Yellowstone Sojourn-One Class’s Journey
Joseph C. Allen, SUNY at Buffalo
Since 1999, I have taught an outdoor environmental studies course called Ecology of Unique Environments through the State University of New York at Buffalo which specifically deals with ecosystems located in the Rocky Mountain West. Such a course offering may seem a bit unusual given that the school through which it is presented is renowned for its work as a major eastern research institution in the areas of medical, legal and engineering studies and not as a natural science or environmental studies campus. I made the decision to travel out west to teach this course for a few very important reasons. For me, the purpose for this type of experiential teaching was twofold: I wanted to expose students who, for the most part, have never experienced the ecological uniqueness of the Rockies in order to instill in them a sense of environmental curiosity and activism, and also to allow myself the opportunity to share with them my outdoor passions and academic experiences. I learned to love the West while in graduate school at the University of Wyoming during the mid-70s, and continued to live there for nearly 20 years. As part of the course, many two-week backpacking trips were taken to the Wind River Range where our group would hike into the heart of the Popo Agie Wilderness area, traversing many miles of wilderness expanses which ultimately proved to be more difficult and rewarding than most student had initially imagined. Included as part of my ongoing academic studies, I have followed journalistically from afar the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone. I thought it was about time to show these ‘easterners,’ as well as myself, what this reintroduction looked like on the ground and not as simply reflected in academic writings. So in 2010, we made our first fieldtrip to Yellowstone to observe the wolves first hand. It took only one day to become completely enamored of the wolves doing their ‘wolf-thing’ in a wild setting while at the same time comprehending the ecological significance of the project as something that goes far beyond our scope of human self-importance. That first Yellowstone summer, my class and I witnessed the coming of age of 832F or ’06 as an alpha female as she taught her pups the ‘ways of the wolf.’ From our distant vantage point at the Slough Creek turnoff, we observed many of the day-to-day activities of this soon-to-be Lamar Canyon Pack and their famous matriarch. None of my students had ever before witnessed the sheer numbers of mega-fauna, the interactions between predator and prey species and the myriad of ongoing ecological effects of wolf reintroduction into the park. They were able to personally and academically put a context on journal articles, witnessing firsthand what researchers had been reporting. They were also exposed to the human controversies that the wolf reintroduction brought with it. Again, in August of 2012, we journeyed west to study the ever-evolving nature of the wolves of Yellowstone, finding much had changed such as pack redistribution and changes in territories. This time, we had assistance from some of the local experts in and around the park. All of my students drove cross-country and met my brother, also a college professor, and me at Slough Creek campground for our two week course, all along the way having mini-adventures as they travelled. There were thirteen students, three teaching assistants and two other instructors who came along not only to see the wolves, but also to experience the West as they had never done before. Our days began at 5:00 AM and ended at 10:00 PM, with small breaks for independent exploration of the park. For two weeks we were on various observational sites, spread out along the road between Pelican Creek Campground and Canyon Junction, observing everything from aspen and cottonwood regrowth to riparian vegetative rejuvenation, as well as all types of animal behavior. We got in some fly fishing, too. One might expect some early morning “grumbling,” half-asleep-fatigue and complaints about how cold it was from college kids…..not so! With their eyes glued to spotting scopes and binoculars, my students became ‘accidental wolf observation experts’ to the ever-present influx of daily tourists who would stop along the road to ask, “What are you looking at?” I was truly amazed. But more than my amazement, they were enthralled with Yellowstone itself, its wildlife, its dynamic physical and ecological nature, and the dedicated local people who love the west and the wild places. We experienced the naturalist talents and photographic skills of Dan Hartman, who not only graciously invited us to his home, but guided us on an all-day wildlife observation trip where a host of animals including pikas, great gray owls, and mountain goats were closely observed and photographed. Rick McIntyre imparted his encyclopedic knowledge of the Yellowstone Wolf Project from its inception to the present. Early on, as we sat in the sagebrush after seeing a black wolf, Rick traced the lineage of that particular wolf all the way back to the reintroduced wolves brought in from Canada. He was tireless in his assistance to our group. It was he who called to tell us of the wolf kill at Round Prairie. A wolf watcher volunteer, Jeremy SunderRaj willingly shared his video of ’06’s attack on the elk in the middle of Soda Butte Creek. We watched that site for 14 hours observing the behavior of both wolves and people until darkness and hunger sent us back to camp. Again, the radio barks and it was Rick telling us that we needed to go to Dorothy’s pull off because there was wolf drama developing between several wolves of the Mollie’s Pack and Lamar Canyon Pack. On that August 3rd morning there was indeed more wolf drama in the Lamar Valley than in your typical sorority house when the Lamar Canyon Pack attacked and killed a member of the Mollie’s pack, not 75 yards away from where we stood in amazement (and a bit of horror), binoculars, cameras and scopes trained on the inter-pack aggression that occurred. I can say, without reservation, that my experience of observing that particular wildlife event was one of the most seminal events in my academic career and in the lives of my students and colleagues. We were honored, as well, when the Yellowstone Wolf Project requested the use of some of our photos of that event. Kira Cassidy-Quimby of the Wolf Project presented us with a unique opportunity to visit an old wolf den and gave us updated information regarding the territorial status of wolves in the park, as well as an academic insight into her graduate studies. Environmental activism has always been a part of my teaching and to have Jeff Welsch of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition give us his vision and depth of perspective on the nature of environmental quality of the entire region was invaluable to the students. Observation and data collection is tantamount to scientific research. The skills and dedication to wolf watching was demonstrated to us by volunteer, Laurie Lyman. Whenever we would encounter Laurie in the field, my students would cluster around her as she spoke about each wolf observed. We continue to follow the daily wolf activities on her blog in Yellowstone Reports. Living two weeks in close camping proximity with tourists and students is grounds for impending sainthood! Our Slough Creek Campground hosts, Kurt and Beth Engstrom offered us their vast expertise, host experience and patience in everything from where to take a bath to what dry flies the Yellowstone Cutthroat happened to be biting at the moment.
Subsequent to this trip, several of my students have returned to the Rockies, seeking to continue either their graduate education or environmental activities and employment there. Since our experience, there have also been significant changes in the dynamics of the wolf population in and around the park, much of it less than good news. The park faces environmental issues of its own, both intrinsic and extrinsic. The same people who love wilderness are the only ones who can protect it. As a result of this journey, there are now thirteen more young individuals who have experienced Yellowstone and through their intellectual pursuits and passionate activism, I am confident that they will continue to demonstrate their deep commitment to preserving it.