The Flathead Lake Biological Station

By Jack Stanford

Located on the east shore of the big lake, the Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS) of The University of Montana plays a key role in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem by conducting scientific research on processes that influence natural and cultural interactions. Scientists at FLBS have provided a clear understanding of how the alpine, mountain and river valley landscapes are ecologically interconnected in natural and cultural contexts. Detailed records show how organisms respond to human influences, including climate change, and how human economies and lifestyles are tied to the natural goods and services of the ecosystem.


Professor Morton Elrod and The University of Montana established the FLBS in 1899. Elrod envisioned a base of operations for college education and research in the pristine environs of Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park. He and other visionaries of the time (Grinnell, Pinchot) knew that human wellbeing was dependent on a scientific understanding of the natural and cultural attributes and processes of regional ecosystems. Moreover, Elrod recognized the immense educational value of the landscape that he and his colleagues called the “Crown of the Continent.”

The first summer classes using the Crown of the Continent ecosystem (CCE) as the classroom were held at the newly founded Yellow Bay campus in 1901. Young people from around the nation studied with UM and visiting professors in the lake environs near the station and took horse-packing trips deep into the mountains. Professor Elrod helped create Glacier National Park and was the park’s first official naturalist. In addition to the big lake, the park soon became the focal point for summer students.

Elrod’s vision inspired the expansion of FLBS into a world-class field station during the 1980s and 1990s. The station was designated a “Center of Excellence” by the UM Board of Regents in 1986. The new program integrated research and education and enhanced outreach such as routine monitoring and reporting of water quality to local NGOs and agencies; these are key functions that have identified FLBS for well over 100 years. At the FLBS Centennial Celebration in 1999, the world-renowned scientist Professor Charles Goldman of the University of California-Davis stated that FLBS has become “the leading freshwater field research facility in the world.”

Since 2000, the FLBS has expanded the scope of work to include terrestrial and climate issues in a systems ecology context. Today, FLBS is an important technology center for Montana, as it produces skilled scientists for local, state and national positions; creates jobs in-house; and pumps over $5 million per year into the local economy via expenditures derived from the many competitive research awards won by FLBS faculty.


The most important functions of FLBS are basic and applied ecological research as well as the dissemination of the results and implications of our research to society. This work encompasses many aspects of ecology but emphasizes ways to sustain the natural goods and services provided by freshwater ecosystems. We recognize that fresh water is vital to human health, economies and overall quality of life. We also recognize that cumulative impacts of human activities compromise the ecological structure and function of the watershed ecosystems from which our freshwater supplies are drawn.

The FLBS strives to advance an understanding of the complex linkages between atmospheric, terrestrial, aquatic and human components of watershed ecosystems in a natural-cultural context. This requires a “genes to ecosystems” approach, and the research faculty that has been developed at FLBS over the last two decades and is therefore purposefully interdisciplinary, formally integrating the biological and physical aspects of ecology with economic and cultural influences on ecosystem processes.

Currently, seven PhD-holding faculty members work together at FLBS. These professors have divergent, but complementary, skills, experience and personal research interests, ranging from microbial ecology to ecosystem processes and modeling—hence the reference to the FLBS program as “systems ecology.” The work of the faculty at the Biological Station is supported by a talented staff with skills that complement the FLBS mission and add considerably to our research capability. In July 2008, 54 scientists and graduate students were employed in full- or part-time positions.

The research takes FLBS scientists throughout the CCE and on around the world to watershed ecosystems in South America, Europe, Scandinavia and the Russian Far East. For example, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (San Francisco, CA) has committed over $10 million to FLBS during 2003–2010 for research to examine structure, function and conservation of the most pristine salmon rivers of the northern Pacific Rim. This research, in close cooperation with the Wild Salmon Center (Portland, OR), encompasses the Salmonid Rivers Observatory Network (SaRON) and is designed to yield important new insights and actions to proactively assist the preservation of intact salmon river ecosystems, restore degraded systems and revise and improve the management of wild salmon as a natural resource. SaRON operates field camps in Argentina, Alaska, British Columbia and Kamchatka; FLBS staff scientists run the research operations in these camps. The SaRON initiative is interactive with a NSF-EPSCoR program in Large River Ecosystems that was funded in 2007; FLBS faculty member Dr. Richard Hauer was recently appointed Director of the UM-EPSCoR program.

