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Glacier Park Science

UM works to solve mysteries in one of nature's finest laboratories

Bowman Lake in Glacier’s Livingston Range (Photo by Susie and Rick Graetz)


By Deborah Richie

Strolling down from a boulder field, a mountain goat leads her fuzzy white kid toward a family of hikers approaching Hidden Lake Overlook, a favorite destination in Glacier National Park. The goats graze wildflowers while children exclaim at the magnificent beasts. Within a few minutes, a larger billy goat romps across the trail and enters a cluster of subalpine fir trees.

“That’s unusual behavior for mountain goats,” says Wesley Sarmento, a graduate student working with UM wildlife biology Professor Joel Berger to track goat-human interactions in the Logan Pass area. Typically, goats stick to vertical cliffs, avoid trees and group together. Clearly, these are animals of a different nature.

“The goats are looking for salt, and they find it where people have peed behind trees,” the wiry redhead tells me with an easy grin. “But we think there’s something else going on, too.” 

Sarmento is testing a hypothesis that people offer goats a predator-free buffer that’s safe from grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions and wolverines. To compare behaviors, he observes habituated goats and remote populations. A few days after we meet in mid-August, he and Berger would start a new phase of the three- to six-year study, trapping and placing radio collars on goats to learn more about their survival and movements. As familiar as mountain goats appear to Glacier’s hikers, they are one of the least known large mammals in North America.

Humans interact with mountain goats on a regular basis on the Hidden Lake trail near Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. (Photo by Wesley Sarmento)

As Sarmento and I watch, the goat leads her kid up the main trail. Following close on their heels is a young man snapping photos. He suddenly steps between the mother and her baby violating a new park rule that people remain at least 25 yards from wildlife. The goat pauses and stares back at him. Her black horns are sharp. Her shoulders are muscular and hooves are big. Three years earlier, a male goat killed a hiker in Olympic National Park. Here, the mother tolerates the intruder, who finally backs away.

Since 1932, the year the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened, humans and goats have mingled at Logan Pass without tragic consequences. Yet visitor use on day trails has skyrocketed in the past two decades. At peak hours, one goat might encounter 400 people an hour on the Hidden Lake trail, or one person about every 10 seconds.

The National Park Service has directed funds linked to the reconstruction of the Going-to-the-Sun Road to better manage goats and learn more about the animals, which are icons for climate change. They’re as white as the melting snow and have nowhere higher to climb to escape warming temperatures. Park scientists estimate the park’s glaciers will vanish in coming decades.

Mountain goat research is one of several compelling UM research projects underway that benefit the park and address challenges — from climate change to conserving Glacier’s pristine qualities with 2 million visitors per year. Currently, UM researchers track harlequin ducks in McDonald Creek, unearth mysteries revealed by shrinking ice patches and study people’s use patterns and behavior.

“Glacier has everything going from a conservation and research perspective,” says Wayne Freimund, chair of UM’s Department of Society and Conservation. He rattles off a list of superlatives – first peace park, a world heritage site, a biosphere reserve, three international designations and jewel of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem.

Freimund heads up a major visitor-use study on the Going-to-the-Sun corridor that dates to 2005, two years before the National Park Service started a shuttle bus service and began a 10-year undertaking to restore the famed scenic road linking east and west entrances. With the construction comes research dollars to help the park alleviate potential impacts from the disturbance.

UM students monitor road and shuttle use and parking areas, and in 2011 they added counters on 15 trails. Their data show the transit system is highly popular, with demand sometimes exceeding availability. Trail use also is on the rise — especially day hikes served by the shuttle that make it possible to start at one trailhead and end at another. In 1988, some 1,800 people hiked the Granite Park path from the Loop trailhead over a summer season. Now in June and July alone, 15,000 people walked that same stretch. Beyond the numbers, Freimund’s students interview visitors to learn why they come to the park and what they care about most. 

“People have profound connections to Glacier National Park,” Freimund says. Some contemplate changing their jobs after experiencing the alpine beauty. They value the wildness and an emblem of the park, the mountain goat. That’s why Sarmento is not the only UM researcher following goats this summer. Graduate student Sara Markegard is on Logan Pass, too, tracking people’s response to the goats. Both studies will help the Park Service manage for a positive wildlife viewing experience that protects the goats.

UM graduate student Warren Hansen investigates a hidden harlequin duck nest in Glacier National Park. (Photo by Jeremy Roberts, http://conservationmedia.com)Some 30 miles west and far down the valley along Going-to-the-Sun Road, UM graduate student Warren Hansen pursues harlequin ducks in the swift glacial currents of McDonald Creek. Harlequins are sea ducks that winter in the Pacific and breed inland on mountain streams. Their special habitat needs, combined with a low reproductive rate compared to other ducks, make them vulnerable to disruption and climate change. A quarter of the estimated 150 to 200 pairs in Montana nest on upper McDonald Creek. Despite monitoring the birds since 1991, the Park Service never had officially documented an actual nest.

Hansen’s master’s degree project began in 2011 to solve a mystery: Why, in 2010, were no chicks observed on McDonald Creek? Was it human disturbance from the road or visitors on the creek? Flooding during nest season? Park Service biologist Lisa Bate secured funds from the Going-to-the-Sun construction for Hansen to tackle the question and examine factors that are critical to reproductive success. 

In three seasons, Hansen and his team have discovered 10 well-concealed nests, tucked under tree branches and moss. Field assistant Alaina Strehlow chalked up another first when she identified one of Glacier’s wintering ducks bobbing in the ocean within view of the Seattle Space Needle.

