After shaping one of the nation’s oldest and most respected research stations, Jack Stanford is retiring as director of UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station
By Dillon Tabish
Groundbreaking, dynastic achievements can begin with something as small and seemingly insignificant as a stonefly.
Just ask Jack Stanford, the longest-serving director of one of the oldest and most respected research stations in the nation, the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.
Stanford’s early research of the peculiar insects led him on a lifelong odyssey around the world, including Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula, where he came across one of the last true strongholds of salmon on the globe, and the backcountry of Papua New Guinea, where he and his wife, Bonnie Ellis, made first contact with an indigenous village in the remote forestlands.
This journey also took a fateful trip in 1972 to a relatively quiet research station on the shores of Flathead Lake.
Five decades later, Stanford, 68, is the scientific sentinel who shaped the biological station into a world-class research site for freshwater ecology and limnology off the scenic shores of Yellow Bay between Bigfork and Polson. With 220 peer-reviewed papers and nine edited books published, he is a top expert in his field, garnering international acclaim and collecting $50 million in grants that have helped establish the station’s reputation as a renowned source of research tied to the largest freshwater lake in the West and its surrounding ecosystem.
“In a relatively short time – an amazingly short time – he raised this station to international prominence,” says James Ward, a pioneering stream ecologist and longtime collaborator with the station. “He developed a state-of-the-art facility. He started developing funding to conduct research at the very highest level. And he and his colleagues have earned recognition for their work in the Flathead ecosystem around the world.”
In spring 2016, Stanford will retire after 45 years at FLBS, including 36 as director. His retirement follows that of Ellis, who stepped down in February 2015 as a full-time research professor at the station after 37 years. For almost their entire tenure, Stanford and Ellis lived together year-round at the station, mentoring generations of students and compiling one of the longest continuous water quality databases in the world. Together they have garnered many of the highest international research awards.
Their departure marks the end of an era. After an extensive search process, the University announced in July that James Elser, an internationally renowned freshwater ecologist, will succeed Stanford as the new director. Elser plans to hire two new researchers to follow in Ellis’ footsteps as well.
“The incredible record that Jack Stanford and Bonnie Ellis have put together over the decades they’ve been here, that’s quite the act to follow. This station is internationally renowned already, and that is an incredible platform to build from,” says Elser, a distinguished scientist and freshwater researcher from Arizona State University and president of the world’s largest water-science society, the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography.
For Stanford, it all started with stoneflies.
As a boy growing up on the Gunnison River and other streams in western Colorado, Stanford regularly fly-fished with his father near their family’s farmland. He would watch the small, narrow-winged insects emerge in dramatic hatches along the shores they frequented.
As a fisheries student at Colorado State University, Stanford began researching these peculiar insects, curious about their profound role in the freshwater environment and how they were an ultimate indicator of water quality due to their intolerance to pollution.
In 1972, while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Utah, he was sent to northwest Montana to study stoneflies in the Flathead River basin, considered a prime environment for river ecology because of the massive lake and the pristine wilderness lands protecting the region.
It was here, in the Flathead Valley working at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, where Stanford made a ground-breaking discovery at the age of 25.
He found stoneflies living beneath the alluvial aquifers of the Flathead River, begging the question, how were these species living underground? At the time, rivers were largely viewed as two dimensional and were believed to be only what you could see flowing over the landscape. By chasing the stoneflies beneath the surface and finding them more than a kilometer from the river channel’s edge, Stanford discovered that indeed rivers are three dimensional and existed significantly beyond the visible streams and supported a vast food chain of insects and other microorganisms.
In 1974, Stanford published his findings in Science, the prestigious journal detailing the world’s top research. It was a monumental discovery that changed the world of river ecology.
It also marked the beginning of a transformative era for the Flathead Lake Biological Station.
At the time, the station was a rather minimal site featuring a few rustic cabins and one lab. Stanford was just one of two people who lived year-round at the site.
“It was a good place to study. It was quiet and I could work on my stoneflies,” he says. “I’d go every couple weeks up the Middle Fork or North Fork or South Fork to collect stonefly samples.”
By the mid- to late-1970s, the field of limnology – the study of inland waters – began to expand, and people’s interest in water-quality issues was spiking.
