They didn’t realize bats were so active in the Montana winter, and they didn’t know the sagebrush lizard was so widely dispersed across the state’s southwest corner.
But then again, Bryce Maxell, the senior zoologist with the Montana Natural Heritage Program, said finding out otherwise remains the point of their surveys, a painstaking effort to seek the truth and set Montana’s wildlife record straight.
“It’s been a tremendous time here at the Heritage Program,” said Maxell. “Until we do these baseline surveys, we often don’t know what the distribution status of our species is.”
Maxell recently was named wildlife biologist of the year by the Montana chapter of the Wildlife Society during its annual meeting in Whitefish. The award recognizes professional achievement and highlights outstanding contributions to wildlife science and conservation.
Maxell remains humble despite his recognition, and he’s more inclined to talk about the results of the Heritage Program’s field work than he is about awards.
Since 1996, when Maxell began conducting field inventories for animal species, the program has identified five new species of mollusks previously unknown to Montana.
They’ve learned that bats were more active in winter than once believed, and they learned that a certain terrestrial lizard, once considered a species of concern, was more widespread than records indicated.
“We have 1.5 million animal observations in our database,” Maxell said. “We sift through those and find the high-value ones associated with reproduction of species of concern. That information goes out during environmental reviews, so when project reviews are taking place, they have more information at their fingertips.”
The Montana Natural Heritage Program is tied to the University of Montana’s office for research and creative scholarship. The program’s work is diverse, ranging from state amphibian and reptile surveys to acoustic studies on bats.
Maxell and company also have been hard at work near Broadus and Ashland. With natural gas exploration on the horizon, they’re collecting new baseline surveys on the area’s amphibious reptiles and birds.
“We knew a common sagebrush lizard was in that area, but after we did the surveys, we found them at 80 percent of the rock outcrops we went to,” Maxell said. “It helps highlight species of conservation concern. It’s a look-before-you-leap sort of list.”
Over the past 13 years, Maxell has written or co-written two books, a dozen peer-reviewed publications and more than 30 professional reports on Montana wildlife.
The results of his work, and that taking place at the Montana Natural Heritage Program, are housed at the Montana State Library in Helena.
The information on plants, animals and biological communities are made available to state and federal agencies, tribes, consultants and the public.
“Our ultimate goal is to have a thorough knowledge of species’ distribution and status so Montana citizens can more easily appreciate what they have,” Maxell said. “It’s a task that will always be in process, but I hope to contribute by raising the overall bar on the level of information that’s available.”
To find out more about Maxell’s work and the Montana Natural Heritage Program, visit mtnhp.org.