An organization built on success:

The Yellowstone Ecological Research Center has an excellent track record performing applicable science and providing scientific advice for a broad range of groups. Whether it is advising Yellowstone National Park decision makers on bison migration or providing consulting and technical advice for local Native American Tribal College ecology programs, YERC has successfully implemented scientific results into actionable management and learning opportunities.

Adaptive Ecology isn't about doing research for research's sake: it's about translating the best available science into actionable outcomes protecting ecosystem assets. At YERC, we strive to make sure our work goes beyond the technical journals and all the way to the conference tables of the policy-makers, the shop talk of resource managers in the field, and the newsfeeds of regular people around the world. And since 1993, we've succeeded at informing policy, providing tools for resource managers, and getting people talking about the issues affecting their ecosystems by collaborating with agencies and other institutions in various public-private partnerships.

Our success over the past 15 years is a testament to the quality research and outreach YERC has performed. The science and research performed by YERC staff and students has been directly applied to the management of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and beyond.

Here are just a few of our success stories:

Modeling Bison Migration:

The National Park Service had a problem.

Bison migrating from Yellowstone National Park to lower, drier "winter range" were causing conflicts with the park's neighbors as they potentially carried the risk of disease transmission to domestic livestock, posed a human safety hazard, and caused property damage—one can imagine what a 2,000 pound bull can do to someone's fence, garden, or automobile. Responding to these conflicts by hazing bison back into the park or even culling the herd in turn poses its own risks for the conservation of the species, brought back from a few dozen individuals left in Yellowstone at the end of the 19th Century to over 4,000 head in the park today. And that is to say nothing of the ethical concerns of applying such aggressive management to a wild species, especially by an agency whose own policy urges against intervention in natural processes. One thing was for sure: bison that leave the park in the winter quickly become a national and even international issue resulting in massive media coverage. Yellowstone and its bison needed help.

For effective management that both conserves bison and other park resources as well as avoids conflicts outside the park, wildlife managers in Yellowstone needed to understand what was driving this winter migration. They also needed tools that could apply that knowledge to predict if and when bison would leave the park.

For solutions, they came to YERC.

Bob Crabtree took the phone call from the head wildlife biologist whose boss—the park superintendent—was demanding answers to the bison migration question. Even though they had individual and herd count data reaching back over 20 years from 2010, they were missing the environmental data needed to analyze how the population reacted to changes over that time and predict how it would respond to future changes. Over the phone, Bob and the park biologist quickly identified the most likely drivers affecting winter migration from the park: bison herd density, snowpack restricting access to forage, and the amount of forage available under the snow. Based on YERC's federally funded work modeling snow and above-ground forage biomass availability, Bob then came up with a plan to use field data, models, and satellite imagery to reconstruct historic environmental conditions corresponding with the park's bison population dataset.

Solving this problem became an opportunity for YERC to collaborate with not just the National Park Service but also the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies through the NASA Earth Science Applied Science Program. YERC took the lead on developing a suite of free, online, user-friendly tools granting access to a treasury of data and allowing users to to predict changes to species and their habitats through statistically powerful "what if?" scenarios using computationally complex models. And all of this could be done on the users' own personal computers as opposed to the computer mainframes needed to house the massive datasets necessary for such landscape-scale analyses.

Bob also reached out to a colleague, senior scientist Dr. Chris Potter at the NASA Ames Research Center, with whom he pulled together funding, staff time, and graduate student support to build and deliver these products to Yellowstone National Park and its staff of scientists. Together, a public-private partnership was formed.

A suite of tools developed with grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and others—the Ecosystem Assessment, Geospatial analysis, and Landscape Evaluation System (EAGLES) and the Custom Online Aggregation and Summarization Tool for Environmental Rasters (COASTER)—were likewise put to use on the bison question. Using the park's bison data, snow and vegetation data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor flown on NASA's Terra satellite and the park's bison, and the EAGLES tool, researchers were able to identify thresholds in the bison population density, snow depth, and vegetative growth triggering the seasonal migration.

