A Brief History of Science in Glacier National Park

Since before the park’s formation, researchers have flocked here to explore a pristine mountain ecosystem

By Tristan Scott
A mountain goat climbs the cliffs along the Highline Trail near Logan Pass. Beacon File Photo

The history of Glacier National Park viewed through the prism of scientific research is a rich one indeed. Since before the park’s formation, researchers have flocked here to explore a mountain ecosystem that to this day remains relatively pristine and intact, and is home to some of the most unique species on the planet.

For more than a century, the wilds of Glacier Park have provided the ideal laboratory for the professionally curious — scientists and researchers seeking to unravel the mysteries that lie within one of the planet’s most fascinating expanses of wilderness.

Beginning in the 1950s, these pioneering biologists sought research permits and assembled teams to explore the park’s most iconic wildlife species — grizzly bears, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and wolverine — and the results of those studies have held significant policy implications for Glacier and national parks in general.

But even before the permit system was in place, and prior to development of the park, scientists were making discoveries in the wilds of Glacier Park.

Those early researchers documented their findings to provide the first index of more than 1,000 different species of plants and hundreds of species of animals spread out across 1 million acres of wilderness.

With so much unknown, they were, quite literally, venturing into terra incognita.

“A lot of what we know about the park is based on the really early stuff,” said David Benson, a biology professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Benson has spent nearly 20 summers as a naturalist in Glacier Park while also performing field research on the white-tailed ptarmigan, and in his public presentations he touches on some of the earliest recorded discoveries within the park’s boundaries.

“If you’ve ever picked up an old field guide and wondered how people knew what to put in it, it’s based on this really early research from before the park was even established,” he said.

In 1900, for example, James Blake published “Some new N. American Mosses” in the Botanical Gazette, attributing several of the findings to Glacier Park. Four years later, T.J. Fitzpatrick documented a few of the park’s unique fern species in “The Fern Flora of Montana.”

And in 1949, Forrest Luthy and Fred Zwickel from the Montana State University Biological Station, followed moose around in rubber rafts, scouring pond bottoms to find out what the animals were noshing so intently with their submerged muzzles. They documented what they learned (they were snacking on pond lilies) in “Summer Food Habits of the Moose in Glacier National Park.”

The “Please Don’t Feed the Sheep” signs near Many Glacier? That common-sense caveat has a history dating back 90 years, when 26 bighorn sheep inexplicably died at Many Glacier; 10 years later, another two dozen animals were dead in the same area.

Puzzled by the deaths, a researcher with Montana’s Livestock Sanitation Board began investigating the cause, and by 1938 he had an answer.

The researcher, Hadleigh Marsh, documented his findings in the Journal of Mammalogy, entitled, “Pneumonia in Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep.”

The cause of the pneumonia, it turned out, was due to visitors feeding the sheep hay.

The sheep were susceptible to pneumonia due to high levels of lungworm, which lived in a type of snail uncommon in the high-summer grazing ranges, and which couldn’t be transmitted in the cold, low-elevation winter ranges. But visitors were drawing the sheep into their winter ranges earlier than normal by laying out hay, creating an ideal habitat for the worm-infested snails, which the sheep then ate.

“The obvious recommendation was to stop feeding the sheep,” Benson said. “A lot of this early research led to a less carnival- or petting-zoo type atmosphere. Everyone now knows you’re not supposed to feed the wildlife.”

Since those early critical years of burgeoning research, much more has been discovered about the park and its inhabitants.

In August 1967, Cliff Martinka had been on the job for just two weeks, hired as Glacier National Park’s first official research scientist, when he received news of a tragedy that has haunted the park ever since.

Two young women, at campsites miles apart from one another, situated on opposite sides of 9,000-foot Heavens Peak, had been fatally mauled 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.

In the weeks and months that followed, and 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, prompting Martinka’s designation as the park’s full-time bear biologist.

Through the decades, Martinka, who died in March 2014, grew one of the largest research programs in the country, and the results of his early research would influence park policy for decades.

“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, one of Martinka’s hires, 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 assembled a team by adding scientists to the research division, Martinka encouraged other projects that history books will forever count as 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 and will lead to the extinction of its namesake glaciers by the year 2030; 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.

Martinka’s leadership inspired much of what is now known about the park, as well as what continues to be discovered.

Today, the growing body of research is chambered under the auspices of the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center (CCRLC), which is designed to communicate research and science results in national parks.

Tara Carolin, director of the center, is in charge of administering research permits at Glacier Park, and issues between 50 and 75 of them every year, with projects ranging from long-term studies on the habitats of carnivores to short-term monitoring of insects and micro-bacteria.

Carolin says the mission of the CCRLC is to help facilitate scientists with their research, but also to ensure the research helps benefit park management and influence smart policy.

This past year, research and monitoring has been conducted on wildlife and plant species such as mountain goats, harlequin ducks, hawk owls, huckleberries, bats, grizzly bears, wolverines, and more. In past years, other studies have been conducted on the effects of wildfire, alpine plants and diatom fossils.

In one unique study, 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 global warming, cultural tools, artifacts and organic materials preserved inside will emerge through the erosion process.

“There is an extremely broad range of monitoring going on,” Carolin said.

Much of the research is conducted out of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center.

For Tabitha Graves, one of the USGS’ newest hires, huckleberries have become the focus of her research — not for their delicious taste, but rather as a method to predict bear behavior.

Her thesis is simple: The ability to predict a bumper crop of huckleberries or, conversely, a dearth of the delicious fruit, can help predict bear behavior.

Research has shown that 15 percent of a bear’s diet is made up of huckleberries, a fun fact gleaned from a not-so-fun research study – scat analysis.

The berries provide essential nutrients for bears, and if you’ve ever hiked trails lined with huckleberry bushes in Glacier Park, you have probably stepped over piles of berry-loaded bear scat.

And yet, for a species as popular as huckleberries, little is known about its phenology – in other words, its cyclic, seasonal behavior and how it’s affected by habitat and variations in climate.

“For a species as iconic and charismatic as the huckleberry, a plant species that’s probably as charismatic as a grizzly bear, there’s not much published research,” she said.

If Graves can predict the seasonal variables that produce a hulking harvest of hucks, for example, she’ll be able to forecast bear behavior and better inform public land and wildlife managers. Ultimately, she envisions a predictive modeling map to analyze the correlation between huckleberry production and bear behavior.

And just like that, the next generation of research is born in Glacier National Park.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in Glacier Journal. Pick up the inaugural issue, which features four separate commemorative covers, at locations across the valley.

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