Viewed through the prism of research, Glacier National Park is a vast learning laboratory spanning more than a century of discovery, its lessons touching on everything from lichen to lynx, as well as the geomorphic layers that encompass the park’s 1 million acres.
Beginning in the 1950s, researchers who recognized the value of studying Glacier’s relatively intact and pristine ecosystem sought 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 would have significant policy implications for Glacier and national parks in general.
But even before the research permit system was in place, and prior to the establishment 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.
“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, Ind. For two decades, Benson has spent his summers working as a naturalist in Glacier Park while also performing field research on the white-tailed ptarmigan.
Through the years, he’s stumbled on curious examples of how the science of yore informs visitors’ experiences year after year.
“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 more than 80 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 in a piece 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 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.”
Much of what is now known about the park, and continues to be discovered, 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.
The CCRLC in Glacier National Park is one of 19 National Park Service Research Learning Centers that assist National Park Service sites across the country to make to help facilitate scientists with their research, but also to ensure the research helps benefit park management and influence smart policy.
In recent years, 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. Other important studies have been conducted on the effects of wildfire, alpine plants, diatom fossils, glacial recession, and climate change.
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.
Much of the research is conducted out of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, but visitors add valuable information through the park’s citizen science program.
As the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center begins its 2020 summer program, with adjustments due to COVID-19, here are a few highlights you won’t want to miss, with more information available at https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/ccrlc.htm
Loon Citizen Science
Learn about Common Loon ecology and the habitats they need for survival. The Glacier National Park Citizen Science Program has collaborated with citizen scientists for over a decade to collect data on chick survival and suitable habitat in Glacier, and has made it available through GIS story maps.
Glacier’s Dark Skies
A clear night sky in Glacier is a magical experience. Stargazers can often see the Milky Way, shooting stars and even twinkling planets. Learn more about Glacier’s efforts to designate the park an official International Dark Sky Park.
Citizen Science Update
Citizen science staff is working on field testing and launching its data collection apps for the park’s Common Loon, mountain goat and huckleberry phenology surveys. Staff is continuing monitoring lynx through a “camera trapping” research project. At this time, the Citizen Science Program is monitoring these projects with assistance from returning volunteers, but when conditions allow the program will expand with monitoring opportunities to train other volunteer citizen scientists.
Science and History Week
One of many things 2020 will be remembered for is an increase in our reliance on digital connections. This year’s Waterton-Glacier Science and History event is no exception. Instead of the traditional in-person gathering in late July, Glacier will hold its events online Sept. 21-24. To register to participate, visit https://www.nps.gov/rlc/crown/events.htm
Brown Bag Presentations
Throughout the spring, summer and fall, the CCRLC offers brown bag presentations that provide information on current research, resource topics, and history to park staff and the public. The CCRLC typically hosts brown bag presentataions from April through October at the West Glacier Community Building. In 2020, park staff plan on taking the brown bag presentations online via Facebook Live. Look for notices on Glacier National Park’s social media platforms advertising Science Friday Facebook Live events.