By Tara Carolin
BioBlitzes: Celebrating Biodiversity in the NPS Centennial Year
Glacier is well known for its rich plant and animal diversity. Park employees are often asked questions like, “How many different kinds of mammals are in Glacier National Park?” (Answer: 71) Or, “How many different kinds of fungi do you have?” (Answer: at least a few hundred, but in truth, we really don’t know.) Biodiversity refers to the variety of life forms that occur in a given place, and while we have a pretty good handle on vertebrates and vascular plants in the park, new species, particularly non-vascular plants and invertebrates, continue to come to light. For example, a few years back, a teaspoon-sized sample of rock scrapings from Logging Lake revealed some 600 individual diatoms of 163 different taxa, several of which were new records to Glacier, and a few were new to science! This goes to show we have really only scratched the surface of assessing our full biodiversity, and there is always more to learn.
To celebrate 100 years of stewardship, the National Park Service facilitated a nationwide quest to engage visitors of all ages to discover and document biodiversity at national parks across the country. The Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center (CCRLC) hosted multiple BioBlitz events in the summer of 2016 to engage students and adults in hands-on resource stewardship.
In late May, 45 students from DeLaSalle High School in Michigan, Luther College in Iowa, and Flathead and Columbia Falls High Schools in northwest Montana participated in our Glacier Lake Ecology BioBlitz. Building on our knowledge about the presence and reproductive status of common loons on priority breeding lakes, students examined shallow waters for aquatic insects in lakes known to have loon chick nursery areas. By obtaining a snapshot of available aquatic insects, we gain a greater understanding of which species serve as the basis of the food web during this critical time in the loon’s breeding cycle.
All of the students got to observe loons feeding, nesting, calling, and interacting. Some even got to see the male and female loons switch places on their nest. There were numerous smiles and squeals, and even an occasional happy dance as the students observed at least 30 different kinds of interesting creatures, such as water stick-insects, predacious diving beetles, leeches, amphibian egg masses, and snakes. Guest instructors, Dr. Diana Six, an entomologist from the University of Montana, and Kelly Franklin, a Systems Ecology PhD student and intern with the Montana Geographic Alliance, taught the students about lake productivity and the role of diverse species in the lake ecology food web. Students recorded their findings using the free iNaturalist app, which contributed data to the larger 2016 National Parks BioBlitz event. A fun video summarizing the Lake Ecology BioBlitz is available online.
Through iNaturalist, the CCRLC also hosted a summer-long opportunity for visitors to record their unique observations of plants and animals in Glacier National Park between May 1 and September 30. The event attracted 132 participants of all ages who made 1,158 observations. Another 148 people volunteered their time to make or confirm 1,294 identifications of the observations, resulting in 334 different observed species, with mountain goats, beargrass, thimbleberry, bighorn sheep, and Columbian ground squirrels being the most commonly reported species. At least four new species were found that had not previously been documented in the park before, including an orchid, a milkweed, and two different monkeyflowers. We are still working on confirming identifications and will process the data in more detail this winter. Results can be viewed online on iNaturalist.
A major threat to the park’s biodiversity is the spread of invasive species which often grow in large mono-cultures, crowding out the more diverse native species. To combat this threat and to promote biodiversity, the park targets the removal of specific invasive species and provides education to visitors and the surrounding community on noxious weed recognition and treatment. Each year, the CCRLC and the Invasive Plant Program team up for a day of identifying noxious weeds and pulling infested areas. This summer’s 7th Annual Noxious Weed Blitz was the most successful to date. Ninety-nine volunteers spent the morning learning to identify and control five invasive plant species. In the afternoon, the group of Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Club members, and adult volunteers, pulled 48 garbage bags of weeds, weighing in at 620 pounds!
It was gratifying to see students and adults alike get enthused about the rich array of species found and protected in Glacier National Park and to appreciate the biodiversity of this remarkable place firsthand. We appreciate funding provided by the Glacier National Park Conservancy and the National Park Service Intermountain Region and assistance from the Montana Geographic Alliance that made these events possible. We are making plans now for additional events in 2017. Stay tuned for upcoming details.