A wildlife biology student bands juncos in the Seeley-Swan.

A master's candidate treks in the Sapphire Mountains in search of elk and their migration patterns.

In a lab at the University of Montana, a scientist examines the genetics of cutthroat trout to understand how the species can survive in a changing environment.

It's all happening on a campus in Montana that draws wildlife biology undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers from around the country – even beyond.

"It just seemed so vast and uncharted when I came from California, and that was a big appeal," said Carly Muench, a junior wildlife biology major.

A recent review of UM's wildlife biology program against nationally recognized benchmarks shows it to be performing at the highest level when compared with other major research institutions in the United States and Canada. The result comes from a comparison of data from Academic Analytics, an organization collecting information from some 390 universities to help analyze performance in higher education.

"It's something the people of Montana should feel good about," said Zac Cheviron, assistant professor in biological sciences and wildlife biology faculty member. "It's certainly one of the most successful things on campus."

In his State of the University address this fall, UM President Royce Engstrom highlighted the program as No. 1 and applauded its faculty.

Several major factors contribute to the program's success, and being in the heart of the Rocky Mountains at the Crown of the Continent is among them.

The program crosses disciplines, its faculty are cooperative rather than competitive, and it's financially supported, both from its own donors and from Main Hall, according to the program director and faculty.

In his budget forum last fall, Engstrom said wildlife biology brings in more out-of-state students – who pay full tuition – than any other on campus, and he identified it as tapped for growth.

The program also appears to be operating at capacity at a time when the university doesn't have money to spare. The challenge will be keeping its high marks – and top-ranked faculty – in the face of planned growth and restricted resources.

"We need to be able to serve those students the way we've been serving them in the past," said Creagh Breuner, a biological sciences professor and wildlife biology faculty member.

The question looking ahead:

"Given the financial constraints this university is facing, how can we have this continue to be a premier place to come get a wildlife biology degree?"

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Chad Bishop, director of wildlife biology, said one big reason for the program's success is it draws its 22 faculty from three different areas on campus.

It pulls instructors from the College of Forestry and Conservation, the Division of Biological Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and the Montana Cooperative Research Unit.

"What that allows this university to do very effectively, more so I think than others, is it's simultaneously advancing basic science while also addressing our most significant wildlife management and conservation issues," Bishop said.

In the case of cutthroat trout, for instance, geneticists are studying the species in the lab, and they're working hand in hand with ecologists developing management solutions in the field.

"When you put the two together, we're able to make scientific advances that are then, in turn, leading to strategic outcomes for the major natural resource issues," Bishop said.

Elsewhere around the country, the two approaches to science don't always work together. On some campuses, professors who work in basic science – gathering knowledge for its own sake – and those who work in applied science – to help government officials set policies, for instance – don't have a mutual respect, Breuner said.

"That divide can occur, and the nice thing here is there is respect across the aisle," she said.

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The program also has done well financially, even in a time of budget stresses.

In Montana, people care about wildlife and ecosystems, and many are generous donors, Bishop said. He also said former wildlife biology director Daniel Pletscher understood early on the need for private funding in academia, and the program has roughly $3 million in endowments that support two salaries.

"This past year, when the university had budget reductions, we were actually able to fill those positions because they were supported by private funds," Bishop said. "If those positions weren't endowed, we would not have been able to fund those, most likely."

Joshua Millspaugh is the new Boone and Crockett Chair of Wildlife Conservation and Jedediah Brodie is the new John J. Craighead Chair of Wildlife Conservation.  

Main Hall also has supported wildlife biology, Breuner said.

Wildlife biology enrolls some 325 to 340 undergraduates and 50 graduate students along with postdoctoral researchers, and it brings the highest rate of out-of-state students to campus, two out of three.

"I think that our administration cares about having more out-of-state students because they pay more, so that helps us get the attention of the administration," Breuner said.

Several years ago, Main Hall awarded three programs on campus an increase in base funding because the administration wanted to help nationally distinguished programs become even more competitive, she said.

Wildlife biology was awarded some $150,000, and the money partly goes to an adviser whose job is focused on helping students, Breuner said.

"That has been an amazing contribution to allow us to be successful in spite of everything that's happening."

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Breuner's own passion for biology is one ingredient to the strong program, although she doesn't say it. The faculty are fired up about teaching, whether it's in the classroom, in the lab, or on a mountaintop.

Last week, Breuner taught a wildlife physiological ecology class on the habits of kingfishers. Connor Hakala, a junior wildlife biology major, said he's inspired by the lectures from his professor.

"I love listening to (Breuner) talk about all this cool stuff," Hakala said.

Hakala, from Yakima, Washington, came to Montana for its wildlife as well as its nationally recognized program, No. 2 in the nation when he first considered it.

"One thing that I love is just how enthusiastic the professors are about what is going on," Hakala said. " ... I love that they want us to know what they know and feel about these things the way they feel."

Hakala and Muench are both taking Breuner's wildlife physiological ecology course, a class of some 70 students. She keeps it interactive even though it's so large. She calls on students by name and has them speak in front of their classmates, albeit with a word of caution.

"When students get up here, give them respect because it's hard to be in front of other people," Breuner told them.

Muench, who came to UM mainly because of the location, said she wasn't surprised to hear the program surpassed its earlier ratings. 

"The faculty here in the wildlife biology program are so productive. Everybody is up to something. Everybody is doing groundbreaking research," she said.

She considers it a privilege to learn from "the top experts in the field."

For example, professor Dave Naugle is the leading scientist on a national initiative on sage grouse conservation, Bishop said.

The learning environment is rich, too, with students studying life on Mount Sentinel, aquatic organisms in the Clark Fork River, and deer mice on a mountaintop in Colorado. The deer mice offers clues about Montana pika.

"Students have this phenomenal opportunity to tie the outdoors in with their learning here, so we make that a priority," Bishop said.

Then in the lab, they examine samples with state-of-the-art equipment in a new research lab in the Interdisciplinary Science building. Eventually, the work turns up in journal articles, and at a more productive rate than other research institutions.

"Of course, that translates to the educational opportunities here," Bishop said.

Students who graduate also do well professionally. Karla Guyn, interim CEO of Ducks Unlimited in Canada, graduated from UM in 1988, and she felt prepared to get her master's and doctorate.

She's now leading the national organization, and she notes her predecessor also was a UM graduate, Greg Siekaniec, now regional director in Alaska for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Both Guyn and her husband graduated from UM, and she said it was pricey for the Canadians.

"(But) we thought the value of the program was such that it was worth it," Guyn said. "And I still believe it was. I wouldn’t do anything differently."

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Cheviron, who works out of a new office and lab in the Interdisciplinary Science building, took a job at UM a year ago, attracted by its "topnotch faculty" and the investments being made in the program.

In Cheviron's first semester, Engstrom announced major budget reductions. Cheviron said continued cuts could influence other faculty members' interest in staying at UM. At the same time, he sees UM setting wildlife biology as a priority as it moves forward.

"They have been investing, at least in the short time I have been here, in our success," Cheviron said.

The administration has targeted wildlife biology for growth, and as more students come on board, teachers and staff will need to figure out how to keep giving students the same level of support.

"I think the biggest challenge facing our program is continuing to provide the resources for faculty to continue to function at these high levels," Bishop said.

Already, faculty in wildlife biology have homes in different departments, Breuner said.

"For all of us, it's a doubling of service," she said, or at least more time on committees and more responsibilities. Yet she said faculty are excited about their work, and they want to reach more students.

As more students enroll, the pressures will mount, and the one certain way to relieve it is never a sure bet.

"Faculty lines are expensive, and they're dear."

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