by Chelsea DeWeese
The buzz of grasshoppers fills the sagebrush-scented air atop an open hillside in Yellowstone National Park’s northern range when Dani Hatfield breaks her silence. “Wow. There’s some cool stuff in here,” she says, looking into a plastic container filled with insects suspended in cloudy liquid. “It keeps changing every time. That’s my favorite part.” The number of millipedes captured in this particular “pitfall”—a plastic container placed in the ground that bugs crawl into—is more than last month’s capture, she continues. Hatfield, a 19-year-old from nearby Gardiner, Montana, studies filmmaking and entomology at Montana State University in Bozeman and has volunteered with the National Park Service (NPS) since high school. This project isn’t necessarily tied to what she studies in school though, she says: “I just like bugs. So I volunteered.” Nearby, Hatfield’s teammate, Maureen Cairns, documents plants growing in plots adjacent to field equipment gathering temperatures, precipitation, wildlife sounds, and other data.
Hatfield, Cairns, and their other teammate, Gabrielle Blanchette, were three of nearly a dozen volunteers gathering data for Yellowstone National Park that afternoon as part of the joint Yellowstone Center for Resources and Yellowstone Forever Citizen Science Initiative, a cooperative effort between Yellowstone Forever and Yellowstone National Park biologists. Citizen science allows volunteers to participate in scientific undertakings to further their appreciation of Yellowstone, and it also helps the park achieve more research than current funding and staffing may allow.
Since its inception more than 10 years ago, citizen science has been a resounding success, and Yellowstone Forever is now working to create more opportunities and fold them into existing programs. The Yellowstone Phenology Project, described above, is the study of plant and animal life-cycle changes over time. Other citizen science projects include red-tailed hawk nest monitoring, invasive weeds mapping, and northern range ungulate research. Erik Oberg, a biologist with NPS and the lead on the phenology project, described the volunteer help to his project as “invaluable.” It’s the perfect hands-on opportunity for volunteers and a chance to recruit, train, and retain volunteer staff, he says.
The volunteers run the gamut. Some, like Blanchette, who is an entomology graduate student at MSU Bozeman, use it for professional development. Some, like Cairns, see it as a way to get outside and away from the desk while continuing to learn about Yellowstone. Retired entomology professor Bob Stoltz lends his expertise identifying bugs captured in the pitfalls. And Jana Paus, of Bonn, Germany, finds it a way to make friends and stay occupied while she visits her boyfriend for the summer while he’s working in Yellowstone. All find fun in the camaraderie of collecting and sorting data. “I always thought I’d like to do volunteering,” says Paus, who recently earned her undergraduate degree in biology and is enrolling in a master’s program.
The morning after collecting insects and plant data in the field, volunteers gather in a classroom at the Yellowstone Forever building in Gardiner, Montana, to carefully extract insects from the pitfall samples, examine them under a microscope, and sort them into vials filled with ethanol. These samples will be made available to permitted researchers, including graduate students, and will be stored in a repository at the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center for future study. Some, like the carabid ground beetle, of primary interest in the insect portion of the phenology study, will be sent to outside experts for further classification. Beetle species trends can be a key indicator of climate change, Oberg says. The study is being conducted in a way that data can be shared with the National Ecological Observatory Network, which is in the process of finalizing a field site in Yellowstone. Plant information will illustrate what plants are growing, flowering, and seeding at certain times of the year. In terms of what the data will be used for: “We are documenting what is happening in Yellowstone at this moment in time at different elevations,” Oberg says. This can be incorporated into future studies.
Joshua Theurer, citizen science program manager at Yellowstone Forever, says visitors benefit greatly from participation in citizen science because it allows them to “peek behind the perceived veil of science” and have a more in-depth visitor experience. He says Yellowstone Forever is working to include more youth—from middle school to college-aged—in volunteer roles. “The hope is that these projects are not just a nice, isolated experience but will inspire continual engagement with projects in participants’ local areas,” he says. Yellowstone Forever is working on ways for students to remain involved remotely both before and after their visit.
For volunteers Brian and Sydney Wallace of Bozeman, the benefits of volunteering are more visceral. Sydney says focusing on something so small, like a collection of insects, allows her to think about the park in an entirely different context, instead of focusing only on big things like bears, and wolves, and mountains. Plus, “It was a lot of fun!” For Bryan, it was reassuring to know somebody’s paying attention to Yellowstone’s smaller details, and he was happy to contribute. “It’s an investment of a day,” he says. “Who doesn’t have a day to invest?”
This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of Yellowstone Quarterly.