By Allison Mitchell, Wildlife Conservation Biology Assistant, Geoscientists-in-the-Parks (GIP) Participant

After I graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder, I focused all my efforts on finding a job related to wildlife conservation. Never had I thought that the National Park Service (NPS) Geoscientists-in-the-Parks (GIP) Program would lead me to a wildlife position. I often looked on the Geological Society of America (GSA) GeoCorps America website because I wanted to work for the National Park Service, but I always thought the advertised positions were for students interested in paleontology or geology. As luck had it though, there was an opening in the NPS GIP program for a wildlife conservation biology assistant at the National Park Service in Fort Collins, Colorado—the same city where I was about to start my Master’s program at Colorado State University. Even better, the position was in the Wildlife Conservation Branch in the Biological Resources Division of the National Park Service! It was the perfect position to start my career as a wildlife biologist, and before I knew it, I became known as the “bison girl.”

Three Geoscientists-in-the-Parks working in the Biological Resources Division at the regional office in Fort Collins, Colorado. Author is on the right.

My GIP Project Background

To provide you with some background information about my project, a cooperative agreement between the Department of Interior (DOI), NPS, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) was created in 2009 to increase both scientific understanding and shared environmental stewardship relating to the American bison. The goals of this task agreement focus on increasing public support of bison conservation as well as informing researchers and herd managers about the genetics of each federal herd. One of the tasks in the agreement focused on developing a public outreach campaign in order to educate and inspire NPS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and WCS staff members and the public about the long-term conservation of the species. This outreach and education task was where I fit into the picture.

Why study bison?

At the end of the 19th century, the American bison species (Bison bison) was teetering on the brink of extinction. In less than 30 years, their numbers fell from nearly 40 million to less than 1,000 individuals due to irrational hunting practices. Beginning in 1872 at Yellowstone National Park, the DOI helped stop the complete disappearance of the species, and today, the DOI has restored roughly 10,000 conservation bison. In partnership with the NPS, FWS, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), these bison now represent one-third of all bison managed for conservation in North America. Currently, DOI lands support 19 federal bison herds: 10 National Park Service, 7 Fish and Wildlife Service, and 2 Bureau of Land Management.

Bison are an important symbol in the United States. Not only are bison the center feature on the DOI and NPS logos, but they are also culturally imbedded in American history. For over 100 years, the DOI has served as the main national conservation steward of the American bison. NPS recognizes that bison are important, and in the National Park Service 2011 Call to Action, the 26th item focused on restoring bison “back home on the range.”

Main GIP Projects

Bison Bellows

Since the year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of NPS, it seems appropriate that the year should be full of celebrations, especially celebrations about bison conservation. In response,  the Biological Resources Division initiated a 52-week story series highlighting all things bison. The stories will be posted from November 5, 2015 to November 3, 2016 to celebrate the annual National Bison Day. These stories, called “Bison Bellows,” would constitute my main role as a GIP participant. Most of my days at NPS involved writing 500-word stories for the weekly posts on the NPS website. The stories centered on three themes: meeting the herd, meeting the people, and telling the stories.

On November 5, 2015 the first Bison Bellow story was launched as part of a 52-week campaign to celebrate bison. The author of this blog wrote these Bison Bellow stories each week.

“Meeting the herd” stories were a way to introduce all 19 federal herds and share a unique story about each one. From these, I learned everything from bison genetics to management techniques to habitat preservation, and was then able to capture what I learned in a creative story to share with the public. For me, the “meeting the herd” stories were a way to show that while every herd is unique, every herd is contributing to the overall conservation of the species. It did not matter whether the herds were located in Kansas or Canada or if there were 10 animals or over 1,000, each herd has a purpose.

“Meeting the people” stories introduced special people involved in bison conservation. Whether these individuals came from small citizen groups or large federal agencies, each person has contributed in some way to preserve the bison species. These posts were often my favorite ones to write because I was able to interview important people from different parks and organizations. I met the acting superintendent from Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, the genetics guru from FWS, and the executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council. Every story was unique and it made me feel excited to be part of the bison conservation story.

“Telling the stories” captured every aspect of bison and told the hidden stories of the genetic bottleneck they endured, their feeding ecology, and the pros and cons of management. These stories explained why bison conservation is important, the cultural and spiritual connection Native Americans have toward bison, and how historical events influence conservation today.

One of the most fun tasks associated with the creation of the bison bellow stories was designing the bison bellow logo. I used the “paint” application to construct a logo with a bison, the date, and title. The logo was replicated on every story so that people could easily find the stories on the NPS website.

The author of this blog created the Bison Bellow logo that is located on the National Park Service website.

