Scaling Mountains, Following Wildlife: UM Student Finds Her Mark

UM wildlife biology major Nicole Bealer has gone deep off the grid to conduct her undergraduate research. Here she uses radio telemetry to locate a collared cow elk in New Mexico.

MISSOULA – Students at the University of Montana pride themselves on going wherever and whenever necessary to pursue their passions and academic enrichment.

For wildlife biology major Nicole Bealer that has meant a summer scaling the craggy mountains of western Wyoming to study bighorn sheep, carrying all her provisions for the trip and sleeping in the same unforgiving environment as her subjects of study.

“Not a lot of side-by-sides in our lives,” Bealer said of the arduous climbs involved in her work that are decidedly not friendly to motorized vehicles.

Bealer with lamb
This summer, Bealer studied bighorn sheep and their newborn lambs in Wyoming. This work included attaching GPS collars to monitor lamb survival. (All animals were handled for research purposes and were handled in compliance with appropriate permits and protocol.)

The Woodlands, Texas, native is no stranger to living and studying in the wild. Her budding resume of research includes tracking mountain lions and their kittens – “The cutest things, ever,” Bealer said – and improving population monitoring techniques of the elusive and arguably-not-so-adorable wolverine.

Her interest in wildlife biology started as a junior in high school when she had the opportunity to study mule deer and mountain lions in Colorado.

“I had no idea what I was getting into at the time,” she recalled, “but this was my moment of clarity. This is what I wanted to do. “

Bealer chose UM, calling it “one of the best places in the world to study wildlife” and has come to value the campus collective commitment to making a positive difference in the world.

“I love being part of a community that is going places and working to solve conservation problems and problems facing our natural resources,” she said.

In her work this summer, Bealer joined a team of researchers in the mountains outside Dubois, Wyoming, studying pneumonia in bighorn sheep and why some succumb to the disease while others can carry the pathogen and still survive. The work involved monitoring three herds, fitting them with radio collars and investigating those that died. The team also searched for newborn lambs, alerted by birth canal devices implanted earlier in the spring by other researchers.

“If they are born at 6 a.m., we are up at 6 a.m. to find the ewe and the baby so we can capture and collar it,” Bealer said. “It made for some exciting days with long hikes and elevation.”

During the second half of the summer, after lambing was complete, the team settled into studying subjects a lot easier to corral – vegetation eaten by bighorn sheep. 

“We collected plants for lab analysis to see how they impact sheep survival rates,” Bealer explained.

Living with bighorn sheep atop the Continental Divide has been a great experience, Bealer said, but of all the animals she’s studied, mountain lions have so far been the most memorable.

Bealer with mountain lion
During her winter work in Colorado, Nicole conducted mountain-lion captures to learn more about their ecology. 

“They are an underappreciated species, and yet they play such an important role in the ecosystem,” she said.

Mark Hebblewhite, professor in UM’s wildlife biology program and Bealer’s adviser, said she has been a standout student and undergraduate researcher from the moment she arrived on campus.

“Very rarely, perhaps less than five times, have I seen an undergraduate be able to bring together elements of her own research ideas, datasets spanning multiple research and management agencies, and secure funding to address their questions,” Hebblewhite said. “This speaks to the potential that all of us see in Nicole to become a top-level professional wildlife biologist.”

Ultimately, Bealer would like to go to graduate school and continue working in wildlife biology – preferably in the West, which she loves. She is particularly interested in predator-prey dynamics between wildlife.

“As a society we’ve had an interesting relationship with large predators and their threat to us,” she said. “But in more recent years we’ve come to better understand the important role they play in the ecosystem. “

Bealer’s studies are not limited to wildlife. Next spring, she hopes to travel to France to burnish her minor in French, a language her mother speaks as well. A member of the Davidson Honors College, she also is working toward a minor in math.

“Nicole’s studies exemplify the value UM places on interdisciplinary studies and liberal arts,” said Kylla Benes, director of Scholarships and Fellowships at DHC. “These seemingly disparate studies will better position her for a job in a field that is increasingly collaborative and dependent on strong data analysis skills.

“They have provided Nicole with intense research experiences, earned her UM's nomination for the nationally competitive Goldwater Scholarship and are preparing her to undertake study abroad in France later this year."

Recently, Bealer taped a thank-you video to scholarship donors to UM’s wildlife program. She said having outside support energizes students to follow their passions.

“It creates that possibility where students who have an idea are encouraged to follow it and pursue it and actually try to bring those things to fruition,” she said.

For Bealer, that passion this summer was a mountaintop experience with wildlife who inhabit the West that they, and she, call home.


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,