These results were published in a scholarly article, "Predicting bison migration out of Yellowstone National Park using Bayesian models," in a prestigious journal, PLoS ONE. They were also featured in a NASA publication on its Applied Science Program that went on to describe how the tools could likewise be used by other federal and state agencies as well as tribal governments, universities, and non-governmental organizations focused on conservation.

Another example of a successful public-private partnership highlighted in that article was when the Fish and Wildlife Service's Migratory Bird Program used COASTER to help understand how waterfowl were reacting to climate change. As with the bison analysis, these tools were used to reconstruct historical habitat conditions for comparison to the program's longterm waterfowl dataset. And at the service's request, we also created a data product for "percent surface water"—a critical and dynamic factor for waterfowl. YERC's NSF-funded post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Dan Weiss, developed a product mapping the change in surface water every eight days between 2000 through 2009 for every 500-meter pixel across the entire continent.

By identifying how waterfowl responded to past environmental changes and predicting how waterfowl would respond to anticipated changes such as warmer, drier conditions in the birds' migratory flyways, the service improved not only its waterfowl harvest models but also its adaptive monitoring strategies.

With this analysis, the impact of our work reached far beyond the Yellowstone National Park boundaries. Indeed, natural communities like migratory birds existing on a continental scale epitomize transboundary conservation issues as they cross between different land ownership parcels, different resource management agencies, different states and even different countries. Tools like EAGLES and COASTER foster better conservation of such wide-ranging species as well as better cooperation between all the partners jointly tasked with their management.

These are just a handful of examples of our collaborations with natural resource agencies to inform adaptive, science-based policy decisions. And EAGLES and COASTER continue to be available free online, where managers and researchers around the world continue to use them to solve conservation problems.

Changing ecosystems, changing perceptions: telling the story of grizzlies, gophers, and thistles in Yellowstone through a scientist's own observations.

YERC founder Bob Crabtree knew right away that the evolution of a new ecosystem he was observing in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley would be big news. That's why he went straight to the New York Times.

In March 2008, Jim Robbin's article, "In a warmer Yellowstone Park, a shifting environmental balance," described how the proliferation of an invasive plant—the Canada thistle—was a boon for northern pocket gophers: mini-landscape engineers that till the soil to the benefit of thick-rooted plants like the thistle, effectively farming the plants they like to eat. This in turn benefited grizzly bears that dig up the gopher's painstakingly stocked larders—and sometimes the gophers themselves as well. As once marshy areas in the Lamar dried out with a drought beginning in the 2000s, the thistle, pocket gophers, and grizzly bears spread across the landscape.

After walking through the Lamar with Bob, Jim was able to capture the complexity of the new ecosystem in his widely read article as well as the look and feel of the valley itself.

It was a realtime, realworld example of how climate change was impacting a pristine ecosystem, and how that ecosystem was responding. It was a story that illustrated the seriousness of climate change as well as the wonders of nature and science.

It was also an unconventional way for a scientist to go public with a finding: at the conception of an idea rather than at the end of the rigorous process of data collection, hypothesis testing, and review. Yet the plausibility of the idea was corroborated by other scientists quoted in the article. And the ecological components of this new ecosystem—the relationship between grizzlies and gophers, that between gophers and the plants they eat, the adaptability of grizzly feeding behavior across their vast landscape—are well documented in the scientific literature. As policymakers considered removing U.S. Endangered Species Act protection for the bears, Bob felt that his observations were worthy of immediate attention. He also felt confident in their credibility, knowing they would be backed up by the research he called for.

Scientists are often afraid of losing their credibility by broaching the thin line between researching conservations issues and advocating for the issues they are researching. Even more, they are afraid of being wrong. And perhaps rightly so: Paul Voosen's Greenwire article, "Scientists struggle with limits—and risks—of advocacy," describes social science experiments involving the work of well known climate change scientists and advocates. They find that the general public does indeed perceive a well defined, and often preconceived, boundary of what scientists are and are not allowed to say and do in the public eye. The article even quotes one scientist warning others to be cautious of their opinions as private citizens, much less as representatives of research organizations deeply involved in the issues.