Communication Plan

I sometimes find it funny that I was also responsible for helping develop a strategic communication plan. Before I started as a GIP, I did not know what a #hashtag was or how to write Facebook posts, and I definitely did not know how to pull analytics from social media accounts. Today however, I can confidently say I know how to do all those things and actually enjoy doing it! In conjunction with the task agreement, it was necessary to develop a science communications approach that would help federal agencies, NGOs, and tribes inform a wide variety of audiences about bison conservation. To do this, one of my responsibilities involved working with the Assistant Web Master and Communication Specialist at the Office of Education and Outreach in the Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate. Together, we started creating a draft communication plan that will be based on social media analytics provided by the 19 federal units that have bison herds. The final plan will include a summary about what information parks were posting about bison on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and will be used to assess current messaging strategies and possible opportunities to help develop and refine messages.

Bison Roundup

One of the best experiences I had as a GIP was being able to go to a bison roundup at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver, Colorado. Seventy years ago, the United States Army used the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (which was not a refuge at the time) to produce nerve gas, incendiary weaponry, and to dump chemical materials. In the late 1980s, it was declared as one of Earth’s most polluted pieces of land! Today however, it is home to over 330 species including a bison herd. Since the refuge is located ten minutes from Denver and is completely surrounded by development, bison management is intensive. The herd is rounded-up annually to test for diseases and limit population growth.

Last year, on December 8, 2015, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal rounded-up the bison herd to gather animals that had been selected for donation to the Crane Trust–a bison conservation organization–and for disease monitoring. I was able to participate in the roundup and watched as they processed over 60 animals.

Reflections of My GIP Experience

Throughout my time as a GIP, I was also attending Colorado State University to receive my Master’s degree in Conservation Leadership (CLTL). This program focuses on multi-dimensions and experimental learning to analyze and understand complex and dynamic conservation issues around the world. I gained a strong understanding of conservation, leadership, and management while learning about stakeholder engagement, multi-level views, and social-ecological systems.

Everything I seemed to be learning in my CLTL courses seemed to appear in my work as a GIP. For example, stakeholder engagement is a key component of bison conservation. Since bison have large home ranges and require large landscapes, multiple stakeholders must be involved in their management. It is important to have representation from state and federal agencies, NGOs, tribes, private landowners, and the public. Also, bison are truly living in a complex and dynamic social-ecological system. Societal and ecological problems are both systemic and related to management—they are deep-rooted and interrelated processes that occur across different scales (Halliday and Glaser, 2011). Bison management is intertwined with both societal pressures and ecological functions. The natural movement of bison is restricted due do a human-dominated landscapes, human development is decreasing viable habitat for free-ranging bison herds, and people are concerned about bison-livestock interactions. Bison conservation is extremely complex and varies for every herd in every location.

The author at the quarterly regional wildlife meeting with members from the Wildlife Conservation Branch and wildlife Health Branch.

At the beginning of my GIP service, I knew very little about bison and bison conservation. I often passed a privately owned herd along I-70, the major highway in Colorado leading to the Rocky Mountains. I had seen a couple of bison when I visited Yellowstone National Park, but besides that, my knowledge about bison was extremely limited. However, I had an incredible mentor, Glenn Plumb, who’s passion is bison. He taught me everything—from their behavior to their foraging ecology to their current conservation status. Besides bison-related information, he truly took the time to talk to me about conservation as a whole. A statement I will always remember Glenn saying is “conservation is inconvenient.” He said that our goals need us to work harder and dig deeper. We cannot focus on surface-level and “convenient” problems. Conservation is not about the feel-good stories, but rather about issues that make people uncomfortable and challenge us. We must address not only the items we are currently practicing, but also the ones we are not.

The author and another Geoscientists-in-the-Parks take notes at the quarterly regional wildlife meeting.

The GIP experience was incredibly rewarding because I was able to incorporate my Master’s degree into my work and see firsthand how NPS manages such a multifaceted issue and species. Through the GIP program, I realized that communication is extremely important in the conservation field. It is vital that NPS and scientists share their work to the public and other conservationists. I also realized how important relationship and trust building is in conservation issues. I worked with some many different people from many different agencies and organizations and without their help, I know I would not have completed everything I did. Also, I realized how complex species conservation truly is. Before I started, I thought conservation was more natural resource and hard science-focused. Now I understand that conservation is about species, ecosystems, policies, society, historical, and cultural factors. Most importantly, I realized how special and amazing bison are. We truly need to preserve and conserve this iconic species. After this internship, I will forever be a bison-enthusiast!

Work Cited

Halliday, A. and M. Glaser. 2011. A Management Perspective on Social Ecological Systems: A generic system model and its application to a case study from Peru. Human Ecology Review 18 (1).

NOTE FROM GSA: The GIP program is run by NPS, in partnership with the Geological Society of America and Environmental Stewards. The GIP program is accepting applications for fall/winter positions until July 1.

The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.