Montana TripOn Monday, April 23, 14 Nueva eleventh graders and two chaperones (upper school teachers Mark Hurwitz and Lily Brown), embarked on an immersive learning trip to Montana to study the intersection between private land and wildlife conservation. In keeping with Nueva’s Trips program, this journey was tied to students’ eleventh-grade American Studies curriculum, which focuses on American history and literature. This is Lily's account of their experience.


Our first stop was the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), where students gathered around giant maps of Montana with Julie Cunningham, a wildlife biologist who manages and conserves herds of wild animals, including elk and bison, in and around Bozeman and the greater Yellowstone area. Julie explained the fascinating interface between conservationists and hunters and fishers. Not only do hunting and fishing licenses help fund conservation efforts, but two acts, the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act and the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act, both generate conservation funds through excise taxes paid by the hunting, boating, and angling industries.

Julie also taught us about the ways that private and public lands affect wild animals. Because herds of animals often migrate from higher to lower elevations in the winter months, they move across both public and private land. As a result, government agencies like FWP must work cooperatively with private landowners to conserve Montana’s native wildlife.

Tuesday and Wednesday

Our conversation with Julie paved the way for our activities for the rest of the week. On Tuesday, we visited Kathryn Kelly at her family’s ranch. Kathryn acts as the Greater Yellowstone Manager for the Montana Land Reliance (MLR), an organization that works with private landowners to protect agricultural lands, fish and wildlife habitat, and open space in perpetuity through conservation easements.

After a talk with Kathryn about the MLR’s work, we toured her ranch, itself under a conservation easement. We saw fascinating historical sites, including a “Buffalo Jump,” a cliff formation used by native Americans to hunt buffalo in large quantities, as well as a historic barn built when Montana was still frontier land in the 19th century.

Tuesday afternoon, we headed into the wilderness, bumping down a private dirt road on our way to the Jack Creek Preserve, 4,500 acres of conserved land that provides a connection between two parts of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, creating a wildlife corridor where animals can migrate through undeveloped lands from Yellowstone National Park to the Madison Mountain Range and further north.

“I loved staying at the Jack Creek Preserve," said Shiley E. "It felt like we were completely in the wilderness and surrounded by all kinds of animals.” Indeed, because we were in grizzly territory, students were trained in using bear spray so they could safely venture away from the Preserve’s main building!

On Wednesday, Abi King, executive director of the Jack Creek Preserve, and Dottie Fossel, the Preserve’s co-founder, talked to us about the unique function of conserved land as wildlife habitat and told us about new plans for the Preserve, including a conservation field school for educators.

Audrey C. spoke about our visit at Jack Creek from Kris Inman, a wolverine expert. “My favorite activity was definitely our talk with the wolverine wildlife biologist Kris! I found it extremely interesting to hear about the tracking and monitoring of wolverine populations in the Montana mountains, but most importantly I learned how actual wolverines function outside of the media's portrayal of these creatures.”

Many of us were awed by Kris’s work, which involves traveling to wolverine habitat. Wolverines all live above 7,000 feet — where she and her team build traps in the snow to temporarily detain wolverines and tag them with GPS trackers, all with the broader purpose of helping to conserve this species in the future.

Kris also spoke passionately to our students about climate change, saying, “I won’t be impacted by climate change. You will be. And your children will be. We’re giving you this problem to solve and you can do something about it.”

At Jack Creek, we tramped through the still-deep snow on snowshoes, enjoying gorgeous uninterrupted views of Fan Mountain. And in the spirit of learning by doing, we took snowpack measurements under the guidance of two Americorps volunteers.

Thursday and Friday

On Thursday morning, we bid a fond goodbye to Jack Creek and headed West towards Ennis and the Granger Ranch, greeting two sandhill cranes and Marty the marmot — a well-known local hanging out on his favorite wood pile — on our way out of the Preserve.

At Granger Ranch we learned about owner Jeff Lazlo’s extensive wetlands restoration project. Lazlo meticulously transformed land where irrigation ditches had been created out of natural creeks in the 1950s, thus restoring the land to its original form. As a result, over a hundred species of birds now call this land home, and researchers from Montana State University and the Audubon Society regularly conduct research there.

We spent the rest of Thursday in Yellowstone National Park, saying hello to bison who mosied right by us and watching Old Faithful and Beehive, two famous geysers, erupt. We were amazed by the colors of Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States. This spring’s colors are the result of microbial mats that surround the edges of the mineral-rich water.

On Friday, we spent the morning doing community service for the Madison River Foundation, where students helped develop a youth outreach program using social media — a perfect project for our creative, tech-savvy students! We then headed to Beartooth Fly Fishing to meet our fishing guides, who expertly guided us down the Madison River and taught us how to fly fish. We saw bald eagles and ospreys as we floated through the clear waters of the Madison River and learned about the importance of private conservation efforts to keep invasive and non-native species out of Montana waters.

“Students learned why privately held lands hold great ecological importance for migrating animals," Mark Hurwitz said. "They saw the many ways in which land owners expressed sensitivity to conservation ethics: restoration of degraded habitat, preservation through conservation easements, and responsible development maintaining commonly held open spaces. They spoke with land owners and people who work in the conservation field. And perhaps most importantly, they experienced the natural beauty and abundance of wildlife in the region.”

At the end of the trip, Audrey C. reflected on the tie-ins between our trip and Nueva curriculum. “I saw many intersections between our eleventh-grade American History curriculum and the Montana trip, especially because we focused on the idea of private conservation. I can now see the prevalence of both the frontier myth and the agrarian myth in the Montana landscape, as well as how civilians improvised in their preservation of such wild places.”



 By Lily Brown, Upper School English Teacher

Photos by Libby M., Eleventh Grade

May 9, 2018



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