After a season of trapping, radio-collaring and monitoring ducks and water levels, Hansen will spend his winter in the lab examining feathers collected from the birds. He will measure a glucocorticoid hormone called corticosterone, applying cutting-edge technology under the tutelage of his faculty adviser, Creagh Breuner, a UM wildlife biology professor. She studies the role glucocorticoids play in regulating physiology and reproduction when saving energy in the face of stress.

On a pleasant late August afternoon, I walk with Hansen and Strehlow across a footbridge over the cascades of McDonald Creek. Hansen is tall and friendly with engaging blue eyes and an infectious enthusiasm for harlequins. Strehlow is fresh from college and working in Missoula at the Watershed Education Network. She’s tan and strong from the long field season clambering through brush, trees and over rocks along the creek and its tributaries.

We head downstream on a busy trail, passing visitors basking on streamside rocks below, until we reach an unpopulated stretch of creek. Strehlow points to the chocolate brown female duck and her three similarly plumaged juveniles dabbling in an eddy for aquatic insects. A dash of white on their heads helps me spot them, but they’re admirably camouflaged. Soon, another female with four young shows up, swimming powerfully in the whitewater. The flashy males that give the birds their namesake have already departed for the coast.

“We banded those two families a few days ago,” Hansen tells me. “But see that female on the closest rock? Paul Hendricks banded her in 2004 for the Montana Natural Heritage Program. They’re long-lived birds. One of the ducks we track is 17 years old.”

It’s a group effort to capture harlequins and then secure leg bands, take measurements, feather samples and attach tiny radio-tracking devices on select birds. Many workers are volunteers with extensive wildlife backgrounds. To catch the birds, they unfurl a mist net across the creek. Sometimes kayakers herd low-flying ducks downriver into the nets. As far as cracking the 2010 case of the missing chicks, Hansen has a pile of data (and feathers) to sort through before he’s ready to come forward with his answer.

An ancient bison skull recovered from beneath a receding ice patch in Glacier National Park. (Photo by Pei-Lin Yu)Meanwhile on the high snowfields, a team of anthropologists from UM, local tribes and three other universities recently answered one of Glacier’s lingering questions. Were bison ever in the park, and at high elevations? The answer is yes, and the 1,000-year-old skull and bones are there to prove it, uncovered as large ice patches dwindle in today’s rapidly warming climate.

Pei-Lin Yu is a cultural specialist with the National Park Service’s UM-based Rocky Mountains Cooperative Ecosystems Study Unit. Trained as an archaeologist and specializing in hunting and gathering peoples, she’s taken a keen interest in melting ice patches.

Why study an ice patch instead of a glacier? She explains that glaciers flow in slow motion, with shearing forces that would pulverize artifacts and bones. In contrast, ice patches are stationary. For thousands of years, Glacier’s ice and snowfields served as magnets for wildlife to cool off in summer, find new grass at the edges and seek refuge from annoying bugs. Naturally, where wildlife gathers, so would hunters seeking game.

Mountain goat photo by Deborah Richie

When Yu received a funding call for National Park Service climate change projects in 2010, she saw the potential for a field study that would involve the Blackfeet Nation and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, ancestral stewards of the park. The idea soon coalesced into a plan. Researchers from the tribes, as well as universities in Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona, crafted the winning proposal to investigate Glacier’s ice patches for ancient artifacts and naturally deposited organic items such as wood.

“Then we sat down together with tribal historic preservation officers over coffee and doughnuts and started developing a protocol for field discoveries,” she says. “A representative from each tribe would be present in the field and make the decision right there how to treat an artifact. They might respectfully remove it or leave it in place.”

Now in its third field season, the tribal members and university scientists set a brutal pace over steep terrain far from the beaten path. This kind of study cannot be leisurely. Once long-frozen wood or bone artifacts are exposed, they deteriorate quickly.

In 2012, the team uncovered the ancient bison skull mingled with bones of mountain goats and bighorn sheep. In this case, it appeared the bison died naturally with no signs of hunting. While they have yet to find cultural artifacts, other ice patch revelations include wood from a yew tree that dates to 5,300 years ago, suggesting alpine rock fields were once lush forests. Scientists have documented similar finds indicative of past climatic warming in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks.

Whether delving into the past or pursuing mountain goats, harlequin ducks and visitors, UM and park researchers couldn’t ask for a more spectacular natural laboratory and outdoor classroom. Less than three hours from Missoula, Glacier National Park has long been a destination for college field trips and studies.

“The opportunities to learn are far in excess from what we know about Glacier National Park,” Berger says. “The research is important but so is education. Ultimately, we fail if we don’t have an advocate for the resources.”

UM now manages a Crown of the Continent Initiative (http://crown.umt.edu/) to share research and education that folds Glacier National Park within a 13-million-acre ecosystem, running 250 miles north and south along the Continental Divide, and embracing the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear wilderness areas.

 UM graduate student Warren Hansen studies harlequin ducks such as this male on Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park. (Photo by Warren Hansen)

After my weekend visit during high season, I confess to falling in love with Glacier National Park all over again. I delighted in seeing mountain goats so close I could see the details of their shaggy white coats, inquisitive faces and spongy hooves adapted for cliff climbing. Spending time with passionate graduate students who live and breathe harlequin ducks and mountain goats renewed my hope for the future and pride in my University.

Glacier has it all — especially when paired with UM professors and programs that could not be more integral to conserving the nature and integrity of the Northern Rockies.

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