Citizen scientists log thousands of hours in Glacier Park

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Common loon, Glacier National Park.

They roam the hills, traverse the passes, bust through brush and wait for hours on end in all sorts of bad weather. They’re Glacier National Park’s citizen scientists, a diverse band of ordinary folks trained to keep an eye on some of the Park’s most iconic creatures.

The program started in 2005 with Glacier’s ongoing effort to track its common loon population. Since then, citizen scientists have gathered data on not just loons, but mountain goats, pikas, bighorn sheep, weeds, songbirds and even insects.

This fall, citizen scientists also started helping the Park’s biologist count golden eagles and their kin as they migrated through the Park.

Goat watching is a popular pastime for citizen scientists. Last summer, they collectively did 118 surveys, spent 2,600 hours in the field and counted 188 individual mountain goats, noted program biologist Pete Mumford. In order to do an observation, a person goes to a pre-selected site and then spends an hour scanning the hills for goats. From a scientific standpoint, not seeing a goat is almost as important as seeing a goat.

The most goats in one survey last summer was 17 at Triple Divide Pass. Goats are of particular interest to Park managers because the Park is concerned about climate change and how the goats will, or won’t adapt to a warmer Park.

Glacier currently has about 1,500 mountain goats.

The same holds true for pikas, a small relative of the rabbit that lives in talus slopes. Unlike other rodents, the pika doesn’t hibernate. It builds big “haystacks” of vegetation that it feeds on during the winter. Pikas could be vulnerable to climate change in two different ways — they don’t tolerate heat in the summer, but they also need snow in the winter to insulate their lairs.

While the talus slopes are the pikas preferred habitat, they’ve been found in other places as well, including the slots of rock along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Unlike most creatures, the best time to do a pika survey is in the middle of the day, when they’re most active, noted biologist Jami Belt.

Glacier also has good common loon population.

Last year 124 volunteers did 236 surveys and spent 2,979 hours in the field to check on Glacier’s 45 priority lakes. Last year they discovered 11 chicks, including a chick on Trout Lake, which was the first time for that body of water.

Unfortunately, researchers aren’t sure if the chick, which was well on its way to adulthood, made it. The area was closed down when the Howe Ridge Fire burned near the lake.

Glacier is a bastion for common loons. About 20 percent of Montana’s nesting pairs call Glacier home.

Loons migrate south in the winter, but nest and raise their young in the fish-rich and secluded waters of the Park.

Glacier’s efforts to stop invasive species like mussels have paid dividends, Belt noted. In the Great Lakes, where invasive mussels have taken over, the gobi, an invasive fish that feeds on the mussels was bioaccumulating toxic bacteria from alage blooms. The loons, in turn, were eating the fish. It’s estimated that 3,000 loons died in Lake Michigan from one botulism outbreak in 2012.

The citizen science program is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. Training sessions for folks interested are held each spring.

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