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.
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.
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
Hiking up the Yellowstone Picnic Trail Ridge
Pronghorn with twins
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)
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
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.
Ryan trying on bighorn skull
Explaining something to Tracy
It takes Coop and Jefferson
Robbie with a big bull
Sandhill crane broken wing routine
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.
At the top of Mt Washburn
Mt. Washburn fire tower
Nathan leading a wolf discussion at Slough Creek
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.
We’ve even had a fire chief teach about the lodgepole pine and fire ecology!
We have had some pretty rowdy “How long can you leave your feet in cold water?” competitions.
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.”