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SITKA Team | 11.17.2020

Montana State University Ecosystem Grants

When we launched the Sitka Ecosystem Grants program, we intended to establish a bridge of support for individuals and organizations spearheading critical efforts that ultimately protect the wild.
As COVID hit and became our reality, traditional funding opportunities for research and conservation grants became scarce and unpredictable. We realized that we had an opportunity to look closer to home to create a substantial impact. This summer marked the launch of our Montana State University Ecosystem Grant Program, which came about to ensure our local community of graduate students could complete their research projects.

We are proud to have the opportunity to step up and serve our local community by awarding thirteen emergency grants to MSU students.

Below are words from some of our grantees regarding their work. Their passions and areas of research vary from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to salmonflies in the Madison River.

Elise Loggers

“Forty-five years can change an ecosystem. In the time since grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and surrounding areas were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, garbage dumps in the park have been closed and grizzlies returned to feeding on natural foods. Wolves were reintroduced, the grizzly population increased, and the elk population decreased. Climate change shifted food availability, 1988 fires altered vegetation communities, and annual visitation doubled to over 4 million visitors per year.

Shortly after bears were listed in 1975, human access to some backcountry areas was seasonally restricted to reduce human-bear conflict. But with all the changes in the ecosystem, bear use of these areas may have shifted. Change also occurred outside of the ecosystem. Our ability to track animals with GPS collars, remotely capture environment conditions, and analyze the resulting data on computers with over 500,000 times the processing power now allows for better assessment.

My work integrates on-the-ground fieldwork with GPS locations from collared grizzly bears to better understand what resources are important and what grizzlies are doing in those areas. By bringing together the best available information to identify important grizzly resources, my work helps guide when and where temporary use restrictions of backcountry areas may be most effective. Managing human use in areas with important resources and high densities of grizzly bears helps provide conflict-free areas for bears to live undisturbed and a safer backcountry experience for visitors to YNP.

SITKA has aided the conservation and stewardship of grizzly bears by helping us better understand which resources are most important. These valuable grant funds allow me to continue my research to survey GPS locations and collect information on grizzly diet and resource use.”

Chloe Wasteneys

“Whitebark and limber pine populations have been decreasing at alarming rates for decades due to mountain pine beetle infestations, white pine blister rust, and overcrowding due to fire suppression, all of which are exacerbated by a warming climate.

My research focuses on the environmental tolerances of three high elevation pines: whitebark pine, limber pine, and Great Basin bristlecone pine.

Both whitebark and limber pines are keystone species, meaning they increase the biodiversity of a community. They do this by protecting high elevation snowpack, regulating spring and summer runoff, stabilizing soil, providing shelter for small mammals, and serve as a nutritious food source to grizzlies and other wildlife.

Panting rust-resistant seedlings is the primary restoration strategy. However, we do not understand the factors affecting seedling survival and establishment - this is critical information for planting and regeneration to be successful. To guide restoration efforts and identify locations with optimal conditions, my research will assess seedling tolerance and response to heat and drought stress.

I’ve always loved trees (I’m partial to pines), so being able to conduct research and collect data that may contribute to restoration efforts of these pines is really meaningful work for me. The general public, especially those of us who live within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, should care about the future of these keystone species because of the many benefits they bring to our landscapes and wildlife.

The Sitka Ecosystem Grant has directly supported my research and has given me the opportunity to share my passion and raise awareness about these important and beautiful high elevation pines.”

Kadie Heinle

“If you made a list of the iconic species within western North America, what animals would make the cut? Bighorn sheep? Grizzly bears? Bison? For me, the cutthroat trout are at the top of the list. Cutthroat trout evolved in the rugged landscapes many of us love, including large coastal rivers, high-desert streams, and steep mountain creeks.

One of Montana’s local branches of this species is the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, which is highly valued, culturally and ecologically, throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unfortunately, many Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations are declining across their native range in the face of multiple threats, including non-native species and impacts from climate change.

My research seeks to understand how brown trout and drought conditions both individually and interactively affect Yellowstone cutthroat trout in a tributary ecosystem within the Crazy Mountains (Awaxaawippíia) of Montana. I am using long and short-term surveys to assess differences in growth, survival, and habitat use between Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations that exist with and without brown trout across a range of streamflows.

I can’t thank SITKA enough for their support of this work. My grant-funded supplies for my fish and habitat surveys, among other miscellaneous, but crucial, purchases (never underestimate the value of AA batteries!).”

Simone Durney

“Our research is focused on understanding how a changing climate impacts flowering plants and the pollinators that depend on them. Typically, we have done this by experimentally manipulating the temperature and snowpack in mountain meadows in Grand Teton National Park. This experimental research design helps us untangle how increased temperatures affect native perennial species in mountain meadows.

This year due to coronavirus limitations, we decided to stay in Bozeman to take our existing research on temperature manipulation a step further. With generous help from a SITKA Ecosystem grant, we purchased 360 individual plants of three native perennials. We then planted them in twelve plots at a Montana State University agricultural farm. Half of the plots were placed under a warming treatment using passive warming structures and gradually increased the temperature below them. The remaining plots acted as a control to compare the effects normal temperatures have on these plants with those under increased temperatures.

Ultimately, the plant data collected will help us better understand how a changing climate affects flowering plants, so we can begin to assess how that may impact pollinators and other species, such as deer and elk. This work will inform land managers and users about the importance of balance and how slight shifts may have cascading effects across the environment.”

