Even though their ecosystems are completely different, Yellowstone National Park’s high elevation lodgepole pine forest and the jungle and ocean beaches of Costa Rica have something in common — Scott Pankratz.
The 46-year-old Missoula man had an “epiphany” while helping conserve sea turtles nesting on the beaches of Costa Rica — an education program to get the locals, who were eating turtle eggs and deforesting the jungle, to help them understand and appreciate their unique ecosystem. Working with Julie Osborn, who would later become his wife, a new program was born.
“I feel the same way about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Pankratz said. “They’re both mind-boggling places.”
From that simple insight the Pankratzes have grown Ecology Project International to a science-based, outdoor experiential education program in five countries that has served more than 30,000 students — 70 percent of whom are locals — including an educator program.
“That’s what really started the organization: the need to connect people to the landscapes, and also the need to make a difference through conservation service work,” he said.
The school is based in Missoula because that’s where a 29-year-old Pankratz was studying at the University of Montana in the biological science program in 1998, funding his schooling in part by working as a rafting guide in Moab, a ski instructor at Big Sky Resort and a field guide for the Teton Science School and National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming.
“The University of Montana helped me define the model I had in my mind,” Pankratz said. “I was really able to dial that in.”
Ecology Project International is funded by a combination of grants and fees. The fees are necessary to invest the students in the process, Pankratz said.
Fundraising and making connections now takes up most of his time to keep EPI’s mission growing. That latest step is a program that provides students with a stipend to study at the MPG Ranch in the Bitterroot Valley for a month, an attempt to build a job trajectory into the program.
In the spring of 2000, Ecology Project International was launched in Costa Rica. Some high school students from Billings Central visited in 2016 to help with what is now an annual turtle project. Eight years after launching in Costa Rica the program was on the ground in Yellowstone. Since then EPI has seen steady growth in its popularity.
“There were more students than available room this summer,” said Erin Clark, Yellowstone project manager for EPI. “Ideally we’d like to be able to work with every high school and middle school student who lives in the Greater Yellowstone Area in Montana.”
This year EPI’s Yellowstone project was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s Gear Up program, designed to give youngsters from rural areas whose parents have never been to college a better chance at pursuing a post-secondary education. Thompson Falls and Manhattan high school students are Gear Up schools partnered with EPI. In Gardiner, at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, EPI has worked the past few winters with a class of eighth-graders.
“Two of the students had never been to Yellowstone, even though you could throw a rock from the school into the park,” Clark said. “That’s really incredible.”
Part of EPI’s decision to focus on younger students was to capitalize on the fact that they are still open minded, Clark said. It’s often easier to find younger students, too, since high-schoolers tend to have jobs and other activities that make it difficult for them to leave town for a week, she added.
The seventh- and eighth-graders engaged in last week’s EPI program in Yellowstone National Park (see related story in Montana Untamed, page C1) are the youngest group EPI had taken into the field. It was a five-day trip that in addition to educational outings and lessons included camping out in tents, preparing their own meals and washing dishes.
Tristan Redfield, 13, of Hardin, was excited about making the trip. He later struck a muscle-man pose when he saw he was being photographed.
“I’ve never been here before and wanted to come,” he said. “It was fun that we got to try and track down an antelope.”
Searching for collared pronghorns that are part of an ongoing grazing study in Yellowstone was the EPI project last Monday. Rick Wallen, a park wildlife biologist who leads the bison program, acted as the group’s guide as they used radio telemetry to try and locate one of the collared pronghorns.
“We’re looking at trying to identify how the grazing ungulates overlap in use of space and plants across the landscape,” Wallen explained to the students while introducing them to the telemetry gear. “There’s a lot more overlap in the winter.”
By collecting fresh feces, the samples could be analyzed in a lab to compare what different plants the animals key on at different times of the year and at different elevations as the spring plants green up. This is the third year Wallen’s program has worked with EPI, whose students and instructors have also helped by gathering grassland monitoring data across about 20 study sites. That work is meant to show the grasses’ growth, amount of animal consumption and how the nutritional quality changes.
To help with all of the work, EPI’s instructors spend two to three days with Wallen’s technical team learning the ropes before the students are brought in. The students and instructors can then help Yellowstone researchers collect data, providing more “boots on the ground,” Pankratz noted.
Tess Kohler, a 23-year-old Traverse City, Michigan, resident, is one of EPI’s instructors. She started by teaching a winter course in Yellowstone, excited to get to spend more time in Montana and the park. Braving restless teens asking sometimes odd questions was just part of the assignment last week.
“Why are we moving so slow?” asked 14-year-old Chase Benner, of Libby, as half the group driving with Kohler hit one of Yellowstone’s typical animal traffic jams.
“What’s your guess?” Kohler asked.
“Is a super volcano exploding?” Benner yelled excitedly.
Gains for the younger students were measured a bit differently, something as simple as learning how to wash dishes or prepare a meal impressed Kohler.
“Matt was just a really great student to have on the course,” Kohler said of Matthew Hock, 14, of Libby. “He was just incredibly kind to all of the students.”
Pankratz said the program has already changed some of his students’ lives. Alumni are now invited back on their own trips.
“That’s one of the huge goals of our program is to give the capacity to make change,” he said, and to share the knowledge the students acquired in their community.
“Us being here in Montana with the world’s first national park, what a great place to be,” Pankratz said.
The location puts the students right in the middle of science research that sometimes forms the basis for policies and decisions that affect Yellowstone, its wildlife management and Montana.
“It’s an awesome opportunity,” he said.