By JOYELL NEVINS | Mission Times Courier
Spot a black bear, catch a frog, hear a wolf: not quite the average to-do list items. But those were some of the activities Ann Wegmann participated in as part of a fellowship program in Yellowstone National Park last month.
Wegmann was selected out of hundreds of teachers across the country by the non-profit Ecology Project International (EPI) to participate in the eight-day Teacher Fellowship in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. EPI is a field science and conservation organization that partners scientists with local and international students and educators in ecologically critical environments in Yellowstone, Costa Rica, Ecuador & the Galapagos, Belize, and Baja, Mexico.
Wegmann teaches freshmen and sophomore biology at Patrick Henry High School. She has been bringing her students to the field – and vice versa – for several years. They’ve been to the Amazon rainforest and will be visiting Australian coral reefs. But this time around, Wegmann wanted to forego the exotic and learn about what’s in our own backyard.
“What does our country have to offer? We tend to overlook that sometimes,” she explained.
Wegmann noted that Yellowstone has been referred to as the “Serengeti of America” – and now she sees why. During her fellowship, Wegmann viewed a massive variety of species. She also got the opportunity to collaborate with 10 other science teachers from all over the country.
Getting down and dirty
This was no cushy vacation (although her husband and one-year-old son did join her beforehand for a stay at the Yellowstone lodge). Wegmann and her fellow teachers camped in tents right in the forest. They woke up to bald eagles, and went to sleep surrounded by wilderness night sounds.
During the day, the teachers were put to work. They assisted the National Park Service (NPS) and National Forest Service (NFS) with projects and data collection, interacting with many of the rangers face-to-face.
“They are very passionate,” Wegmann said. “They love what they do.”
She noted that despite underfunding and lack of staff and resources, the NPS and NFS are filled with hard and ingenious workers.
“They do well with the resources they have,” she said.
One of the projects the fellows assisted with was an amphibian survey to compile what types of amphibians live in the Yellowstone ecosystem. This involved actually wading into the water and capturing frogs to determine their species.
Another survey with more talking and less swimming was completed for the NPS. The teachers surveyed hikers to help assess how the NPS’s bear safety message was getting across.
Turns out, it wasn’t – despite NPS warnings, many of the hikers didn’t carry bear spray with them because they felt bears wouldn’t appear if they were close to the road. Wegmann noted that her group spotted three black bears and a grizzly – and none of those animals were very far from a road.
The teachers also got as up close and personal as you can get with a mating bison without getting in the way. Wegmann’s group used radio telemetry to track and find the one percent of collared females scattered throughout the reserve. Along the way, they saw many other species as well.
“We saw all the main animals except for moose,” Wegmann said.
That included mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, white tail deer, mountain goats, magpies, grouse, sandhill crane, coyote, osprey, red tailed hawk, and pika, along with the previously mentioned species.
The cry of the wolf
But one of the most powerful animal sightings – or more accurately, hearings – was the Yellowstone wolves. Wegmann and her team saw the wolves running up a mountain to their den, and heard them calling out to one another.
“We are all science teachers, so we were all getting teary-eyed,” she laughed.
The wolves were actually one of the main reasons Wegmann chose to apply for the Yellowstone fellowship. The keystone species had been eradicated for many years from the Yellowstone reserve, but was reintroduced to the landscape in the mid ‘90s by the NPS.
However, wolves are predators – and much of their prey are herbivores. As the wolves thinned the grazing population, it changed the habitat and the way the Yellowstone River moves in that region. The question continues to be, is that good or bad? Should the wolves stay or go?
Wegmann noted the answer changes depending on the stakeholder. She wanted to bring this debate to her students, and have concrete information to go along with it.
Part of the fellowship involved meeting with Wolf Project Technician Lizzie Carroll to discuss the wolf reintroduction project. So after living and working in the wild with these creatures, and conversing with park rangers involved, Wegmann is for the reintroduction of the canine species.
“They were there first; they should be there now,” she declared.
But just how will this firsthand knowledge be translated into the classroom? That part, Wegmann is considering.
“It’s still marinating,” she said.
No matter what projects she creates out of her Yellowstone experiences though, Wegmann noted that one principle will certainly be emphasized: the importance of conservation.
For more information about the Ecology Project International, visit ecologyproject.org.