But this is an unhealthy and unfair relationship between science and society. For everyday people to become involved in science, they need to think like scientists: they need to observe, question, and always be open to new ideas. And for science to be open and accessible to everyday people, it needs to open up about the scientific process, not just the results.

Errors, unknowns, assumptions, and biases are things that all scientists deal with everyday, yet admitting their existence to the public is treated as taboo. Alternative hypotheses are likewise hidden from view, and with them the reality of greater complexity than even these great scientists are capable of understanding, much less describing.

So rather than go along with this unhealthy relationship, Adaptive Ecologists need to be upfront about their work from start to finish, inviting others to observe, comment, and contribute at any stage. You never know what kind of novel ideas may come from an unexpected direction, or what new connections can lead to impactful research. The public likewise needs to break down the barriers banning scientists from our common discourse and isolating science from our everyday lives. Transparency and involvement are needed for that to happen.

We will continue to make our research transparent and available to everyone from the first observations in the field to its final tested and peer-reviewed outcome. And even though this may have seemed unconventional almost a decade ago, we are not alone today. In February 2016, Nobel Prize laureate biologist Carol Greider published her findings online before a traditional scholarly journal, a new trend with a growing acceptance that Amy Harmon wrote about in another New York Times article, "Handful of biologists went rogue and published directly to Internet."

As Bob was describing the "new ecosystem" to the newspaper writer back in 2008, they had no way of knowing that they themselves were part of a new and evolving social system driven by the interaction of people and science.

A pocket gopher hole.

So rather than go along with this unhealthy relationship, Adaptive Ecologists need to be upfront about their work from start to finish, inviting others to observe, comment, and contribute at any stage. You never know what kind of novel ideas may come from an unexpected direction, or what new connections can lead to impactful research. The public likewise needs to break down the barriers banning scientists from our common discourse and isolating science from our everyday lives. Transparency and involvement are needed for that to happen.

We will continue to make our research transparent and available to everyone from the first observations in the field to its final tested and peer-reviewed outcome. And even though this may have seemed unconventional almost a decade ago, we are not alone today. In February 2016, Nobel Prize laureate biologist Carol Greider published her findings online before a traditional scholarly journal, a new trend with a growing acceptance that Amy Harmon wrote about in another New York Times article, "Handful of biologists went rogue and published directly to Internet."

As Bob was describing the "new ecosystem" to the newspaper writer back in 2008, they had no way of knowing that they themselves were part of a new and evolving social system driven by the interaction of people and science.

Native American Outreach

Yellowstone Ecological Research Center has collaborated and worked with several Montana Tribal Community Colleges. Our work with Native American Students has been a source of great pride and a very fulfilling experience.

During the summer of 2012 YERC held a workshop for all 7 Montana Tribal Colleges. This workshop provided the opportunity for Tribal College students and staff to visit the YERC Lab in Bozeman to learn about YERC research. The workshop also entailed student seminar sessions, where students worked alongside YERC staff to learn new geospatial research techniques and tools.

The results of this workshop were a couple of new collaborations. YERC staff worked with the Blackfeet Community College to perform an ecosystem assessment of their reservation. This project involved Native American students performing field work to measure ecological variables and then developing assessments on their reservation.

This work directly resulted in an assessment of the Pacific Northwest 5-state region (WA, OR, ID, MT, WY). These assessments reviewed several long term climate and ecological variables and how they relate with Net Primary Productivity. This assessment helped Native American students see the understand the relationship between climate and ecosystems and learn how to use our COASTER data system.

Following the workshop, an instructor from Chief Dull Knife Community College on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation approached YERC staff about the development of a GIS and Remote Sensing Course. Working with YERC staff member Steve Jay and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Chief Dull Knife College obtained an instructional license for ESRI ArcGIS software. YERC staff then assisted the instructor in developing a teaching plan and curriculum to teach Native Students GIS and remote sensing.

