Students and Stewards: A Story of Collaboration

Students from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, University of Wyoming, Sheridan Community College, and Texas A&M University-Kingsville found themselves this past summer traversing together across Montana’s rangelands surrounding Malta.

They carried tools to measure vegetation cover and evaluate wildlife habitat on native rangeland, restored grassland sites, and cropland. Now, you may be asking, how did these 11 students, undergraduate to PhD, from all over the country find themselves working together in this remote area? This was made possible through the collaboration of a number of different organizations, including Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA), federal agencies, non-profit organizations, and universities. All of them worked to plan, implement, and execute the 2019 Land Management Field Practicum.

The Land Management Field Practicum is an annual, 2-week field practicum hosted by the 4 participating universities that engages students in a collaborative, decision-making process to address a natural resource management question in the West. Although the focus question is different each year, students are always exploring a complex environmental issue of the West and building the skills they need to address them in their careers. During week one students participate in lectures and field visits that introduce them to rangelands, plant identification, research project design, and field methods.

Students also work together to develop data collection methods that will allow them to answer the management question at hand. In week two, students head into the field and put their methods to work collecting data. Finally, students work together to summarize data, analyze results, and author a report of findings to be used by partnering organizations to guide management decisions.

RSA and other conservation partners, such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), have helped landowners seed their marginal cropland to native grass to provide wildlife habitat and forage for cattle. Therefore, these partners were interested in seeing if and how successful these seeding projects have been to date. During 2019, students researched the efficacy of grassland seedings on marginal croplands in Montana by collecting data in the field and then analyzing it. Students compared plant species composition on cropland, restored sites, and native grasslands. They found that on average cropland, restored sites, and native sites contained 8, 15, and 22 different plant species, respectively. Therefore, plant species richness on restored sites have not reached that of native sites yet, but restored sites have a higher diversity of plant species compared to cropland. Native sites also had the lowest percent bare ground (4%) compared to restored (22%) and cropland sites (51%). Plant species that were the most successful at growing in restored sites were western wheatgrass, slender wheatgrass, thickspike wheatgrass, and alfalfa. Students also collected bees at native, restored, and cropland sites to assess if restoration sites are providing habitat for pollinators. Bee species were found at all sites, and native and restored sites had a larger diversity of bee genera (10-11 genera) compared to the 7 genera found at cropland sites. The results of this research will help inform future seeding efforts to maximize effectiveness.

This collaborative effort not only provided students with field and research skills, but it allowed them to connect with other researchers and local ranchers at The Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch Science Symposium and a barbeque hosted by RSA. The connections and experiences students have in the field practicum are harder to measure than the grass on the ground, but here are just a few things the students had to say:

"The 2-week land practicum is a wonderful experience. You meet new people from a whole bunch of different backgrounds and get immersed in research. It was my first introduction to a research project.  The approach that the leaders take helps ease you into it, and before you know it you are off to the races. Something that I think really is unique about this program is that the research is going to be a product that will be used and will make a difference for conservation. Overall, you get to see some wild places and have experiences with people in an area where people are few and far between which is also really special."

  • Range and Wildlife Undergraduate, Texas A&M University- Kingsville

The field practicum was an exceptional learning experience where I was able to contribute to meaningful research on behalf of our partners while learning about the complex and impactful conservation work being done in the Northern Great Plains. The best part was working with a diverse group of colleagues - partners from different universities, backgrounds and expertise. We met lifelong ranchers, conservation professionals, and built working relationships with students and professors from Texas to Montana and Connecticut. This experience showed me that it is possible to do impactful work with people from all backgrounds, finding common ground with people who care about our natural resources.

  • Master’s of Environmental Management Student, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

This applied learning experience was made possible through collaboration between Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, University of Wyoming’s Sheridan Research and Extension Center, Sheridan College, Texas A&M University- Kingsville, Plank Stewardship Initiative, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance, Pheasants Forever, Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Montana, and the private landowners of Montana’s Valley and Phillips Counties.

Authors:  Michelle Downey, Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative at The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies;  Kelsey Molloy, The Nature Conservancy

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