Again, Stanford and his team at the bio station were at the forefront.
His team of researchers, including Ellis, began studying the intricacies of clean water environments and how nitrogen and phosphorous from pollutants impacted those vital resources.
“We didn’t know much about the lake except that it was extremely clear and that it had a way, way enormous diversity of organisms in it,” Stanford says.
It was during that period when Stanford and others began to think about acquiring the funding for a full state-of-the-art research lab that could truly devote the level of insight that a lake like Flathead deserved.
Stanford and former director John Tibbs wrote the grant application seeking funding and in 1977 were awarded $1 million. That same year, the station’s team began collecting continuous data from Flathead Lake, measuring all aspects of the lake’s complex identity.
By 1980, the research lab was intact and Stanford was the new ambitious director making a name for himself and his team in the scientific community. Offers from bigger universities and stations began rolling in, but Stanford never considered a change in scenery.
At times the station has nearly 40 faculty and staff members on board with a constant stream of students. They have played a major role in raising awareness of water-quality issues, including the threat of aquatic invasive species and the deleterious effects of upstream mining in Canada, leading to a watershed agreement between the U.S. and Canadian governments to protect the Crown of the Continent. The station provided research that helped stop ill-conceived coal mining in Canada.
In 1981, Ellis published one of the most cited papers in limnology, detailing how different groups of plankton use carbon dioxide and other nutrients in different ways to spur the primary production in lakes. It, too, was groundbreaking research and to this day still informs the study of water quality. She also led the development of an innovative lake modeling system that is considered a breakthrough for future freshwater research, using the long-term data kept on file since 1977.
In 1983, FLBS scientists discovered the first lakewide algae bloom due to pollution in Flathead Lake, and as a result Stanford and others successfully convinced local cities to ban phosphorous-containing detergents that were seeping through faulty sewage treatment systems in the aquifer. A nationwide ban would later sweep the country, rooted in the Flathead Valley’s unprecedented decision.
“Those were the days when you could begin to see everything coming together for the station and it becoming something really important,” Stanford says.
He added, “What we’ve done here over these many years rests squarely on the shoulders of the many people who have worked here at this field station. It’s not so much about me, it’s about all the fine people who work with me. We have worked together, most of us, for many years, and that’s something I cherish more than anything.”
Now Stanford and Ellis are excited to chase stoneflies in new streams. They are moving to Twisp, Washington, where they have a home by the Twisp River.
“I know a lot about the Flathead River. I don’t know a lot about those rivers,” he says. “So I’ve got new rivers to explore while continuing to foster funding for FLBS and help with long-term conservation of the Flathead River-Lake ecosystem.”
Flathead Lake Biological Station Directors
Joseph Severy | 1934-1936
Gordon B. Castle | 1937-1961
Richard Solberg | 1962-1969
John Tibbs | 1970-1979
Jack Stanford | 1980-2016
James Elser | 2016-
Elser Ready to Lead FLBS
James “Jim” Elser, an internationally renowned freshwater ecologist, will become the seventh director of UM’s century-old Flathead Lake Biological Station. Elser, a lake ecologist who serves as a Regents Professor at Arizona State University, was selected for the position after an extensive international search.
“(FLBS) is really well-known in my field of limnology as an amazing place to work and study,” Elser says. “I was drawn to the position by that reputation, including the terrific research program established by Jack Stanford and the other bio station faculty, but it was all solidified when I visited.”
Elser began his new duties Dec. 1, though he will not be in residence at the bio station until March 1. Stanford will remain director until Elser arrives and then stay on until June 1 as a UM faculty member to complete research, write and mentor his final graduate students.
Elser is a distinguished sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, as well as a highly acclaimed scholar who has won numerous awards, including Fulbright Scholar (twice), ASU Professor of the Year by the ASU Parents’ Association and the G.E. Hutchinson Award, the most prestigious global award in the aquatic sciences. He also has an exemplary record of earning research grants, including multimillion-dollar awards from the National Science Foundation and NASA.
“I hope to bring a broad interdisciplinary and international vision to the station,” Elser says. “Globally, freshwaters are a critically important resource for our very survival, and lakes especially are central in providing economic, cultural and social value. This is especially true for Flathead Lake, which is a treasure of Montana and the whole Northwest.”