Force of nature

Never underestimate the power of family vacations to shape a child’s future. For Dr. Pat Magee, Professor of Wildlife Biology and Conservation at Western Colorado University, childhood family trips always led to the great outdoors. Growing up in Littleton, Colorado, he and his six siblings would pile into his parents’ Volkswagen bus and head to campgrounds throughout the Colorado Rockies, up to Yellowstone, Wyoming, Montana, and everywhere in between. Vacations meant hiking, exploring, listening to interpretive talks by national park rangers, and being immersed in the natural world.

In high school, Pat joined the Youth Conservation Corps with the US Forest Service and dreamed of being a park ranger. But he followed another path in college, studying wildlife biology and eventually earning a PhD in wildlife ecology. Now he teaches that and related courses at Western. Every other year for the last 24 years, he has taught a mammalogy course that features an intensive, three-day, two-night field trip in late January. He and two dozen or more students snowshoe into Gothic, stay in large group cabins, and learn how mammals adapt to and survive the winter.

The trip revolves around three themes. First, the students learn the basics of animal tracking, not only identifying whose tracks they find but also understanding the behavior and ecology the tracks divulge.

Second, they study snow science, seeing how the winter environment and forces of evolution mold the adaptations of mammals. Digging snowpits and looking at layers beneath the surface uncover the physics that allow mammals to live under the snow all winter.

Third, they study how mammals respond to the key forces of winter, or what Dr. Jim Halfpenny — author of Winter: An Ecological Handbook and other wildlife field guides — calls the SCREW factor: snow, cold, radiation, energy, and wind. There’s a vast array of physiological, anatomical, and behavioral adaptations mammals employ whether they’re actively enduring the winter or sleeping through it.

The course is an elective, but most students who take it say that it’s transformative. Many go on to graduate school, find careers as wildlife managers, or work for the Forest Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A recent student is finishing her PhD studying elk in Yellowstone.

The transformation is more than academic. For students who didn’t grow up camping and are novice hikers, it can push them to the limits of their physical ability. Yet the feeling of accomplishment they get when they meet the challenges can stay with them for life. Beyond the snow science and tracking, the course becomes an exercise in personal growth. Somehow, spending a few days tracking animals in the natural world can spur students to explore their own inner world and track their development as a human.

On this year’s trip, the class was blessed with plenty of snow, but the temperature was unseasonably balmy. That could be nice for those on a field trip, but if the warming trend continues as it’s expected to, it could be disastrous for mammals adapted to colder winters. Warmer temperatures mean less snow and more freezing rain, which crusts over the snow surface and prevents animals from going in and out of their subnivean environment. You might be surprised at how many mammals live beneath the snow. They depend on the integrity of the snowpack. When it changes, so do their survival rates.

Dr. Magee knows that no textbook learning matches the experience of his intensive field trips. “Nature is really the teacher,” he says. He’s also aware that he couldn’t do the trips without the support of RMBL.

On this year’s trip, the class saw the tracks of moose, snowshoe hares, pine martens, pine squirrels, and other rodents. They saw a fox in the flesh. What they took away from the course was more than an appreciation of the fierce beauty of Gothic winters. They learned what we stand to lose if the present global environmental crisis is not addressed. Our hope is that some of these students will go on to do just that.

Pat Magee, PhD, is Faculty Senate Chair and Professor of Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Western Colorado University. He also leads the Sustainability Action Committee.  His major professional goal is developing and delivering experiential courses for undergraduate students emphasizing field-based techniques and natural history. He works with researchers, managers, conservationists, and others to design and implement strategies for wildlife conservation. His recent research involves sagebrush ecosystems with emphasis on obligate and near-obligate bird species, and he has led a six-year study on the Great Blue Heron colony along the Slate River in Crested Butte. He works with undergraduate students in diverse projects from macroinvertebrates to mammals, focusing on habitat relationships and land management consequences to populations and communities. In cooperation with student interns and volunteers, he coordinated the Gunnison Sage-grouse Watchable Wildlife Program for over 20 years in conjunction with the non-profit organization, Sisk-a-dee. He also serves on the Gunnison Basin Sage-grouse Strategic committee and several sub-committees including the Information and Education group and the newly formed raven sub-committee.