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Research in Montana: O’Dowd Students Partner with National Parks Service



The crunching of snow echoes in the Montana clearing. Twelve O’Dowd juniors and seniors trek through the forests and grasslands of Greater Yellowstone, watching for evidence of hooved mammals, like elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. They are conducting field research on behalf of the National Parks Services (NPS), tracking the herds that move through this diverse ecosystem.

“Our Montana Field Trip is an academically rigorous opportunity,” shares Tim Newman, Science Department Chair. “Our students follow the herds that move through Yellowstone, collect data, and analyze their patterns.” This research gives the National Parks Service a clear understanding of the animal populations living within the system. “Like any other ecosystem, there is a delicate balance between the various plants and animals living here,” explains Tim. “If one population significantly increases or reduces, it affects the other life in the habitat.”



The National Park Service has already tagged many of the herds, and students use that location data to plan their observation locations – donning snowshoes to hike into heavy snows, where they watch the elk, bison, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep with telescopes, counting the young. The students record all their population data into the National Park Service system, including their findings from the scat the herd leaves behind. “It’s really fun learning how to use the telemetry equipment to actually track animals in the wild,” says Nathan Pompeani ’23. “This experience has inspired me to apply for field research summer internships!”



Back in the cabin, students work in teams to analyze their data. Each group takes on a different question to study throughout the week. “During the first few days we noticed that we were counting a lot more female bison than male bison,” says Nathan. “We decided to look more closely at the gender ratio from the past year’s population counts to see if it changed between seasons.”


These types of advanced research projects require multi-year data. In addition to their own findings, O’Dowd students also have access to the databases of previous student researchers, including O’Dowd alumni, dating back to 2008. “By having access to data that spans over 13 years, students are able to connect their research with the larger study,” explains Tim. “One of the groups compared the bison population to the annual precipitation in the area to see if the water levels affected the population.”



Throughout the trip, students work hard to preserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, making an effort to “leave no trace.” Their experiences are often life-changing, deeply affecting their relationship with nature, and giving them a profoundly different perspective of the world they live in. “Not all of the students go on to study biology in college,” reflects Tim. “But they all have a greater understanding of the impact they can make in this world.”


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