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Where wolves roam: Exeter biology teachers visit Yellowstone

Seven teachers travel west to experience the world’s first national park, Yellowstone.

Sarah Anderson
February 6, 2017
On his Montana ranch, Jeff Laszlo '74 (center, cowboy hat) hosts PEA science instructors (left to right) Erik Janicki, Townley Chisholm, Betsy Stevens, Michele Chapman, Anne Rankin '92, Chris Matlack and Sydnee Goddard.

On his Montana ranch, Jeff Laszlo '74 (center, cowboy hat) hosts science instructors (l to r) Erik Janicki, Townley Chisholm, Betsy Stevens, Michele Chapman, Anne Rankin '92, Chris Matlack and Sydnee Goddard.  

“The world’s big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” — John Muir

When Exeter's biology teachers want to better understand an ecosystem, they go right to the source.

Following graduation last June, the group of seven teachers traveled west to experience one of the largest temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth and the world’s first national park, Yellowstone.

They visited a place incomparable as a natural resource — one that houses half of the world’s thermal features and whose rich biodiversity includes 67 species of mammals, 330 species of birds, 16 species of fish, five species of amphibians and six species of reptiles, according to the National Park Service.

The trip offered a variety of hands-on learning experiences for faculty that directly related to the courses they teach back on campus. An Introduction to Biology, a course for preps, has a unit on Yellowstone, and PEA biology teachers have been using some of the initial research available on the ecological impacts of wolf reintroduction at Yellowstone. As research has continued out West, some conclusions have been refuted or revised with additional data collection.

“The trip was an incredible opportunity to get more up-to-date on some of that firsthand research,” says Science Instructor Erik Janicki, who organized the trip. “A lot of the discussions that we had with our [Yellowstone] guide [Joshua Theurer] are causing us to revise the curriculum in that ecology unit. He has sent us an incredible file of new documents and research that he’s up on that we were not as current with.” This access, combined with on-site conversations with wolf expert Doug Smith and the opportunity to see wolves in their natural habitat, has accelerated the instructors’ ability to revise and expand that part of the curriculum.

The biology teachers also went to Yellowstone to visualize and plan a 2017 trip for Exeter students. Janicki says, “I think one of the great things that the trip enabled us to do was to field-test, for lack of a better word, the Yellowstone Association and their programs. We got to experience it before offering it up to students.”

Waterfall in a canyon.

A tentative June 2017 student trip would mirror much of what the faculty experienced. Theurer, who led the trip for five days, has developed a citizen science program in which students would collect data in the park to help monitor the effects of climate change on various species. The program has not launched yet, but Janicki is hopeful that PEA students will be one of the first groups to contribute.

Janicki drew a parallel between the proposed Yellowstone student trip and a spring break excursion to India last March. Initially, nine faculty members traveled to India in 2012 and studied aspects of the subcontinent that became useful, current material in a variety of different courses. A new history elective, Modern India, was also developed from faculty travel to the country, and co-learning trips composed of both students and faculty have occurred.

“We’ll use our [own] experience to roll out what is a good off-campus program for students in subsequent years,” Janicki says. “The more firsthand experience we can deliver, the better.”

He highlighted the essential challenge posed by a natural place such as Yellowstone, describing it as a “really hard conservation problem.” Four million people visited the park last year, a staggering number that has implications for the rich biodiversity found there. Studying such conservation challenges left a lasting impression on Janicki.

“How do we continue to invite people into the park to see and cherish this place and still manage it in a way that sustains the density of its animal [populations]?” he asks. “That’s not a simple problem. I think it’s one that our students will engage in when they do their trip.”

For Science Instructor Anne Rankin ’92, teaching students to develop a genuine connection to and love for the environment is critical. “People can’t protect things they don’t cherish,” she says, adding that when biology teachers offer field trips on a local level, they are expressing the “value of trying to show students why people love natural places.” Yellowstone, in her mind, is a “natural extension” of these local trips.

“It would be a different ecosystem, a different-scale trip,” Rankin says, “but that same value [would] exist — of trying to share what teachers in this group feel for natural places … with students. I think it’s particularly timely in light of some of the struggles the national parks are having and are likely to have.”

Faculty members hike a trail in a field.

“What impressed me most about the Exeter group was their deep dedication to nesting the entire Yellowstone experience in an educational framework,” Theurer says. “They were asking deeper questions that reflected not only a desire to expose students to wildlands, but also asking how students may contribute beyond adding to an already congested park, either through citizen science projects or service learning opportunities.”

During the guided excursions, Theurer covered topics ranging from thermoacidophiles (bacteria that live in acidic and hot environments) to the ecology and physiology of hot springs. With him, the science faculty birdwatched, went on backcountry hikes, carried bear spray, and used spotting scopes (intense binoculars) for a 5 a.m. wolf watch.

“The number of mammals we saw was breathtaking,” Science Instructor Michele Chapman says. Her colleague Townley Chisholm P’10, P’11, P’14 describes it as “jaw-dropping.” He adds: “It’s so immediate, it’s so accessible, and it’s so exciting to see. It reminds you of what ecosystems can [be] and have been.” Sightings included a mother grizzly and her cub in the distance, a wolf den with puppies, a black bear approaching their truck, and a coyote pursuing a pronghorn fawn.

“Spending seven days watching wildlife, talking with each other, and learning from our Yellowstone Association naturalist and other world-class experts was unforgettable and the best kind of professional development and development of collegiality,” Chisholm says. “I shared some of what I learned with the Exeter Wildlife and Conservation Club at our first meeting, and I will refer to what I learned in Yellowstone again and again as I teach the yearly cycle this year and for years to come. This experience made me a better teacher.”

How do we continue to invite people into the park to see and cherish this place and still manage it in a way that sustains the density of its animal [populations]? That's not a simple problem."
Science Instructor Erik Janicki

Ranching in synergy with the environment

A second and equally critical component of the Yellowstone trip was a visit with Jeff Laszlo ’74, a fourth-generation owner of the 13,000-acre Granger Ranch, outside of Ennis, Montana — 60 miles driving distance from the national park and on the northern fringe of The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Laszlo has earned wide recognition and awards for his wetlands restoration effort, the O’Dell Creek Headwaters Project, and his property would be another destination for any future student field work.

Currently, Laszlo’s project area encompasses about 1,800 acres of his ranch, roughly 600 of which have already been restored to wetlands. The project scope includes land owned by a neighbor, and their combined efforts are restoring one of Montana’s largest historic wetlands along with one of the most important tributaries to the Madison River.

“This is less a story of a crusading environmentalist and more a story of a rancher,” Laszlo says. His aim is, in part, to share knowledge about trying to maintain and understand the diverse values that come along with operating a ranch.

Science Instructor Sydnee Goddard adds, “Jeff’s brought people onboard despite initial resistance and created the dialogue and cooperation necessary to make things happen. It would be wonderful to give our students an opportunity to go out and see what Jeff’s accomplished with wetland restoration and then take part in the project.”

For most ranchers, working with nonprofit, environmental and government agencies goes against the grain, and Laszlo says that the immediate benefits and results are “fairly localized but quite obvious. From the ranching perspective, anything one can do to improve water resources and forage production is essential. If in doing so one can improve biodiversity, habitat and both water quality and quantity for others, so much the better.”

Paying it forward

Two decades ago, John Bunker P’10 ended up in the Grand Tetons and immediately fell in love with Yellowstone, a place he has returned to every year to fly-fish and lead his friends on excursions. A 2014 trip that included his son, William ’10 and his friends, Brendan Cosgrove ’10 and Ben Holleran, along with their dads, led to an idea. What if more Exonians could experience

After Bunker delivered a presentation to the Academy’s biology teachers, the idea gained legs. Thanks to professional development funds, including the Fisher Scientific International Science Faculty Development Fund and the Dietel Family Science Faculty Professional Development Fund, teachers also found the resources needed to make the trip possible. 

Bunker points out that he was 47 years old when he discovered Yellowstone. “These PEA students will discover it at a young age,” he says. “As the first national park in the world, Yellowstone was a vision for the future in terms of preserving public land for the good of everybody.”

The collaborative efforts of alumni, parents and faculty members have now made it possible for students to help carry that ideal forward. 

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.