Zachary Maguire

“Salmonflies are an important species and their numbers appear to be declining. In Montana’s Madison River, evidence suggests that the giant salmonfly numbers are low. This is likely due to warm, late-summer water temperatures, although other environmental factors such as increased fine sediment or decreased woody debris likely play a role too.

Fish are usually the most notable member of a river community but are only one small piece of the ecosystem. Without a strong insect population, fish would have a hard time finding food. This is where the giant salmonfly plays a pivotal role. Fish expend a lot of energy hunting, and it takes roughly 10-25 other insects combined to equal the energy from one giant salmonfly. So a reduction in salmonflies could have a major impact on stream fish. As both a fisherman and an ecologist, this is a subject that I am driven to research to help inform management decisions.

Fishermen have provided essential data about insect hatches here in Montana. In fact, a certain fly fisherman religiously documented the dates and locations of the salmonfly hatch for many years before ecologists ever investigated it. That historical data helped uncover the intricacies of the changing riverscape where salmonflies are concerned. This highlights to me that almost all fisherman and hunters are ecologists at heart. These important discoveries must continue.

SITKA’s grant is extremely important to my work. It has supported a field experiment aimed to answer the question of how water temperature impacts salmonflies. Due to the size of my study, I needed very specific equiment that’s quite expensive. In the world of academic research, grants are king. With more funds, I’m able to investigate more specific questions, and perform more experiments that deliver meaningful results.“

Kristin Cook

(In field photo: Christopher Guy)

“The western pearlshell is the only native freshwater mussel found in western Montana’s trout streams. Today, they are a rarity and we need to know why.

This mussel serves many important functions to a healthy stream. For example, an adult mussel can filter 20 gallons of water a day, removing viruses, bacteria, and even pharmaceuticals from the water. They also filter algae and excrete nutrient-dense masses for consumption by other organisms (i.e. aquatic insects AKA trout food). Because of this, mussels are directly associated with a healthy trout stream.

Western pearlshell restoration requires basic information on their reproduction and biology. This is currently lacking.

Pearlshells release their larvae into river water where they attach to fish gills and develop to the juvenile stage (the fish are not harmed). Not just any fish will do; mussels require a specific host fish. It’s unknown when western pearlshells release their larvae in Montana streams and which fish species will host the larvae.

I am investigating these unknowns regarding the basic biology of western pearlshells in Montana. In the first year of this study, I found populations where 100% of the mussels were brooding larvae - indicating that individuals produce both sperm and eggs. This would make hatchery production a lot easier.

SITKA Ecosystem Grants has given me the opportunity to investigate hermaphroditism in this species, a key life-history trait that will be important to conserving pearlshells in Montana.”

Emma Grusing

“Bighorn sheep are an iconic symbol of the North American west and inhabit some of the most impressive terrain the region has to offer. During the summer months, the species can be found primarily among rocky peaks with plenty of steep slopes for escape opportunities. However, recent GPS collar data of Montana bighorn sheep females has shown that almost all of the collared sheep make long-distance summer movements (up to 68km) to low elevation sites for a short time before returning to high elevation summer range. Viewing the movements on satellite imagery reveals that the female bighorns are riskily crossing busy roads and through thickly forested areas, likely accompanied by lambs.

My research aims to find the motivation behind such lengthy movements to these low-elevation sites. My research team and I believe that the sites are mineral licks where bighorn sheep eat soil to supplement their diets with trace minerals like sodium, magnesium, and selenium. Mineral licks are essential for the health of bighorn sheep populations, but the travel to them can lead to increased levels of mortality. Through the use of satellite imagery and the low elevation movements in the GPS collar data, I developed a method to identify potential mineral lick sites.

SITKA’s Ecosystem Grant has made the most important aspect of my research possible: collecting soil at the potential mineral lick sites to confirm or deny mineral lick status. This grant has made it feasible to safely travel to these sites, make soil collections, and send the soil to a lab for mineral content analysis. If mineral licks are the driving force behind the extensive summer movements of the collared female bighorn sheep, there is potential for us to eliminate the need for the sheep to travel so far by placing mineral blocks, like those used to supplement livestock, on typical summer range. Furthermore, the SITKA Ecosystem Grant has given me the opportunity to present this research to a broad audience and is helping with the conservation of bighorn sheep by funding projects that are dedicated to promoting healthy herds.”

Kristen Switzer

“We know little about native bee populations in national parks, such as Yellowstone National Park (YNP) which is likely home to hundreds of bee species, and how climate change will alter these communities in the future. Researching the environmental conditions that support different groups of native bees is crucial for understanding patterns in bee biodiversity. This information can bolster efforts to sustain native bee populations into the future and support habitat protection. We can use the knowledge gained from this study to teach the public about the importance of maintaining these species.

My field work takes place in the northern section of the park at seven locations from Gardiner to Mount Washburn. This project builds off of a study conducted over the summer seasons of 2010-2012 coordinated by Ann Rodman, YNP senior scientist. The methods and timeline of the original study are replicated using pan traps to examine environmental drivers of bee communities in different areas and elevations in the park. An additional method, hand netting, was added onto the current study to examine plant-bee interactions across these same field sites. The data from these two studies will be analyzed and compared for changes in patterns over the 10-year time period.

This grant has helped me accomplish my goals by providing funding for a field technician and research supplies. Having a second person with me collecting this data was crucial to the project. Pursuing multiple methods of data collection would have been nearly impossible without assistance, and this ecosystem grant provided that for me. I could focus my energy on collecting quality data instead of worrying about where I would secure funding for necessary components of my work, like research and analysis equipment. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to pursue knowledge about pollinator communities as a result of receiving the ecosystem grant.”

Learn more about SITKA Ecosystem Grants here: