Montana Prairie Ecology
Article by Lindsay Bryda
Montana is known for wide open spaces, rugged terrain and an abundance of wildlife. Students in the Montana Prairie Ecology Creative Inquiry, led by Dr. David Jachowski in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation, want to take a closer look at these features in order to come to a better understanding of the state’s landscape.
This Creative Inquiry team travels to the High Meadows Ranch in Montana to do research in the Great Plains as well as experience life on a ranch. Along the way, the team takes part in unique experiences such as guided nature hikes with Dr. Patrick McMillian from the Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation, camping in the wilderness areas among free ranging bison and visiting a Native American tribe to gain their perspectives on wildlife and livestock interactions.
There are several ongoing research projects at the ranch. One project investigates if strategic cutting of trees produces more forage or revitalizes nutrients in the soil to create a better environment for cattle grazing. The ranch has a problem with ponderosa pine encroachment, which serves as the focus of the summer research. Students have divided a section of the ranch into square plots where varying amounts of trees are removed, then take clippings of grass and nearby shrubs to bring back for analysis.
To be successful on the trip, students study Montana’s ecology and relevant research methods the semester prior to traveling to Montana. During this time students meet their peers and professors; the project is also led by Drs. Thomas Scott and Gustavo Lascano from the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, who bring cross-disciplinary perspectives to the project. “As wildlife majors, we don’t typically work with livestock,” Sarah Coleman, a junior wildlife and fisheries biology major, said.
Post Montana, students analyze the clippings collected from the ranch to inform decisions on what amount of tree thinnings are ideal for the livestock on the ranch. For the professors leading this Creative Inquiry, their goal is to constantly expand knowledge of Montana’s ecology. This translates into using the research conducted on previous trips as a springboard so that current students can come up with increasingly targeted research goals. The recent addition of Lascano to the project has also allowed the team to analyze the clippings from a nutritional point of view because of his work with microbes and digestion in livestock.
This project provides students a glimpse into the complex issues surrounding livestock raising. Ranchers, conservationists and Native Americans have different views on the proper use of land and animals in Montana. “I enjoyed seeing the relationship between ranchers and wildlife managers so we can understand how decisions affect the other side,” junior wildlife and fisheries biology major Caroline Guerry said.
“This Creative Inquiry is more than just science. It’s about understanding how science fits in and potentially forms a discussion on competing sides on how we should manage public and private land,” Jachowski said. Exposing the complex nature of these issues gives members of the Creative Inquiry lessons in ethical problems and decision making, which not only molds them into better students but also provides them with a more comprehensive understanding to take to their future careers.