measures that allows us to say which way the water quality is going.”

When funding dried up, a local anonymous donor emerged just over a year ago and agreed to give $1 million to the biological station. But that donation is contingent on raising matching funds. The fundraising campaign has another year and if successful will provide an endowment fund for long-term support of research and water quality monitoring.

“We need help from more folks,” Stanford said.

Flathead Lake is considered one of the cleanest in the world, if not the cleanest for a lake surrounded by homes. It’s also a prized fishery.

Six times a day, two small yellow buoys floating in Flathead Lake survey the water’s temperature, organic matter, chemical makeup and other characteristics. The buoys, along with other monitoring devices located throughout the vast lake, relay every speck of data back to a station of researchers in Yellow Bay who plug the information into an historical log. By studying reams of data that date back to the middle of the last century, scientists can check the status of nearly everything within the lake.

“The lake is extremely complex, but we have more information and more understanding about this lake than just about any other one in the world,” Stanford said.

“The work of this station is global. The Flathead system is so pristine, and we’ve been able to work here for so many years. The things that we’ve learned here we’ve been able to apply elsewhere, from British Columbia to Alaska, Russia, South America, Scandinavia. The station’s work is highlighted here locally, but it’s an international program.”

For more information about the Flathead Lake Biological Station, visit http://www2.umt.edu/flbs. The campus is located at 32125 Bio Station Lane off Highway 35.

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