Discovering the Wilds of Yellowstone

by —2 September 2014

women work to explore our oldest national park

Those of us lucky enough to live within the shadow of Yellowstone National Park feel the pull which that wild place exerts.  For three women, that draw is exceptionally strong.  Each came to Yellowstone to spend what she thought was a few months or seasons.  Each still finds herself immersed in the place, furthering our knowledge of Yellowstone and making a difference in this very special place. Pat Bigelow is busy saving native cutthroat trout populations, Colleen Curry oversees more than five million objects in the Yellowstone Cultural Center and Ann Rodman uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools to find patterns and connectivity within the complex systems of the park.



Pat Bigelow came west as a college student and eventually hired on with the Young Adult Conservation Corps job working with the fisheries department in Yellowstone.  She was hooked by the unique beauty of fish.  “Have you ever looked at a fish?  They’re pretty cute.  Plus, Yellowstone is such a beautiful ecosystem.”   After years pursuing her education (B.S., M.S. and PhD.) and working with other agencies, Pat returned to Yellowstone in 2001 as a fisheries biologist. This lady is passionate about fish, especially the native cutthroat trout and she works tirelessly to help restore their populations.   “The cutthroat are such an important part of the Yellowstone ecosystem.  So many other animals depend upon them for survival, plus cutthroat fisheries pump in over $34 million dollars to the surrounding economy.” Pat is an integral part of the Lake Trout Suppression Program in Yellowstone.  Lake trout are a non-native fish thriving in Yellowstone Lake where they prey upon native cutthroat trout.  Lake trout have decimated the numbers of cutthroat trout the past several years. The issue is complex, but Pat is optimistic when she talks about her work restoring the cutthroat.  “It’s really a simple problem.  It’s just a matter of getting enough momentum to get the problem solved.  Fish are so plastic.  If you open the way for them to increase their numbers, the fish will do it.” That momentum comes in the form of taking enough lake trout out of Yellowstone Lake to allow cutthroat numbers to increase.  Using several commercial fishing boats and gill nets, the suppression program has removed 300,000 lake trout the past two years.   Pat and her crews are back at it again this season.  Their efforts are finally paying off as more wriggling baby cutthroat trout are found in the lake. Perseverance is the perfect word to describe Pat. She was once told she wasn’t qualified to change bed sheets, let alone be a fisheries biologist. Her response is characteristic of her personality, “Sometimes you have to accept a NO, but you don’t have to stop there.  Keep moving forward.  Don’t worry about what people think you can’t do, focus on what you want to do.”  Good advice from a woman who sees beauty in everything around her, especially fish. web-yell2


Colleen Curry spent each summer touring the country with her teacher parents and visiting lots of museums.  For Colleen, “Museums make the past come alive and give you a tangible link to the period.” After earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, Colleen went to work in the curator’s office of the U.S. Supreme Court, working with the exhibits and leading tours.  She’s spent 18 years with the National Park Service and transferred to Yellowstone 11 years ago. Today, Colleen is the Supervisory Curator of the park and her office is in the Heritage Research Center in Gardiner, Montana.  Her job is as big as the building which houses Yellowstone’s collection.  She oversees the archives, research library, museum program and seven staff members.  Colleen also works with more than 200 researchers each year who study everything from bacteria to wolves to rare plants. Yellowstone not only has its natural history to preserve and protect, it also has hundreds of years of human and cultural history to document and preserve.  That’s Colleen’s job – caring for more than five million artifacts currently housed in the collection, everything from stuffed animals, arrowheads, souvenirs, journals and chairs from old hotels. When she arrived at Yellowstone, Colleen hit the ground running. Her first project was to gather up and move those five million objects to the new facility in Gardiner.  It was a titanic undertaking, but Colleen says, “It was the best way to become familiar with the entire collection.” Colleen was used to working with human artifacts, but she had a lot to learn about working with and preserving natural history specimens.  “Arsenic was used in early taxidermy so we have to be very careful about personal protection and storage of those pieces.  I also didn’t know what to do with items like wolf skulls.  We have over 100 wolf skulls – how do you store stuff like that?” One of Colleen’s greatest concerns and challenges is adequately preserving today’s history for future generations.  “How do we decide what’s important, what will represent this time in the future? No one writes letters or keeps journals anymore.  How much current history will be lost because there aren’t hard copies of anything?” As Curator of our nation’s first park, Colleen helps to set service-wide standards and goals and provides assistance to other park curators.  She works closely with area museums as well.  A passion for her job and her sense of responsibility to do it well comes through as she talks unassumingly about her many roles.  When asked what’s the best part of her job, Colleen replies, “I really enjoy coming to work.  The staff here is great.  I’m constantly learning new things, opening new doors to history.”  Does she ever just slip down to the storage area to breathe in the amazingness of the collection?  She laughs and says, “Well, I’d like to because the collection is so special, but I really don’t have the time.”  History is definitely alive and well in Yellowstone, with help from Colleen. web-yell1


Ann Rodman is our final woman of Yellowstone.  She’s a leader in climate sciences and geospatial analyses for the park.  That mouthful of a job description means it’s up to her to pull together data from various disciplines and use GIS to create layers of information to show relationships within systems.  Ann is someone who knows a lot, about a lot of pieces of Yellowstone.  And she can take all those disparate bits of information and weave them into a cohesive story to help the rest of us better understand this special place. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Geology and a Master’s in Soil Science, Ann took what she thought would be a short-term soil survey position in Yellowstone.  That four-month job has lasted 26 years. Ann arrived in Yellowstone the summer of 1988 and soon began plotting vegetation in advance of the historic fires of that year.  In the evenings, she mapped where the fires had burned that day.  The days were long but, “It was an extremely exciting summer and the work was interesting.” “I was lucky,” Ann says.  “I was able to stay on at Yellowstone to continue working with the recovery after the fires.”  Ann created a park-wide map of all the fires and then in 1999 she completed a soil survey of the entire park (about two million acres).  She enjoys her work here.   “It’s an interesting and complex place from a science point of view and there’s lots of outside attention to the park.  It has a great base of studies and there’s a lot of material to work with.” Ann does a lot with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) within the context of Yellowstone.  “Working with GIS gives you exposure to all facets of the park.”  This work made her a perfect co-author for the Atlas of Yellowstone project.  Published in 2012, the Atlas is a compendium of information covering several themes.   Utilizing little text, the Atlas organizes information primarily through graphics and maps to showcase the interconnected stories of Yellowstone.  For all their ten years of effort, Ann says everyone associated with production of the Atlas received two free copies. Today, Ann spends much of her time on climate studies.  “This is all brand new, so we have to decide what to focus on.  How far into climate change are we and how does that play out within the resource?  What are our options and how do we prepare for those changes?” Ann is chief of the recently created Physical Sciences Branch of Yellowstone, or as she puts it, “Anything that’s not a plant or animal or old building.”  Plus she is pretty much the entire department – a huge responsibility.  “It’s a challenge bringing all the fields of air, water, sound, geology and climate under one office.  But it’s interesting and I was willing to take a shot at doing it.” Of her career in Yellowstone, Ann says it’s been easy to buy into the mission of the National Park Service.  “It’s great being able to live here on the salary you get.  You get a lot of satisfaction from that.”  For those trying to get a job with a resource agency like the NPS, she says, “Keep trying.”  Persistence helps.  She says it helps to have good communication skills because, “You have to be able to explain the problem and solutions in a compelling way.” Ann uses her considerable skills to create the big picture that the rest of us can understand. Yellowstone is the pinnacle of the conservation idea, the last remaining truly wild spot in the lower 48 states.  It’s also the pinnacle of these remarkable women’s careers.  Each has devoted her unique talents to ensure that our nation’s first national park continues to thrive and to be a beautiful place to explore well into the future. These are extraordinary women doing their jobs in an extraordinary place.   web-womenofyell   A Glimpse Into Yellowstone’s Past Book highlights women who have helped make YNP’s history Women have been a vital part of the history of Yellowstone, but have rarely received any recognition of their role.  Women in Wonderland by Elizabeth A. Watry gives us a glimpse into the lives of 12 women who lived, and sometimes died, within America’s first park. From Emma Cowan, who had the misfortune of being one of the only tourists in Yellowstone to be captured by Indians, to Mary Meagher, who in 1959 was just the third woman to be hired on as a permanent employee of the park, Women in Wonderland is a story of female determination and perseverance. Yellowstone was a “man’s world” for many years.  Most early women of the park were there simply as the spouse of a man who worked in Yellowstone.  Not until the 1920s, with business owners Anna Pryor and her sister Elizabeth Trischman did women take a front row seat in this male-dominated world.  In 1925, these enterprising ladies earned a very respectable income of $12,000 each with their collection of curio shops, restaurants and gasoline stations throughout the north end of Yellowstone. Peg Arnold and Frances Wright experienced firsthand the commonly held belief that women could not perform the same job as a man.  Their jobs were constantly assailed by those who believed that women should be given “a different designation than ranger, which has been for many years, a term associated with vigorous and courageous men of the west.”  Employing women as permanent full-time rangers would be an uphill battle for decades. Women who were employed in Yellowstone had to eventually resign from their chosen positions once they married and became pregnant.  They were allowed to continue as volunteers or seasonal employees, but it would be unheard of for a woman with a child to enter into a full-time career. Women in Wonderland is an entertaining collection of vignettes of courageous women who left a legacy of love for Yellowstone and a determination to create equal opportunities for those who followed in their paths.  Author Elizabeth Watry has done a wonderful job of bringing these women to life, so we can share their triumphs and heartaches and applaud their strong characters.  This is a must read for anyone interested in Yellowstone history.

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