Saving "Grace": an ecological detective story

Beyond just their subject species and study area, ecologists want their work to have a big impact on science and society as a whole. But on occasion, we have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individuals too. That was the case with "Grace."

Was she a coyote? a dog? some kind of hybrid? Other suggestions ranged from a hyena to the mythological chupacabra. All that was known was that the animal was suffering from mange—a skin condition resulting in hair loss—that she was under the care of concerned neighbors in Little Rock, Arkansas, who caught her prowling around their backyards, and that her fate depended on identifying her species. Under state law, native wild animals, like coyotes, could not be cared for by veterinarians, in which case animals in Grace's condition would typically be euthanized by state wildlife management officers. That is not what these "citizen stewards" wanted for the animal they had named and were trying to save.

Scouring the Internet for anyone who could, and would, help, Jill Martin came across Bob Crabtree's work on coyotes and called us here at YERC. Although buried under other projects and deadlines, the mystery of identifying Grace was an irresistible distraction. The pleading call for help coming from these folks in Arkansas was not easily ignored either.

So we put our skills and connections to work, providing a survey of distinctive morphological measurements: how long are her canine teeth? how wide are her molars? how thick is her nosepad? We also discussed photos of her with wild canine experts across the country—again, the results were mixed—and coordinated a genetic analysis that would provide the best answers to the question. When the genetic report came back, we interpreted the results—she was mostly coyote, but about 13% of her ancestry came from domestic dogs—and helped them make the case to the state that Grace therefore qualified as a coyote hybrid and not a pure, native coyote. Additional evidence, including her docile behavior like allowing people to put fingers in her mouth to measure her teeth, was used to successfully convince the state that Grace was a hybrid.

We then suggested Jill contact wildlife advocacy groups like Project Coyote for help with rehabilitating the animal, which led to Grace being accepted at a sanctuary in Texas. After the nine hour drive to the sanctuary wrapped in a blanket in the back of a neighbor's car and a couple weeks of treatment, Grace's hair started growing back and her behavior started becoming more natural. The sanctuary's owner even predicted that she would be recovered enough to join the rest of the sanctuary's animals sooner than expected, pointing out that she was starting to look and act very much like a coyote.

This good news was shared with Grace's many supporters—who now extended beyond Arkansas and the YERC office to include researchers and advocates across the country from coast to coast—on Christmas Day 2015. Today, Grace continues to thrive at the sanctuary as well as in the hearts of those Arkansas neighbors.

Even though YERC has many success stories from our work with agencies, universities, and other institutions affecting conservation policy in the natural landscape as well as at decision-making tables and within the interdisciplinary fields of science, we likewise value stories like these.

Here we also used the best available science to solve a real problem between nature and society, but this time it was everyday people, not a federal agency or other big institution, that called us for help. Here the impact of our work was also important to others, but this time it affected a single animal and one Arkansas neighborhood, not a population of animals or their ecosystem. Here our knowledge and skills and resources were also put to the test, but this time addressing the immediate future of one animal, not the longterm future of an entire species.

Although we generally seek projects with a bigger impact, the photos that Jill periodically sends of Grace recovering at the sanctuary along with the heartfelt thanks of herself and her neighbors are enough to know that solving this mystery was time and energy well spent. You can read more about this and other success stories on our new blog, the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center Journal.

