Yellowstone the focus of bio-blitz

Posted 8/27/09

The event is being called a bio-blitz. The concept has been used to document the biological diversity of a number of smaller parks around the nation, but now makes its way to the crown jewel of America's national park system.

“Other park …

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Yellowstone the focus of bio-blitz


Day-long event seeks to document park's biological diversityApproximately 80 academics and scores of additional National Park Service employees and volunteers will scour a segment of Yellowstone National Park on Friday. Their goal: Document every plant and animal species observed over that period of time.

The event is being called a bio-blitz. The concept has been used to document the biological diversity of a number of smaller parks around the nation, but now makes its way to the crown jewel of America's national park system.

“Other park service units have done this, but we've never done one in Yellowstone National Park,” said Ann Rodman, geographic information systems specialist for Yellowstone. “To be honest, we're really not sure what to expect.”

While the park conducts annual surveys for its larger mammal species such as elk and bison, Rodman notes that many of the smaller lifeforms living within Yellowstone National Park have somehow slipped through the cracks throughout the years.

“Part of the reason we don't know what we'll find is because nobody has ever looked before,” notes Rodman. “The small and in-between sized species have never been the focus of research until now. There's a potential to find lots of species that haven't been found simply because this will be the first time anyone has ever looked for them.”

Helping to oversee the search is Kayhan Ostovar, assistant professor of environmental science and biology at Rocky Mountain College. Ostovar has participated in and helped to organize other bio-blitz events, including one along the banks of the Yellowstone River near Billings to document how the biology of the region had changed since the original Lewis and Clark expedition.

“One of the benefits of the bio-blitz is that it is a good way to see if more research is warranted,” notes Ostovar.

“What we're doing is taking a snapshot in time. Not only can that open our eyes to things we weren't previously aware of, but it gives us a benchmark we can come back to years down the road and see how the park eco-system has changed.”

While Ostovar has organized and participated in previous bio-blitzes, Yellowstone's size — 2.1 million acres — and its wide range of terrain types and habitat zones create a special challenge to researchers who have just a 24-hour window and limited manpower. Concessions had to be made in certain areas.

“We're going to focus on the areas of the park where knowledge is currently lacking,” said Ostovar. “We drew a boundary in terms of where we could access within 24 hours and that didn't put us in any dangerous places, but still provided an abundance of different elevations and eco-systems to sample from.”

As a result, the bio-blitz will focus on an area in the northwestern portion of the park. Researchers will fan out along a corridor that begins at Yellowstone's North Entrance at Gardiner, Mont., and continues south to the area around the park's headquarters in Mammoth all the way to the Indian Creek campground area.

For the most part, the search will be confined to the park's road corridor to enable an easy insertion and extraction of research and survey teams.

“We're really limited in what we can find and where we can search, but we have a diverse range of teams that will be out looking,” said Ostovar.

For instance, Ostovar notes one team will be comprised of bat specialists. Another team represents some of the western United States' leading academics on the subject of fungi. A group of owl experts will brave Yellowstone in the overnight hours to collect data. Botanists from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service will conduct plant samples. Other teams will observe butterflies.

One major area of focus for the bio-blitz teams, however, will be insects. Life forms like grasshoppers, bees, ants, worms and, yes, mosquitos make up a significant part of the Yellowstone eco-system. They also represent a vital link in the food chain for many of the national park's more well-known larger species.

“Yet we know almost nothing about them,” Rodman said. “They play a big role in the park's eco-system, but nobody has ever really done a study on them.”

“This is a first for Yellowstone National Park, so it's pretty exciting,” said Ostovar. “I expect we'll discover some new species as a result.”

Research teams will attempt to identify as many plant and animal species as possible during the 24-hour period.

Things which can't be definitively identified in the field will be categorized as unknown species and shipped to specialists for proper identification. Data will also be turned over to the park's Heritage Research Center, where it will be available for future researchers.

“We're hoping this lays the groundwork for doing more in the future,” said Rodman.

The bio-blitz isn't just for academic types, however. Members of the public will be able to visit with some of the researchers during a program sponsored by the Yellowstone Association on Saturday. A tent will be set up near the park headquarters in Mammoth from noon-3 p.m.

“There's definitely a public education component to this project as well,” Rodman said. “We want people to know just how complex the park eco-system is.”