Our cooperative work with the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group (NTSG) at UM and the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology is raising the bar daily on understanding of climate change processes by modeling data from an array of sensors on earth-observing satellites and on-the-ground monitoring sites. FLBS associate research professor John Kimball is a principal modeler for the Soil Moisture Active-Passive mission of the National Atmospheric and Space Administration for 2010 that will underpin global analyses of river runoff in relation to climate warming.

Thus, FLBS research results and implications are contained in over 200 scientific papers that may be viewed on our website, along with faculty bios and descriptions of ongoing research projects. Results and implications of the work have been widely covered by national and international media—most recently in Chile, where FLBS scientists are helping evaluate influences of several mega-dams planned for Patagonian rivers.


Summer Academic Session for Undergraduates

While FLBS has become a world-class research center, another FLBS trademark is teaching ecology in a hands-on, in-the-field fashion. The annual summer academic program at FLBS throughout its 100+-year history has offered novel, field-based classes for undergraduate and graduate students with a focus on field-based study and observation. The session typically runs from mid-June to early August. The FLBS courses are high-content and tough, emphasizing research design, analysis and reporting (written and verbal), plus practical application.

Enrollment is limited to 13 students per class, and therefore, student-professor contact is at least 50% higher than typically occurs in the usual university lecture-lab courses. Our objective is to produce leadership-oriented graduates with a robust, field-based understanding of principles and tools that must be applied for the conservation of ecosystem goods and services for sustained human wellbeing worldwide.

The FLBS Graduate Program

Systems Ecology Advising MS and PhD students and funding their work through research assistantships on grants/contracts is a primary duty of university science faculty. FLBS faculty routinely recruit top graduate students from around the country to participate in novel studies associated with the many FLBS research projects in the CCE and around the world.

FLBS faculty teach highly technical graduate courses—which are available to campus-based students through Internet conferencing and weekend field trips to Flathead Lake and the CCE—to enable them to use the sophisticated instrumentation and remote sensing tools used in the FLBS labs and field sites. These graduate classes focus on the complex details of limnology (water science); remote sensing and modeling of ecosystem processes; and conservation of ecosystem goods and services in the CCE and adjacent areas—notably the Greater Yellowstone and Greater Frank Church Wilderness ecoregions.


The Biological Station is an ideal place for focused workshops, owing to its setting on the shoreline of Flathead Lake and the modern FLBS facilities for small groups working over several-day periods. We have hosted many scientific workshops and forums that produced scientific papers of international importance. Each year, a variety of workshops and short courses sponsored by agencies and NGOs are held at FLBS. These are designed to inform citizens, teachers and professionals about tools and approaches for solving contemporary ecological problems.

The main method for disseminating research results is through peer-reviewed scientific papers and books and presentations at professional conferences nationally and around the world. However, we recognize the practical importance of presenting research results to local government agencies and the public. FLBS science strives to be politically neutral, but the faculty and staff do not shy away from controversial issues if FLBS studies, data or informed judgments may assist in issue resolution. FLBS scientists are routinely asked to provide research data and experience to public officials and to NGOs, such as the Flathead Lakers and Flathead Basin Commission. The goal is to use FLBS science as the basis for consensus building in environmental problem solving.

The Biological Station is proactively participating in the Crown Initiative begun in 2008 to formally link Glacier National Park and The University of Montana in education and research for the purpose of conserving the CCE. The FLBS will provide information about the Crown via the FLBS website at, workshops, science field tours and general-interest classes. An electronic visitor center at FLBS has recently been funded to allow the linkage of FLBS to other Crown activities.

How FLBS has helped protect and add value to the Crown ecosystem

  • Provided key testimony of scientific studies describing biodiversity of the Crown as rationale for designation of Glacier National Park as a world heritage site.
  • Provided data and interpretations about water quality in Flathead Lake based on continuous measurements since 1977 that guided basin-wide strategies for minimizing air and water pollution.
  • Provided primary analyses that led to provision of permanent federal reserve water rights for the virgin flows of the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River that preclude any dams or significant water extractions in perpetuity to protect regional biodiversity and water quality of Glacier National Park.
  • Provided detailed information and consultation since 1980 to agencies of the Flathead Basin Commission to prevent strip mining of coal and other landscape disturbances in the Canadian North Fork of the Flathead River that would harm the natural integrity of Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake.
  • Provided public information based on years of research to help resolve a wide array of environmental issues, including the harmful effects of urban sprawl and gravel mining on the sensitive flood plains of the Flathead River, local and long distance air pollution and food-web changes in Flathead and other CCE lakes.