MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS – Bubbling with enthusiasm, Leanne Schuh was eager to see more bison.
“They don’t care about anything,” said the 21-year-old University of Montana wildlife biology major from Issaquah, Wash. “They were on the road when we were driving in and they were just like, whatever. I want them to come closer.”
Schuh was one of 14 University of Montana students who braved icy highways and cold, snowy weather to drive nearly five hours to reach Yellowstone National Park recently to take part in a winter field course titled “Yellowstone Studies.” The four days of study in the park, condensed into three because of travel delays, featured a flurry of talks with park biologists and managers, a wildlife photographer, nearby ranchers and conservation leaders as well as trips to look for wolves and skiing and snowshoeing to visit geothermal features. At night, they bunked together in a park dorm room after a group meal.
When completed, the crash course gave the group a broad yet detailed view of the diverse wildlife, geological, social and political situations and issues that buffet the nation’s oldest national park.
Professor Natalie Dawson shepherded the group from place to as they hurried to make up for lost time. It was her idea, as the director of the College of Forestry and Conservation’s Wilderness Institute, to open up such classes to all students three years ago.
“It started out as a component of the wilderness and civilization program,” Dawson said as she uncharacteristically stood still for a moment while waiting for the rest of the group to catch up on a snowshoe and cross-country ski trip around the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. “That was a year-long experiential program where they’d do this kind of stuff on weekends.
“When I started, I decided to open it up to any student on campus.”
“Thank you,” several of the students shouted.
“It makes a course like this accessible to a broader range of students on campus, to give as many students as possible the opportunity to learn in the field,” Dawson added.
Instead of only forestry, conservation and wildlife biology students taking part, the group included, among others, a photojournalism and sociology major.
Research conservation major Rory Davenport, 22, said Dawson had told him Yellowstone was her favorite place to teach. That’s why he signed up for the course.
“One of the things I like about the field study courses is it takes issues out of the theoretical realm and into reality,” Davenport said.
Of course, it helps that all of the learning is coupled with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and a dip in the Boiling River hot springs. Not to mention that it all takes place in the incredibly scenic surroundings of Yellowstone National Park where the students get to see bison, elk and wolves. They even got to hear the Canyon wolf pack howling on the second morning of their visit.
“I’ve never been here before in the winter,” said Allison Bernhisel, 27, a wildlife biology major from Salt Lake City. “It’s completely different.”
A friend had recommended the course, which typically fills within the first few days that it’s offered. To earn college credit for the outing, the students had to submit a research topic for approval that addressed a major issue in conservation or ecology pertaining to Yellowstone and then complete the project and read an assigned book. Participation in the field course was 60 percent of the grade, and the students’ project accounted for the other 40 percent.
“My students who are not science majors come up with really creative projects,” Dawson said, everything from wood carvings to maps, films and a children’s book.
During the trip, they received lectures from experts like bear biologist Kerry Gunther, who talked about hibernation. Management assistant Wade Vagias gave the group a rundown on the intricacies of the park’s winter management plan – an 11-year process that included two environmental assessments, three environmental impact statements and one supplemental EIS.
“I arrived here in April of 2011 and walked into a bit of a firestorm,” Vagias told the group.
He ended his hour-long talk encouraging the students to talk to him about opportunities available to them now, while they are still in college, in the park and urged them to use him as a resource if they were interested in more information about working for an agency like the National Park Service.
Dawson hopes the students come away from the class and its many interactions with nature and people with a greater understanding of how different lands are managed, from wilderness to forests to national parks.
“I’d like them to walk out of their college education with that understanding,” Dawson said. “After all, they are the ones who will be making decisions about public lands in the future.”