Firebrand Pass Rocky Mountain Goat, Oreamnos americanus, Anya Jingle photo Pika (Rock Rabbit), Ochotona princeps, thephotohiker photo Clark's Nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana, rfbolton photo
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An interesting project has been underway in Glacier National Park, located in Northwestern Montana, over the past few years. In participation with the National Park Service’s Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center volunteers have been hiking to 36 mountain goat and 20 pika survey sites to count the populations in the park as well as document opportunistic observations of Clark's Nutcrackers.
The project called Citizen Science utilizes trained volunteers to collect scientific information that would otherwise be unavailable due to lack of personnel or funding. Glacier National Park’s citizen science program was established in 2005 to help resource managers address the need for baseline information and monitoring.
Citizen science projects generally are low in cost, engage large numbers of people to gather large datasets, use non-invasive monitoring methods as well as educate participants about resource issues. The volunteers get to contribute to the stewardship of the park and gain a greater appreciation of the park and its resources. The park is benefitted by the gathering of base-line data about these species. Most volunteers are from the local area and are frequent visitors to the park.
The Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center is currently facilitating three Citizen Science Projects which involve extensive back-country surveys to collect data on the number and distribution of three species of concern for Glacier National Park: Rocky Mountain Goats, Pikas, and Clark's Nutcrackers. This particular study is called the High Country Citizen Science project.
Each volunteer is required to complete class room and field-based training sessions where they learn about species identification, management concerns, and how to observe and document observations of each species.
They also learn how to use field equipment such as spotting scopes, compasses and GPS units.
During the field based training they travel as a group to a site and work together at following the proper guidelines to ensure that data is being collected in the same manner. This group is made up of both citizen scientists as well as park personnel. They are also asked to quietly count their observations of goats or pikas. At the end of the prescribed time they are allowed to compare their counts.
Gridlines and Glassing:
Dancing Lady Mountain from the observation point Is that a goat or a tree?
This particular day I was privileged to tag along with my neighbor Tom who is a junior high science teacher. Our objective was a UTM coordinate located near Firebrand Pass in the southern section of Glacier National Park near Marias Pass. Upon arrival there we were to glass then use a spotting scope to identify the total number of mountain goats as well as identify their sex.
According to the Glacier National park website, little is known about how mountain goats will adapt to warmer average temperatures and other habitat level changes. Concerns about the stability of Glacier’s mountain goat population have arisen due to a decline in recent years in the number of mountain goats using a large mineral lick.
The hike to the UTM point was uneventful until we ran across grizzly tracks within 500 feet of the trailhead. Traveling through grizzly country can be intimidating to some backcountry users but I have always believed the bears want to see us a lot less than we want to see them. We made a lot of noise and had an uneventful 3.5 mile trip to the designated observation point below Firebrand Pass.
Arrival at the coordinates was met with a strong wind from the southwest. We quickly identified the north-south compass points with landmarks and then divided each of those sections into east-west lines as well. This produced four observation quadrants. The task at hand was to glass each quadrant for 15 minutes to identify the total number of goats as well as identify their sex if possible. This procedure was repeated in all four quadrants. After each observation all data is recorded on the observation report sheet which would be turned in when we retuned to park headquarters.
After glassing each quadrant and using the spotting scope to check out the “tree-goats” we concluded that there were no goats to be seen from this observation point. Perhaps the herd was somewhere else out of sight or perhaps they only use this area during ceratin times of the year. We did observe a cow elk in one of the quadrants.
Apparently there is a pika observation site near this area as well. If we would have had time we could have counted there as well. During those observations the Citizen Scientists are also asked to photograph “hay piles” and collect Pika scat for scientific study at the lab. We did not pick up any pika poop for the lab there was a mountain to climb.
The experience was enjoyable and quite enlightening about how much country there is in Glacier National Park’s backcounty. There are a lot of places for animals to hide.
After the observation, we summitted Calf Robe Mountain and found mountain goat tracks and droppings that did indeed confirm that there are goats in the area. We also observed 18 Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep during our descent down the Northeast Ridge Route.
An Ongoing Project:
Bearhead Mountain from the observation point. Another view of the Firebrand Pass area from the observation point.
Although data is just now being collected for the 2009 season during the 2008 season 86 High Country Citizen Science volunteers completed 186 mountain goat surveys at locations throughout the park, with a goal of surveying each site at least three times.
On August 15-17, 2008, 46 High Country Citizen Scientists took part in the first annual Mountain Goat Days population count when surveys were completed at all mountain goat sites to develop a snapshot of the population in these representative areas. Mountain Goat Days volunteers were also stationed at strategic locations to help to ground-truth aerial surveys conducted by park biologists during that same weekend.
High Country Citizen Scientists have also completed 59 pika surveys at the 20 official survey sites and 20 new pika sites have been discovered and documented. Over 44 Clark’s Nutcrackers observations have also been documented.
If you are interested volunteering your services in a Citizen Scientist project contact your favorite National Park and ask if they have a Citizen Scientist program.