Director’s Blog 7/03/20

Director’s B;pg July 3, 2020

Written by Ian Billick, PhD

Hard to believe but RMBL has been fully operational for more than a month.  For those of you that aren’t here, what does it feel like?

We have about 60 people onsite, with the numbers expected to continue to grow through summer.  There are lots of ground squirrels and ground squirrel researchers this year.  Seeing scientists walking around with clipboards and binoculars creates a reassuring sense of normalcy. Lunches at the community center usually involve 10-20 people spread outside.  People are very good about wearing masks.  As one senior scientist said, “it feels safe”.

On the other hand, Crested Butte doesn’t “feel” safe.  Elk Avenue is packed.  Tracking data indicates that most of the visitors are from Colorado, but there are plenty of visitors escaping the heat (and the virus?) in southern states where infection levels are high.  Over the last week there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people wearing masks but there are some who oppose masks. Just recently there was an informal bike race leading to a spontaneous Elk Avenue party—just the kind of large event you don’t want with a disease that relies upon superspreading.

Despite the looseness, the numbers look good. There is a low number of new cases, but nothing unusual given what we have seen the last several months.  The total amount of testing has been going up, which may explain some of the detected infections. On the hospital side, CB being CB, there are quite a few people going through the hospital with gravity-induced injuries, but no CoVID19 admits.

While the numbers look good, it could take one or two doublings of the number of people infected to see a jump in transmission.  Most test reports come back within 48 hrs, but the state lab is a bit overwhelmed so there can be a week lag. Hospital admits lag infection rates even more.  It’s hard to keep your eye on exponential growth when indicators lag 2-3 weeks.

On a separate note, RMBL will be doing a resiliency analysis this fall to help us think about what did and did not work in our response to the virus.  As stewards of one of the largest collections of long-term research we have a responsibility to plan long-term.  We can expect future crises, from disease to fire to financial meltdowns.  We need to learn from this summer and the more we understand what worked (or didn’t) for you, the better prepared we will be for the next crisis.  We’ll include questions about this in our summer operations survey, which you should fill out even if you didn’t come.  And if you have thoughts now don’t hesitate to shoot them off to me.

Thanks to Dr. Diane Campbell for suggesting this subject.  And if you have other ideas for future blog posts, please let me know!  Have a happy, safe and fire-free July 4th!

Director’s Blog 6.09.20

Director’s Blog June 9, 2020
By Ian Billick, PhD

RMBL would like to add another dimension to your research.  Three dimensions to be precise.

Time is already a RMBL strength.  With many scientists returning to Gothic for decades of research, we have one of the largest collections of long-term research.   Our goal is to add space to time so scientists can use four dimensions to drive discovery.

RMBL made nod towards the importance of place when we established our integrated Geographic Information/Global Positioning Systems 15 years ago.  Knowing exact locations has allowed us to manage research, minimizing disruption to research plots.

Technology is converging, however, to enable much more.  We can measure more things at lower costs.  We can deploy sensors on a range of platforms, from satellites, to planes, to drones, to humans (and their smart phones).  Building on digital elevation models and hyperspectral data, a range of data products are available to RMBL scientists.  Furthermore, machine learning techniques make it possible to process massive data flows.

These resources have the potential transform field science.  The combinations of technologies make it possible to link climate/weather to physiology, behavior, and population dynamics on ecologically relevant scales, including snow departure/onset, near-surface air temperature, and soil temperature and moisture.  The spatial data products can be used to generate fine-grained insights into ecosystem dynamics and species interactions, taking advantage of data products like gross and net productivity, vegetation structural characteristics, phenology, and species distributions.  These products can be used to contextualize individual plots.  Heterogeneity that overwhelmed experimental design can now be a tool to understand fundamental processes as well as move ecology towards prediction.

Knowing that adoption is often slowed not by a lack of interest but because new technology involves new barriers, RMBL hired Dr. Ian Breckheimer to establish RMBL’s Spatial Data Platform.  Not only is Ian supporting drone-based data (email him at with requests), and access to existing data sets, but he has is also training, and collaborating with, scientists to turn these spatial data products into insights about pattern and process. If you are stuck in a home office unable to travel to Gothic, please consider whether there is a way Ian can support your research through drone-based data collection or whether now might be a good time to learn how to integrate these spatial tools into your research.

This is a big investment for RMBL.  Our goal is not just to assist you with the logistics, such as meals, housing, and access, but to enable research tools that would be hard for any single scientist to develop on their own.  Please give us your feedback, including how we can better develop the tools to serve your needs (see Ian’s implementation plan), whether there are barriers that we can help with, or even to let us know that these tools are just not for you.

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or suggestions about future blog posts.  With the virus it will be hard to connect this summer.  If you have a moment, I’d love to schedule a zoom call to hear how you are doing professionally and personally.  Stay in touch!

And in case there is any doubt (generated by either the virus or 5 inches of snow last night), summer is happening!  It feels like a minor miracle to see students and scientists in Gothic again!  Hallelujah!

Statement on Racism

Letter to Community from Executive Director Dr. Ian Billick, RMBL on 6/04/2020

Dear RMBL Community,

Many in our community are reeling from violence directed towards the Black community, including the recent killings of Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.  A core value of RMBL is to promote the joy of discovery of the natural world.  However, when going for a jog, sleeping at home, or sitting in your car can inexplicably lead to death because of skin color, joy disappears.  Science becomes secondary.

There will be no easy path out of the cesspool of racism and violence that has become institutionalized in our country.  However, we can move forward by standing in support of all members of the community, being honest about what is happening, and being intentional about how we dispel, or promote racism, whether through action or inaction.

We wish to make it unequivocally clear that RMBL stands in support of the Black community.  Black lives matter, as do the lives of all people of color.  Furthermore, RMBL and field science, like all scientific disciplines, lacks diversity.  Society, and science, suffer from the narrowness of perspectives and backgrounds from those leading the charge in understanding how the world works.

RMBL’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee has put together an analysis of the challenges we face, as well as a list of resources to aid us as we move forward.  You can read more about their work here.  Additionally, RMBL’s Board has already been working on how we can better promote diversity at all career stages in the field sciences.

The challenges of confronting racism feel huge and overwhelming and it is easy to feel powerless.  But any journey starts, and continues, by taking a step.  Please join us, recognizing that while the step may seem small, it is part of a journey that we must all take together.

Ian Billick Signature

Director’s Blog 5/05/20

Director’s Blog May 5, 2020
By Ian Billick, PhD

Summer is starting to come into focus.  I’ll jump to the highlights.  And if you have plans to come out this summer and read nothing else:  We anticipate taking housing requests next week and prioritizing space shortly thereafter.

Other highlights.  The road should open next week.  Some scientists with second homes will arrive instantly, as is allowed by Gunnison County.  billy will go into hiding to avoid your germs.  The County’s public health order, which goes until May 27th, still limits travel to Gunnison County by nonresidents who do not own a home.  However, the County has indicated visitors will be welcome starting May 27 unless the State prohibits it, or there is a return of the epidemic.  With those caveats, let research begin!

Unfortunately, just because the floodgates open May 27th doesn’t mean smooth sailing.  RMBL is worried about a second wave.  In particular, we’re worried that we’ll get people here, the epidemic will start up again, and public health will kick everybody out.  So we are preparing an operational plan to submit to Gunnison Public Health that lays out not only how we will operate, but how we can continue to host scientists safely during a second wave.

What will Gothic look like?  It’s a work in progress which we will be presenting to the Board.  But given how quickly things are happening, here are some potential highlights.  Feedback is welcome.

  1. We will reduce occupancy from 180 to around 100-120 to eliminate most shared bedrooms.  We’re still analyzing additional limits associated with bathrooms, showers, and eating facilities.
  2. We will house scientific teams and necessary staff first, and then add in students.  We may push off student arrivals to late June or early July unless they are critical to research teams.
  3. We will reduce/limit interactions among Gothic residents, as well as with the larger CB/Gunnison community.
  4. Access to common spaces, including labs, will be limited to functions only served by that common space, rather than because they are comfortable places to work.  Access to common spaces may be extremely limited the first 7 days upon arrival.
  5. The dining hall will focus, at least initially, on serving meals on a take out basis, as well as facilitating food purchases for the entire Gothic community (to limit travel between Gothic and CB/Gunnison).
  6.  We are likely to require daily symptom monitoring and documentation.  This is now standard for many workplace environments and Gothic will not be different.
  7. We will not allow the general public into the townsite; as part of this, we will not offer a public outhouse as in years past.
  8. We will have staff at the Visitor’s Center to help manage the public so that scientists do not have to do it.  However, we will not operate retail sales.  We may have a small convenience store for Gothic residents and/or have online sales.
  9. We are still analyzing the K-12 programs and whether/how we could operate programs on a limited basis in Gothic.
  10. If there is a bus to CB, it will be very limited.  We will encourage people to bring cars.
  11. While our goal is to minimize any barriers to research, including safety, regulatory, and financial, we will be looking at our rate structure in light of serving fewer individuals at increased costs.  We do ask that you keep communicating with us if there are significant barriers to coming to RMBL, including financial.

A few final words.  This summer is going to be different.  No matter how well we plan, things will change and we will have to adapt.  Furthermore, success will not be based upon whether we make mistakes, which we will, but on how gracefully we deal with them.  We must all do our best to be flexible, creative, and compassionate.

Don’t hesitate to pass on ideas on the thoughts above as we finalize plans and move towards opening. Feedback and suggestions for blog posts are always welcome!

Director’s Blog 4/26/20

Director’s Blog April 26, 2020

By Ian Billick, PhD

An update is overdue!  I’ll start with Crested Butte, an early epidemic center, and then move to RMBL.

The epidemic has died out.  Transmission of infections peaked around March 13th when the school and ski resort closed, and with the first public health order limiting group sizes and imposing social distancing.  Because of delays between infection and serious health problems, the community is still sorting through the physical toll.  At least 4 have died and we’re just assessing how many survivors have serious long-term health issues.  Gunnison County caused turmoil when they told non-residents they couldn’t come to the county, leading to charges and counter charges with the Texas Attorney General, who seems to have time on his hands.

Restrictions are loosening, including welcoming back non-resident homeowners.  The County Public Health Officer has indicated that visitors, and lodging, will be allowed on a limited basis starting in July, assuming no second wave.  If we can ramp up testing and implement wide-scale contact testing, we might open faster.  I wouldn’t count on it.

Given the current plans, unless you own a home in the County, you should not plan on being at RMBL until July.  We will update everybody if anything changes.  The Admin Director, Brett (, has been busy lining up local research assistants to help teams that are unable to travel here.  I encourage you to reach out to him.

We will have an undergraduate research program, involving a mix of group projects that include local and distant students, as well as projects using existing or remotely collected data.  Contact Rosemary ( if you want to be involved.  It will be a good way to carry out a field project, given the travel limitations.

We are planning how to operate RMBL when people can return, including estimating housing capacity if only family members share rooms, and if the dining hall is not open.  Because of the potential for a second wave, we might limit mixing between Gothic and the larger community, and even limit mixing within Gothic.  If we can pull it off, it will be a summer prioritizing data collection and not for socializing.  It may be unpopular, but I can only hope we have people in Gothic to complain.

Financially it will be tight.  The Board has been meeting regularly to review finances, examining our assumptions for revenue and overseeing spending priorities.  We successfully navigated the Payroll Protection Program; most, or all, of the $253,000 will end up as a grant, which is a big help.  Operating the summer undergraduate research program will also be a boost.

Let me know if you have any questions.  I know that potentially losing a summer of research is stressful.  We will be as creative as we can be, working within legal and ethical constraints, to help you in whatever way we can.  Best of health to you, your families, and communities!

Director’s Blog 3/28/20

Director’s Blog March 28, 2020

By Ian Billick, PhD

Unfortunately this will not be my last missive on the virus.  Knowing that our community is spread across the world and experiencing different stages of infection and closures, this blog is a glimpse into Gunnison County, a virus hotspot, and how RMBL is thinking about summer and beyond.

While it is difficult to interpret the numbers, Gunnison has one of the highest county-wide confirmed infection rates with over 4 cases per thousand (5th highest behind two counties in NY and WA?), with 75 confirmed infections (42% of those tested).  609 people have self-reported virus symptoms.

Not surprisingly, the county is shut down.  The governor issued a statewide stay at home order on Wednesday, March 25, through April 11.  The county has similar, more restrictive orders in place, including limiting access to public lands by Gunnison residents only.  I suspect that order would not hold up to a constitutional challenge, but it doesn’t seem like a good time to have the conversation.

The good news is that social distancing is working locally.  The number of cases is dropping and the hospital has not been overwhelmed.  We have seen 1 death and with a lack of intensive care facilities, patients are being shipped to other hospitals.  But given the rate of infection, things could be worse.

It is not clear what will follow the decline in infections.  Neither the county nor the state have articulated a mid-term plan.  What will be critical thresholds triggering changes to the health orders?  Once cases drop, will they relax social distancing?  If the county gets a handle on the situation, will they still discourage (legally or illegally) visitors to the county or public lands?

With this uncertainty in mind, how is RMBL thinking about the summer undergraduate program?  While we plan for business as normal, we are also thinking about business not as normal.  We may use distance learning and develop group projects if we have to reduce or eliminate time in Gothic.  These changes would not be ideal, but with the closure orders RMBL may not have a choice and students may not have other opportunities.  Contact Rosemary Smith,, for more info or to help.

How are we thinking about research? Business as normal, we are processing research and animal care applications and plan to open most or all Gothic buildings with water.  It is not good for many systems to be shut down too long and the opening will us to quickly allow scientists to return if the county is opened part way through the summer.  With business not as normal in mind, in the absence of students in Gothic we are unlikely to operate the dining hall.  We continue to think about creative ways to support scientists, including organizing research assistants living locally.  Contact Jennie Reithel,, with questions/suggestions.  Look for a survey next week as we try to better understand your needs.

RMBL’s Board is active and involved.  The Board Leadership met Friday March 21 and the Board is forming a committee that will meet Friday, April 3.  I anticipate the committee will include Dan Blumstein (President/scientist), Bruce McLean (Chair), Brian Wildes (Treasurer), and several more scientists from the Board.  The committee will review a draft coronavirus strategy to send to the full board. A strategy might include components like: within legal and health constraints RMBL will prioritize research over other non-essential activities, and within the context of our mission and normal activities RMBL will work creatively to limit financial losses (e.g., distance learning).

Will RMBL be able to continue operating if we are closed this summer and suffer large financial losses?  One of the strategies might be ensuring RMBL has the financial and personnel resources to fully operate in 2021.  After the Board develops a general strategy, we will present the committee, and ultimately the Board, financial analyses under a range of assumptions.

What does a quick glimpse at RMBL’s finances say about our future?  While it may not be easy, we see no problems being fully operational in 2021.  We can squeeze 2020 expenditures down from $2.1 million to $1.3 million without losing permanent staff or undermining the future.  A very conservative estimate drops revenue projections from $2.1 million to $900,000 with lots of opportunity to generate additional income through programs and fundraising.  We started the year with about $400,00 in reserves.  We have been working on a conservation easement that would generate $1.2 million in the next year.  We are also eligible for some of the federal stimulus programs.  So while we are not certain how we will navigate the next 15 months until the dining hall welcomes 250 guests for the 4th of July BBQ, we are comfortable there is a path.

Thanks to Ben Blonder for suggesting RMBL’s finances be part of a blog post.  If you have questions, ideas, or suggestions for future blog posts, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.   We will do our best to communicate, understand your needs, and flexibly respond to rapidly changing circumstances.  We appreciate the patience, compassion, and support the entire RMBL community has shown each other as we navigate crazy times!

COVID-19 FAQs for Scientists

Frequently Asked Questions 

For RMBL Scientists 

Last updated: 3/19/20

The current global pandemic is causing uncertainty about summer 2020 plans.  RMBL is committed to the health and safety of our community and also understands that scientists have critical long-term projects.  Below is a list of questions and answers directed to our research community and is meant to help PIs and their teams make decisions.  We will update this as new information becomes available, with major updates most likely 2-4 weeks out.   

We are very interested in knowing how you are thinking about this summer, and whether there are creative ways we can assist you.   Don’t hesitate to reach out to Jennie Reithel, RMBL’s Science Director, at, or Ian Billick, the Executive Director, at ibillick@rmbl.orgwith questions, suggestions, or feedback. 

Summary of changes:   

March 19, we upated the answer to: Can I or my team travel to Gunnison County to do research and stay in offsite housing? 


Is RMBL open as of Wednesday, March 18? 

Currently we cannot house scientists in Gothic. Gunnison County is shut down – in large part because we have a cluster of cases in the county. There is a public health order in place which shutters all nonessential businesses, including us, as well as the schools.  However, the situation is changing quickly. The only certainty is that things will continue to evolve in unpredictable ways and the key for all of us is to be as flexible as possible.   

Will RMBL be open this summer? 

We are preparing for summer, including processing research applications, as if we will have a normal summer, recognizing a normal summer is unlikely. 

When will RMBL know whether it will be open? 

Given how rapidly things are changing and that summer is over two months away, we will be waiting at least 2-4 weeks before making any big decisions.  Ideally any decision we make will be done in conjunction with local health care and emergency responders.  They are overwhelmed right now.  Consequently, we want to see how the situation unfolds and give them time to better understand what the county is capable of supporting. 

Will RMBL have any travel bans or quarantines, including for international students and researchers? 

RMBL will follow the guidance and recommendations of public health officials. As of 3/11/20, the Colorado Governor’s office recommended that travelers over 60 years of age and those with underlying health issues avoid nonessential travel to mountain resort towns in Colorado, which includes RMBL.  This is primarily due to the limited capacity of mountain community health systems to handle a surge in demand for their services. 

