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Wildlife Biology Celebrates 75 Years in the Field

Often, studying wildlife means blazing trails where none exist.

UM’s Wildlife Biology Program has done just that for 75 years, laying down exciting paths in the frontier of wildlife study. In fact, many global innovations in wildlife study were pioneered by people at UM. This includes radio collars to track movements and migration, non-invasive genetic sampling of scat and hairs and DNA sampling of streams to detect invasive fish species. All are vital components of field research that trace their beginnings right back here to Montana.

Even the structure of the program is innovative, straddling entities: the College of Forestry and Conservation, the Division of Biological Sciences and the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit.

As faculty member Scott Mills says, "When I came here in 1995, I had offers from several programs. The University of Montana was the easy choice for me because it had established itself as the best in the nation, and frankly, the best in the world. We’ve really set ourselves at the top with a strong emphasis on field work—what I call ‘muddy boots biology.’"

So it’s only fitting that a celebration marking the department’s 75th anniversary brought together alumni and friends from its storied history. In the words of director Dan Pletscher, "We’ve been around almost as long as the wildlife profession itself."

A three-day event in September began with a trek to the National Bison Range in Moiese, Mont., where alumni were able to mirror similar trips they’d made as undergraduates in the program. A reception for current students, alumni, faculty and retired faculty included several presentations from students and faculty, a banquet and an "open mic" session that featured many alumni sharing memories and accomplishments. The celebration also featured a video marking the historic achievements of the program, and included segments focusing on Phil Wright, Bart O’Gara, Dick Taber, John and Frank Craighead and Les Pengelly.

Pletscher put the anniversary celebration in perspective. "The weekend reaffirmed what we believe: our alumni are out there doing great things all over the place. Oregon. Alaska. Canada. The Smithsonian in D.C. Bringing people back to show current students what’s possible—that gives our students a clearer perspective of what’s possible."

Pletscher himself, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, is an example of what the program has achieved. During the celebration, Mills announced the formation of the Dan Pletscher Graduate Fellowship. "Everyone knows the impact he has had on this program," Mills says. "This is a great opportunity to say that we want to acknowledge what he’s done. This graduate fellowship would help us recruit the very best graduate students in the world. We already have the best, but a fellowship like this gives us the funding to keep bringing them in."

A.J. Kroll, who earned a PhD in wildlife biology in 2004, agrees. "The involvement with the University and the value of the degree doesn’t stop when you graduate. Individual students have to take an interest in the quality of the program, and provide the financial resources to help the program continue and grow," he says.

"For me, reinvesting back into the program makes sure it has the resources to compete for promising students, develop students who enroll in the program and produce graduates who go on to be successful professionals in their own right."

The future of the program will continue to shine. "So many programs have moved away from field research," Mills says, "In the way that society has moved away from interacting with wildlife. But we continue to couple field work with new genomic tools and computational methods available now. That’s the future, and a future we want to continue to lead."