Glacier Park’s Premier Scientist Passes Away

By Beacon Staff

In August 1967, two weeks after starting his job as Glacier National Park’s first research scientist, Cliff Martinka received an unlikely assignment – kill the bears.

Two young women, at campsites miles apart from one another, situated on opposite sides of 9,000-foot Heavens Peak, had been mauled and killed by grizzly bears. They were the first bear-related fatalities since the park’s inception in 1910, and the tragedy was indelibly etched into history as the “Night of the Grizzlies.”

Scant research had occurred at that point, and rangers could provide little information or insight into what had prompted the bears’ aggressive behavior.

Five grizzlies were shot and killed in the days to come, including a bear shown to have killed one of the women. But in the weeks and months that followed, as the incident grew in notoriety, park management and the public began raising questions and concerns about bears in Glacier Park – questions to which no one seemed to have any answers.

The incident would prove to be a bellwether event for bear management in national parks, and prompted Martinka’s designation as the park’s full-time bear biologist. The results of his early research would have significant policy implications for Glacier and other parks.

But even though the “Night of the Grizzlies” helped define the focus of his early career, Martinka’s legacy is better characterized by the direction he helped steer the park’s then-infant “research division” as he laid a foundation for future generations of scientists to study and document what was, for much of the park’s history, terra incognita.

Through the decades, Martinka, who died March 18 at his home in Florida, grew one of the largest research programs in the country.

“He definitely really built the program and made the Glacier National Park research division one of the top ones in the country for a park-based science program. That was all his doing,” said Kate Kendall, whose pioneering work in grizzly bear DNA research provided the first reliable data on grizzly populations in Glacier Park and the northern Continental Divide ecosystem.

As he built the program and built a team by adding scientists to the research division, Martinka encouraged other projects that would become Glacier Park’s most influential.

Among them were Dan Fagre’s climate research project, which has shown that rates of warming in the park are two times the global average; Riley McClelland’s research on bald eagles; Frank Singer’s work on ungulates, mountain goats, wolves and resource management; Leo Marnell’s aquatics and amphibian studies; Kim Keating’s assessment of bighorn sheep habitat; and Carl Key’s work in fire ecology.

Each project led to major discoveries, and all were born of the incipient science-research program.

“He was the catalyst for getting a scientific research program,” Fagre said. “He was kind of a scientific entrepreneur so he saw lots of opportunities to build a bona fide program. He really accelerated that in the 80s when he brought on Kate, Carl and Kim. And it is still going on.”

In 1989, the U.S. Global Change Research Program began as a presidential initiative and, the following year, was codified by Congress through the Global Change Research Act. Various national parks submitted competitive proposals to serve as host nodes for climate change research, and through Martinka’s guidance and encouragement, Glacier was selected for funding.

With the money, the park hired Fagre as a climate research ecologist. He has since studied glacier retreat and mountain ecosystems so thoroughly as to develop a model for climate-induced glacier change in the park over a 250-year period, between 1850 and 2100.

He predicts a total decay of the park’s remaining 25 glaciers by 2030.

Without Martinka’s early recognition of climate change as a major factor in shifting the park’s ecosystem, the study would not have received the support, Fagre said.

Although academics and scientists had conducted early field research in Glacier Park, it lacked scientist-residents until Martinka assembled his team.

“Having scientists who were stationed in the park meant they were familiar with the issues and information in a way that earlier researchers never could have been,” Kendall said.

Singer’s observations of mountain goat herds being hit and killed by vehicles on U.S. Highway 2 led to the construction of underpasses, while McClelland discovered that the lumber used to build the boardwalk at Logan Pass was treated with pentachlorophenol, a chemical preservative leaching into the groundwater and killing sub-alpine fir trees along the Hidden Lake Trail.

The boardwalk was rebuilt over the objections of park service brass, who felt the project would disrupt visitation.

Today, research and monitoring has been conducted on a suite of wildlife species like bees, hawk owls, bull trout and wolverines. Other studies have been conducted on the effects of wildfire, alpine plants and diatom fossils. Cultural artifacts were sought through a process called “ice patch archaeology,” which relies on the theory that, as glaciers and ice fields recede due to warming, cultural tools, artifacts and organic materials preserved inside will emerge through the erosion process.

“There was a continual flow of major projects that came through us when Cliff was chief of the research division,” Key said. “It was interdisciplinary collaboration. There were certain things that we would identify in terms of what the park needed, be it the ecology of grizzlies or mountain goats, harlequin ducks, bald eagles. After the Red Bench fire in 1988 wildfire ecology became a big deal.”

In 2000, after 33 years as a wildlife researcher and administrator, Martinka retired to a warmer climate in Florida, though his legacy in Glacier Park continues to inform research at the Crown Jewel.

“I think the fact that there has been a longevity to his efforts through these programs speaks volumes to his vision,” Fagre said.