How will decisions about RMBL closures be made? 

The County is in a state of emergency and we have little freedom to decide how and whether we will operate.  To the extent that we have latitude, RMBL’s Board will be overseeing major decisions and setting general strategy. 

The deadline for housing priority is April 1.  Will that be extended? 

Yes, we are extending the deadline for housing priority to April 15. Scientists, research assistants, and visiting scientists should fill out the appropriate application form by April 15 in order to be prioritized for housing this summer. This will give all of us more time to assess the situation and see how things unfold. 

Should I wait until I know my summer plans to submit my teams’ summer applications? 

Do whatever feels right to you!  We will be flexible and nimble.  We do encourage you to communicate with us, either by submitting space requests or emailing us about where you are at.  The more we understand what you will be trying to do this summer, the better we will be able to help you! 

Is RMBL waiving cancellation fees for 2020? 

Yes! For all programs we are waiving any kind of financial penalty for coronavirus-related cancellations.  We hope this will allow scientists and students to do their best to plan and communicate with us, without having to worry about whether larger events will force them to change their plans, thereby incurring a financial penalty.

If RMBL houses people onsite this summer, how will RMBL respond if someone on site develops symptoms or a confirmed infection? Will RMBL be able to quarantine or isolate patients? 

It is too early to develop specific plans, but if we are able to host people onsite we will work closely with public health authorities to develop and implement guidelines and recommendations. 

Can I or my team travel to Gunnison County to do research and stay in offsite housing? 

Hotels and short-term rentals are closed.   RMBL cannot currently house people onsite.  Additionally, the county has asked all visitors to leave and told visitors considering coming to stay away.  Furthermore, while they are not actively prohibiting non-residential second homeowners from coming to the area, they are strongly encouraged to leave.   We hope that these restrictions will be relaxed before summer. 

I have a critical study that needs some maintenance.  What should I do? 

We encourage you to let Jennie know, in as much detail as appropriate, what you are concerned about.  She is keeping track of individual needs. We will be thinking creatively about how we might support research (e.g., enabling remote monitoring of sites, facilitating hiring of local research assistants, providing field oversight/supervision).  The better we understand your needs, the better we can plan! 

Can I ship supplies to RMBL? 

UPS, FedEx, and the Postal service are currently in operation in Gunnison County, though shipping times are a little delayed as of March 18. As in past years, our winter office is very small and we ask that you delay shipping things until it is closer to your arrival date. 

Are RMBL staff working? 

Yes.  Our senior management team (Ian, Kelly, Jennie, Steve, and Brett when he arrives) started weekly meetings to assess the situation with Coronavirus, figuring out both near and long-term actions.   

However, we ask for your patience and flexibility as we respond to this unprecedented situation.  Please remember that our staff are working from home, many with young and school-age children.  One of our staff has a likely but unconfirmed infection (rationing of test kits!) and is doing well.  We expect most of our staff have been exposed given how widespread the virus appears to be in the community.  Our staff are also pitching in in the communityvolunteering in various capacities.   

Will RMBL operate the Undergraduate Research Program? 

We are committed to running the Education Program for college students this summer; it will NOT be canceled. We are remaining flexible on exactly what the program will look like and it may include a distance-learning component. These details will be worked out in the months ahead. 

Has RMBL canceled other programs?  

We have closed the Gothic winter huts and Coffee Lab, and we cancelled March and April school programs.  No other programs have been cancelled at this time.  As with research, we are in a wait and see mode. 

Can RMBL survive a widescale disruption? 

We are here for the long haul!  There are financial realities that will drive our decision-making, but we are also doing our best to be compassionate and cautious.  We are thinking about strategies that can guide decision-making such as prioritizing having financial and staff resources to be fully operational in 2021.   

We are currently developing financial models  looking at various income scenarios and to help us think about expenditures (e.g., capital improvements in the summer, seasonal staffing, etc.  We have about 25% of our operating costs in reserves ($500k on a $2 million budget).  We are pretty close to completing a conservation easement that would add around another $1.3 million to our reserves.  About a third of our budget is fundraising, and that could be affected in different ways than operational revenue.  In the past fundraising has been a bit insensitive to economic downturns, but there is a lot of uncertainty around that.  We don’t have any debt, so reserves and financial contingencies can all be used to delay cuts to core operations. 

I heard there is community transmission of COVID-19 near RMBL, in Gunnison County.  Where can I get the most current updates on the local situation? 

Coronavirus is circulating in Gunnison County, the county where RMBL is situated.  For the latest updates on the local situation in Gunnison County, please visit this page on the Gunnison County website: