Project Yellowstone

Laying the Foundation

By the late 18th century, scientists knew very precisely the dimensions of the Earth and its distance from the sun and planets. You might think that determining the age of the Earth would be relatively straightforward. However, humans would split the atom and invent television, nylon, and instant coffee before they could figure out the age of their own planet. Why? One reason is simply because no one was interested in geology. James Hutton, who is given credit for creating the science of geology in 1795, wrote about the slow processes that shaped Earth. His landmark writing did little good in advancing geology because it was so boring no one could understand it. Hutton did, in fact, ask one important question:

Why are ancient clamshells and other marine fossils so often found on mountaintops?

Charles Darwin asked this same question after he noticed marine fossils in the Andes Mountains of South America.

Yellowstone National Park is an uphill climb in all directions. It actually sits on a plateau with an average elevation around 8,000 feet above sea level. Why is this piece of land pushed upwards? This answer may help us answer Hutton’s question.

What’s the connection?

Yellowstone map from Google Earth

Project Yellowstone: A Summer Enrichment Program

In 2002, an old boar grizzly meandered across the road. Not just any grizzly. A wild grizzly. Not just any place. Yellowstone National Park.


Several years later, an idea hatched. Yellowstone could and should be used as an outdoor classroom for students. Students need a place where they can learn biological concepts by 1) seeing biology in action and 2) actually doing science. We need a place to learn experientially and where phones don’t work. Nature matters. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) offers countless opportunities for learning and exploring biology. This diverse ecosystem, located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, has everything to explore from unique geology to predator/prey dynamics.

After conversations with very intelligent people and generous financial support from the community, we were ready to offer a program to high school students. “Project Yellowstone” was created with a mission to make science relevant, allow students the opportunity to be scientists, and stimulate conservation through appreciation.

2009 group

Nine students from Statesville High School traveled in 2009 on full scholarships. The students completed inquiry-based research projects, observed large megafauna such as bears, wolves, and moose, and hiked many of the trails. They explored the vegetation, the physical formations of the land, and the geothermal features. In 2010, nine more high school scholarship students participated in this program. The leadership team during those first two years, which included Officer Chris Bowen (Statesville Police Department), Danny Collins (Statesville Middle School), and Dr. Nelson Cooper (East Carolina University), played a critical role in creating and establishing the structure of the program.

The program expanded in 2011 and 2012 to include students from Mitchell Community College in addition to the high school students. Adults from the community also participated during these years, which added an element of inter-generational learning. Men like Tracy Snider, Harry Efird, Earl Spencer, John Ervin, Dr. John Karriker, and the aforementioned Dr. Nelson Cooper stepped up to served as mentors to the students as they completed research projects in the park. Bill Day also came along in 2011 and has not missed a trip since. His vast knowledge and ability to spot wildlife is invaluable.

Mitchell Community College’s Continuing Education division started offering this program in 2014. The trip, which still includes students, is currently offered to any one in the community. Having participants of all ages (there’s that concept of inter-generational learning again) is vital to the success of this program.

Here are some of the great memories I have from the past seven years of this program, and also some reasons why YOU should register to go with us.

Terrace walks
Hiking and exploring the terraces with experts like Ranger Beth Taylor.

Trout Lake, Grand Prismatic, the Lamar Valley, and the Beartooths are just some of the areas that will take your breath away. Look in any direction, and have your camera ready.

During our first full day in 2009, Darius spotted our first bighorn ram, Sam spotted our first black bear, and Paul found the first grizzly.

One evening as we were watching wolves near the Druid den site, Rick M. let Paul, Devin, and Craig use the telemetry equipment to confirm that the alpha female was at the den. After about an hour of watching, the wolves across the road started howling. Soon after, we could hear the pups from the den answer with howls of their own. Devin, wide-eyed from the experience, turned and commented, “This is what I have been waiting for!”


Paul listening for signal


Craig “swiping” the area

That was just the beginning. Here are some other wildlife highlights:

Being intercepted by a bull elk at Wraith Falls
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Mountain goats

Hiking up the Yellowstone Picnic Trail Ridge

Coyotes chasing Lamar pack yearlings

Seeing a badger and a fox on the same morning hike


Otter catching a trout (and maybe a human catching a trout with his bare hands)

Otter with trout

Seeing 2 grizzlies, 3 wolves (including 911M), and 2 bald eagles in the valley (listen closely for Jane’s “bear” joke)

911M, Junction Butte alpha male, crossing the road right in front of us and howling

Wolf 911M

Watching a grizzly at Blacktail Lakes

As great as Yellowstone is, it’s the people that form the foundation of this program.  Usually, we run into old friends like Mike and Melissa from NC. Over the years, we have also met new friends like wolf watchers Dave, Andy, and Missy. Then, there are friends who generously share their time and knowledge with us. Finally, all the enthusiastic participants that make this trip worthwhile. Here are some highlights:

Wolf stories with Rick
We have observed “famous” wolves like 302M, 06, 754M, and 755M. We have seen pups fumbling around. We have also seen wolves hunting. However, one of the most informative things we have done is listened to Rick fill in the blanks.

Hikes with Dan
Dan Hartman has been so generous over the years as he has let us peer into the life of a wildlife photographer and naturalist. We have searched Aspen groves, come across a napping black bear, almost stepped on a sandhill crane chick, and found three great-grey owl chicks with their mom. We have also observed a sneaky pine marten at his cabin.

Traveling around the park with Nathan
Nathan, a biologist and wildlife guide, is a walking encyclopedia of all things Yellowstone. He grew up in Gardiner, MT, so his familiarity with the history of the park makes his guiding services rich and dynamic. We have hiked up Mount Washburn with Nathan and discussed grizzly bear behavior and management. We have also toured the Lamar Valley with him and observed wolves, eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, osprey, and bears.

Experiencing Yellowstone with participants has, and will continue to be, the best part of the program. Here are some group memories (some even made history).

Here’s the first time an iPad was used to teach an expert topic. Coop used it on the slopes of Mount Washburn in the snow. Congratulations, Dr. Cooper!

Danny and Jim teach the group about certain topics. This trip is special because we learn from each other.
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We’ve even had a fire chief teach about the lodgepole pine and fire ecology!

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We have had some pretty rowdy “How long can you leave your feet in cold water?” competitions.
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Come be a part of this program. You’ll observe nature, discuss important topics, learn lots of biology, make memories, and build relationships.


*For more information about this trip and learn how you can become involved, please visit Project Yellowstone. If you would like to support this program in the form of providing scholarships to students. please click here and designate “Project Yellowstone.”

Unexpected Benefits

In the 1960’s, Robert Paine began prying starfish off of rocks and tossing them into the ocean as far as he could. In doing so, he was testing the importance of predators in ecosystems. Paine’s research helped support an idea that his former instructor (and colleagues) had come up with. It is called the green world hypothesis and is still applicable to ecology today. This hypothesis states that ecosystems are regulated from the top-down. Predators regulate herbivores, which leads to vegetation growth. It’s a different approach to the standard bottom-up food chains that show that plants get energy from the sun, and then feed the herbivores, which, in turn, feed the carnivores. Paine’s conclusions did not disprove bottom-up regulation. They just added another dimension, that of predator regulation. Two new terms came from these early experiments: trophic cascades and keystone species. Here’s a video highlighting Paine and his landmark research.

Fast-forward to 1995 when wolves were brought back into Yellowstone National Park. Many conservationists and biologists thought wolves were going to “fix” things. The hope was that the wolves would regulate the elk populations. The elk had increased in number because, without wolves, they had no natural predators. This increase was a problem because the elk were not allowing cottonwood and aspen trees to mature. These two types of deciduous trees are important to many species including songbirds, insects, and beavers. So, Paine’s theory predicted that having wolves in the area would limit elk growth, and therefore, increase aspen/cottonwood stands and eventually help songbird/insect/beaver populations.

Currently, there is one problem. The scientific literature does not seem to support that this is actually happening everywhere in Yellowstone (not yet any way). One explanation could be that there has not been an adequate amount of time to accurately test this trophic cascade theory. We typically want quick results, and in this case, it just may not be possible. What if, though, instead of looking to the elk population problem to support having wolves in an ecosystem, we focused on more immediate benefits. For example, more wolves mean more carcasses, and more carcasses are good.

Before the wolf reintroduction, the majority of carrion/carcass buildup would be at the end of winter. Elk, deer, and bison struggle during the harsh winter months, and some end up dying from starvation. This concentration of carrion is not good for maintaining a strong scavenger population because most of the meat ends up rotting. The scavengers cannot eat fast enough. It is much more advantageous if the carcasses are spread out throughout the year. That’s exactly what having efficient predators, like wolves, do for an ecosystem. Elk carcasses can be found in all seasons now that wolves are back. This helps both large and small predators.

Elk carcass by J. Peaco, Creative Commons,

Elk carcass by J. Peaco, Creative Commons,

Human hunting also leaves too much accumulation of meat. For comparison, from November to May, wolves provide an average of 29,000 pounds of meat for scavengers scattered throughout. From January to mid-February, hunters provide about 73,000 pounds of meat. That’s too concentrated to help the scavengers in any way. There are also conservation implications here. The excess accumulation of meat is usually eaten by ravens, eagles, and other birds of prey. When birds of prey are attracted to an area where they normally would not hunt (spillover), there could be problems. For example, ravens tend to feed on the eggs of the endangered sage grouse. If ravens are attracted to areas where the grouse have eggs, this could greatly impact the grouse population. So, wolves directly help scavengers of all sizes by killing prey all year long, and thus scattering the carcasses.

These wolf-kill carcasses also benefit many overlooked species, the invertebrates. To completely understand how large predator-prey interactions (like wolves and elk) affect ecosystem functioning, the invertebrate carrion ecosystem cannot be excluded. One fascinating study done in Yellowstone specifically looked at how elk and bison carcasses impacted Coleopteran (beetle) communities. Data sets from both 1978 and 1993 showed that 445 different species of beetle took advantage of kill sites. This included 23,365 individuals! Beetles showed up in higher numbers at the carcass sites when compared to control sites (without carcasses). The most common carcass-associated beetle was a silphid species, Thanatophilus lapponicus. At elk carcasses, 2730 individual silphids were collected, with 0 being collected from control plots. As far as bison carcass plots, 4958 individuals were found compared to 4 being found at control plots. They were congregating where the food was.

Carrion insects by Paul Venter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Carrion insects
by Paul Venter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

Keep in mind, this study was just dealing with beetle diversity. Think about all the other insects, bacteria, and fungi food at carcass sites. As far as my knowledge, there has not been a study to document all the species that benefit from a large vertebrate carcass in Yellowstone. This is probably not practical. So, wolves are definitely impacting the ecosystem and helping out species. Maybe we are looking in the wrong spots. Maybe we should narrow our focus and look to the invertebrates or even the microbes.

Survival Guide: Army Cutworm Moth Edition

Army Cutworm Moths (Euxoa auxiliaries), like a lot of insects, are very proficient reproducers. In fact, individual females can settle into the soil and oviposit, or lay, anywhere from 1000 to 3000 eggs (Burton et al. 1980). This release of eggs marks the end of a long, spectacular journey for the adult moths. Soon after laying the eggs, the adult moths will die. However, this only happens if they don’t die sooner.

Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, [CC BY 3.0 us (], via Wikimedia Commons

Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, [CC BY 3.0 us (, via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a list of advice to these moths to stay alive as long as possible:

1. If you can, stay at lower altitudes.
Also called Miller moths, they typically range in length from 1.5 – 2 inches and have an average wingspan of 1.5 inches. They are holometabolous, meaning they go through complete metamorphism. This includes four stages of development— an embryo, a larva, a pupa, and an adult. This is important because having different juvenile and adult forms allows the army cutworm moth to occupy different ecological niches.

These moths overwinter as larvae in the midwestern states. In the spring, they begin feeding on plants such as alfalfa and smaller grains. Pupation occurs underground after a total of 6-7 instars from egg to last molt (Snow 1925). Finally, the adults emerge in early June and migrate west into the Rocky Mountains. It’s this migration that is quite phenomenal and has left researchers scratching their heads.

Presumably, the moths migrate to avoid the high summer temperatures. They also tend to migrate upward in altitude as they seek sources of energy-rich nectar. This increase in altitude leaves them exposed to intense sunlight. It also puts them in the same ecological space as grizzly bears, which also make the trip to higher elevations during the warm summer months.

Note to the moths- You may starve if you stay at a lower altitude because of the lack of food. But, you’re probably going to die if you travel up the mountain. Choose wisely.

2. Find somewhere else to hide besides on the ground.
Because of the intense sunlight, the moths will feed on flower nectar at night and hide in dark crevices during the day. These dark crevices are usually underneath the accumulation of piles of rocks. The bears will dig through and flip over large rocks (nothing for a grizzly) to expose and eat the moths.

While hiding during the day, the moths will metabolically transform the nectar into fat and even increase their body fat by 60% over one summer (Kevan and Kendall 1997). Therefore, the moths are extremely important to grizzlies during the summer and early fall months.

Note to the moths- Maybe you could find another dark place to hide. If you can find a tree at that altitude, that may work. However, with Clark’s nutcrackers flittering about, you may meet the same fate.

3. If you must hide under rocks, don’t follow the crowd!
The problem is the moths do not take cover individually, but in aggregations by the hundreds of thousands. Experts estimate that grizzlies can consume around 40,000 moths per day and close to one million per month (White et al. 1999). The reason for this consumption rate is because, for grizzlies, finding one of these sites is like finding several meals. The moths provide an important fat source for the grizzlies, especially since their other major staple food, the white bark pine nut, is disappearing. If one grizzly eats one million moths per day, this would actually account for 47% of that bear’s annual caloric budget.

Note to the moths- This might be your best chance. Being a loner could actually benefit you. I know you must feel pressure to follow your friends, but don’t give in to the temptation. Statistically, it doesn’t look good for you if you follow the crowd.

If You Give a Moose a Tapeworm

What could possibly bring down an animal that stands seven feet and weighs 1500 pounds? Not much, right? Attempting to kill a moose comes with plenty of risks, but under the right circumstances, grey wolves (Canis lupus) can accomplish this feat. The wolves could have their skulls crushed by hooves or bodies pierced by antlers. So, for wolves to be successful at stalking and chasing moose, wolves must possess plenty of skills and a little bit of luck.

According to the Yellowstone Wolf Project Annual Report 2012, researchers detected 255 kills made by wolves during the year. Of those, only two were confirmed moose. Compare that number with 159 elk and you come to the realization that it must be easier to take down an elk. Wolves in Yellowstone don’t have anything to gain from hunting moose when there are plenty of elk. However, wolves that live in areas where there is no other prey must be careful. One strategy is to wait until the moose is already in trouble. For example, winter time may be an ideal time to find a moose in peril because of the lack of food and depth of snow. The energy demands are sometimes too great for the moose. Snowy conditions may not be the only factor that contributes to an energy-depleted moose. According to some research, the wolves may be getting help from an unexpected source.