Flathead Lake Biological Station Welcomes Incoming Director

James Elser taking over as director of world-renowned research station in Yellow Bay

By Dillon Tabish
Jim Elser, the incoming director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, drinks a glass of water with zooplankton during an introduction ceremony in Yellow Bay on Aug. 5, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“Look at that lake,” James Elser exclaimed, pointing in the distance past the large crowd toward the afternoon sheen of Flathead Lake.

The prominent presence of the largest natural freshwater lake in the West can sometimes be overlooked, but for a newcomer like Elser, the remarkable stature is still sinking in.

Elser, a world-renowned freshwater ecologist, is settling into his new position in Yellow Bay as the incoming director of the University of Montana’s century-old Flathead Lake Biological Station.

Elser was introduced at a ceremony Aug. 5 as the successor to outgoing director and renowned researcher Jack Stanford, who is retiring from the station after 44 years, including 35 as director.

Stanford’s retirement marks the end of an era and is coming on the heels of another significant departure. Bonnie Ellis, a longtime research professor at the station, retired in February.

“The incredible record that Jack and Bonnie have put together over the decades they’ve been here, that’s quite the act to follow. This station is internationally renowned already, and that is an incredible platform to build from,” said Elser, a distinguished scientist and freshwater researcher from Arizona State University where he was president of the world’s largest water-science society, the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography.

UM President Royce Engstrom described Stanford, the station’s longest serving director, as an “icon” and said it was confirmed to him during the search process that the biological station was the “premier freshwater station in the country, perhaps the world.”

“Really no other university has this kind of tradition,” Engstrom said. “We’re so proud of this station here.”

Opened in 1899, the Flathead Lake Biological Station is one of the oldest active field stations in the U.S. Stanford became its sixth director in 1980. Under his leadership researchers at the station garnered many of the top awards and honors while gathering groundbreaking research on mountain and river valley ecology. Ellis led the development of an innovative lake modeling system that is considered a breakthrough for future freshwater research.

Under Stanford, the biological station collected over 100 competitive grants worth over $50 million.

“In a relatively short time — an amazingly short time — he raised this station to international prominence,” James Ward, a pioneering stream ecologist and longtime collaborator of the station’s, said of Stanford. “He developed a state-of-the-art facility. He started developing funding to conduct research at the very highest level. And he and his colleagues have earned recognition for their work in the Flathead ecosystem around the world.”

Stanford, who will remain at the station through next May and help with Elser’s transition as director, expressed gratitude for his time at the station.

“What we’ve done here over these many years rests squarely on the shoulders of the many people who have worked here at this field station,” Stanford said. “It’s not so much about me, it’s about all the fine people who work with me. We have worked together, most of us, for many years, and that’s something I cherish more than anything.”

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