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Distributed Field Stations:

adaptive housing for adaptive ecology


Changing the Field Station Paradigm

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It's hard enough to get to Beartooth Lake in the summer, demanding a traverse of Yellowstone's Northern Range from the west or a white-knuckle climb of the switchbacking Beartooth Highway from the east.

It's even harder in the winter, when the highway is buried under snow and you need a snowmobile and/or skis, a warm jacket, and a cheerful attitude to make the commute. 

But that is where the distinct population of native foxes that YERC has long been studying reside, and winter is the best time to track and trap these elusive carnivores for research. Besides, the logistic challenges of doing research in the remote corners of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's 15 million acres is just part of the job for YERC's Adaptive Ecologists.

YERC has long maintained a field station near the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park to house its researchers and collaborators. But the time and expense needed for maintenance—not to mention the limited ability of a fixed field station to facilitate research needs across millions of acres—led YERC to ask whether the field station concept could be done better. 

How can we maintain our research presence while reducing the footprint of our presence?

How can we provide safe, comfortable housing in all the far flung places we are sending our researchers?

What is the future role of field stations in Adaptive Ecology at ecosystem scales?

How can we continue using our field station as a tool for building collaborations, and how does that appeal to major funding agencies that are calling for greater collaboration not only between researchers, but also between sensors, equipment, and facilities?

Our response is the Distributed Field Station concept, a combination of mobile housing units such as fifth wheel camper trailers with a distributed network of sites at fixed field stations, campgrounds, ranches, and other sites belonging to and managed by collaborators. That way, we can get our researchers to the places where research is needed, reduce the costs of that research and its impact on the environment it is supposed to help conserve, and build collaborations within research communities as well as the communities within the ecosystem being researched.


living on the distributed field station

Thanks to a Field Station and Marine Laboratory grant from the National Science Foundation, in 2012 we were able to put the concept to the test at the windswept, snowbound, U.S. Forest Service's Beartooth Lake Campground.

For two blustery winters on the high plateau at 9,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level, researchers working on the fox project came home each night from a day of checking traplines or snow tracking foxes on skis to a warm, dry, well-stocked and well-lit camper trailer nestled in the campground's deep snow. Since then, it has housed summer crews and volunteers working on a variety of projects in and around Yellowstone Park. And now we are looking for its next assignment.

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Get involved

If you are a researcher preparing for a field season in the region and trying to figure out housing, contact us if you think our Distributed Field Station can help. If you are a research organization interested in implementing the Distributed Field Station concept yourself, you should contact us too for more information and advice based on our experience. As with Adaptive Ecology, we think that the Distributed Field Station concept will revolutionize the natural science and conservation fields.