At the top of Elk Mountain, Kristin Barker hopped into the bed of the Ford pickup sometimes called "The Green Monster," raised the radio telemetry antenna high above her head and put the receiver to her ear.

From her vantage point, she could see far and wide, the tops of other mountains draped in forest green, the tamaracks that hadn't started turning golden yet, the sky in striations of gray and silver.

As the master's candidate in the wildlife biology program at the University of Montana listened for a single bull elk, she turned the device one way, then another.

The receiver crackled, but it didn't beep.

"Honestly, I don't have high hopes, but we have to do our due diligence," Barker said.

The researcher with an undergraduate degree in English was in the field far up Miller Creek at the tail end of a study examining how elk migration patterns affect their nutrition.

Barker said she was attracted to the project because it's collaborative and also meaningful outside the classroom. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and a private conservation company called MPG Ranch also are working on the study.

"I would like to do something that is important and applicable in the real world," Barker said.

Truth be told, she'd rather be out in the great outdoors any day of the week, although at this point in the research, she's spending more time at the computer screen looking for stories in the heaps of data the team gathered rather than trekking through the woods.

"I actually would have preferred to do 100 percent in the field, but my adviser (Mike Mitchell) told me I already know how to do field work, and I'm here to learn science," Barker said, who estimated overall field work at some 50 percent. "That's fair."

And in Montana, the connection between research in the lab and work in the field is close, sometimes just a short truck ride away.


Before heading out, Barker tossed a couple of backpacks into the backseat of "The Green Monster," also called "The Hulk," and stuck her coffee thermos in the console.

On any given trip, she and any of the researchers heading into the field might carry a topographical map, a GPS unit, radio telemetry equipment, PVC pipe squares for vegetation work, high-tech scissors, calipers to measure shrubs, iPads, and brown paper bags for samples.

"And latex gloves for handling fecal samples. Very important," Barker said.

The project started in 2014, she said, and as is typical with this type of work, the team brought on the master's student in 2015, after its inception, to carry out the data analysis portion toward the end.

To collect information, the scientists had collared 65 elk in the Sapphire Mountains. Most of the collars had dropped off and been retrieved, but Barker was looking for data from one that remained.

"Two bulls still have collars on 'em. One of them hasn't transmitted in a while," Barker said.

It sounded like a lovely problem for Barker; even though her main job at this point was looking at data at a computer in the Natural Sciences building on campus, she had to chase one last elk.


The trip to the top of the mountain took Barker through meadows, past a small vegetable farm, and under a deep green canopy of pine, maybe spruce — "I'd have to touch the needles to be sure."

Once, a tiny rabbit hopped along on the side of the road, one of the many critters Barker has encountered on her excursions. She'd seen a black bear, whitetail deer, mule deer, and lots of birds.

"Once, I found a little caterpillar cocoon," Barker said.

The mountain lions were there, too, but they observe the people; rarely is it the other way around.

Last week, the researcher had to tread with special care because it was hunting season, and she didn't want to upset the balance in the field. Barker didn't want to get in the way of the hunters, nor did she want to force elk from any hiding spots.

"During hunting season, you want to be real cautious to be fair to both parties," said Barker, a hunter herself.

On the drive, Barker spoke about the project in a way that made it clear science is a creative pursuit. The researchers have many different hypotheses, not just one, and they were testing different answers, which weren't mutually exclusive.

For instance, one idea is that the more an elk migrates, the better access it has to more nutritious food.

"You have to be creative to even come up with a good question," Barker said.

To find answers, the team collected data about the elk, and nutritional information about plants, such as balsamroot and spotted knapweed, at various stages of life.

At least last week, Barker only had preliminary conclusions to the question about nutrition posed by the agency. She's scheduled to graduate in December 2017, and before she does, she plans to use the data to answer one of her own questions about elk in the Sapphires, too.

"I'm trying to understand why the full continuum of migration behavior is represented in this population," Barker said.

Some elk migrate, but some start to migrate and then return, and their range of behaviors is wide. Some people believe they see patterns in elk movement, but so far the stories are only anecdotal and not backed by data, Barker said.

Some species, such as the wildebeest, have stopped migrating altogether, she said.

"Migratory behavior seems to be changing in a lot of species," Barker said.

The state agency will keep the data from the study, she said, and they'll continue to seek answers in it to questions about life and wild places even after this particular project ends.


Before coming to Montana, Barker worked in the software industry in Colorado.

Eventually, she found her volunteer work monitoring bats more interesting, and she decided to seek an advanced degree in wildlife biology. She headed to Missoula because she liked the town itself – which she had visited earlier while doing wolf research – as well as the campus lab, called the Montana Cooperative Research Unit, and the strength of the program, recognized nationally.

"It's one of the better wildlife bio programs in the country," Barker said.

After a few fruitless minutes with the antenna on the top of the mountain, the researcher revved up the truck again and rolled to a different vantage site. She didn't have luck there and she figured the batteries had died in the collar.

Typically, the collars upload data to a satellite every two hours, but it hadn't been sending information and she couldn't pick it up manually.

"He could be anywhere," she said.

With most of the collars already secure, though, Barker hopped back in the truck and headed back to campus, where she traded her socks and boots for a pair of sandals and settled in for computer analysis.

"This is where the magic happens," she said, joking.

Really, the magic seemed to be the way the campus and the field were bound together. Barker had landed on the top of Elk Mountain in the morning to listen for the signal of one bull elk, and she was back in her office the same afternoon, looking at the results of a couple of seasons of elk on the move in Montana.