Benchmarking Ecosystems

Diagnostic Indicators and Predictions of Biodiversity Health

Benchmarking Ecosystems is a science-based process developed by YERC that assesses the health of an ecosystem to develop a long-term care plan for recovery, restoration, and sustained resilience—as a health care provider does for a patient. The concept first emerged from a book chapter written by Crabtree and Sheldon (2012) where parallels are drawn between human health and a large regional ecosystem. Thus, a benchmark ecosystem is diagnosed with a gradient measure of multiple ecological indicators, or health tests, in order to derive prognostics—projections, what-if- scenarios, and ecological forecasts—to recover ecosystem structure and function and create ecosystems with healthy, resilient immune systems. It does not require an ecosystem in a pristine state but instead seeks to measure and monitor a cadre of ecological indicators across many ecosystems to comparatively define a healthy ‘well normal state’. It also allows for customized metrics that reflect unique impacts and properties of the individual ecosystem in question. This is similar to human medicine where diagnostics like blood pressure, serum parameters, reflex, and stress tests are used to identify disease, toxins, stressors, and other impacts to the ecosystems of the human body. Then prognoses follow whereby detrimental environmental and human impacts to ecosystems can be suppressed, mitigated, or eliminated in order to improve ecosystem health and ecological integrity. In adaptive ecology such diagnostics and predictive prognostics take the form of measuring and monitoring diagnostics—called ecological indicators—over space, time, and level of biodiversity—from genes to species to communities—to determine cause and consequence. This results in ecological forecasts of how actions can act like therapies and prescriptions to restore habitats and recover species populations, all culminating in a sustained ecological health care plan.

Metrics of Benchmarking: Ecological Indicators (EIs) of Health

The concept of ecological indicators has been the focus of hundreds of studies and conferences for over 50 years. They have been widely adopted as means to cost-effectively sample plant and animal communities to gauge the health, integrity, and condition of ecosystems worldwide. For species indicators—there are also indicator processes (fire, production, flooding, migration)—there are a variety of related terms such as keystone, umbrella, surrogate, focal, flagship, and vital sign. The all have a common conservation theme whereby we “put individual species to work” as sampling sentinels on the landscape and analyze measurements with proven technologies and approaches. Examples range from the simple (e.g., percent of original carnivore species present today) to the complex where a biologist might radio collar an individual deer to determine what habitats it selects or avoids as it migrates from its summer to winter range. At YERC, we’ve developed a wide range of indicators that are low-cost or freely available, accessible over the continental scale, standardized, and user-friendly.

Indicator Applications for Benchmarking Ecosystems

  1. Based on the success of previous ecological indicator applications (some below) we were asked by the NSF-funded Mountain Socio-Ecological Observatory Network (MtnSEON) to provide an assessment of not only ecological indicators but include interrelated socio-economic indicators to assess the resiliency of mountain communities in the Pacific Northwest.

  2. We were funded by a joint coalition of agencies and organizations called the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC) to examine the effect of climate change using several species indicators.

  3. We presented a statewide analysis of Alaska using NPP as an ecosystem indicator and further provided early-warning predictions of how climate change (warming and drought) might impact resiliency—the ability to regenerate forests after wildfire.

  4. Using coyotes as an indicator species, we successfully predicted altered movement and habitat use patterns after death (by humans) of an alpha male that caused temporary dissolution of the pack.

  5. Perhaps our most impacting analysis that showcases the power of collaborative partnerships is our ecological forecasting of the impact of white pine blister rust on a keystone species, whitebark pine—an essential food source for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

  6. YERC was contacted by ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) to showcase our NASA-funded ecological forecasting work in their book GeoDesign about utilizing GIS for regional planning. We chose pronghorn as an indicator of habitat change and build predictive models or What-if- Scenarios to project or predict their response to human impacts on their habitats (build a road or remove sagebrush).

  7. We have many other examples including the examination of the 100-year drought that hit Yellowstone National Park from 2001-04 using Net Primary Production (NPP). This approach was then applied to effects of drought on plant productivity across the entire 5-state PNW and northern Rockies due or our extensive COASTER database system.


Our Benchmarking Ecosystems project along with the development of key ecological indicators allows decision-makers—ecosystem health professionals—the opportunity to craft adaptation strategies to environmental impacts, both human and natural. With your support and our experience, we plan to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem a model for how adaptive ecology can restore habitats and recover species populations to sustain resilient ecosystems. Preserving and sustaining our natural assets and amenities is a goal of conservation, however, ecosystems are facing unprecedented change from the interaction of increasing human activities and climate change. We must now use science to craft collaborative, proactive, action-based plans that underpin future policy formation if we are to save life on earth.