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SXU Students Travel to Yellowstone Park


It was a drastic plunge into snow for the Saint Xavier University (SXU) students who participated in a remarkable opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park during the 2019 spring break. A late winter storm had dumped seven feet of snow on Paradise Valley -- the valley that carries the Yellowstone River north out of the park -- and, while that made for difficult travel, it also forced the elk and bison down out of the higher country where they could be easily studied and observed.

With snowshoes strapped to their feet, 12 participating students and three SXU professors spent five days studying Yellowstone's natural inhabitants with an eye to the public policy disputes those wild creatures generate for ranchers outside the park. The students had been well prepared for the fieldwork by a course taught jointly by SXU biology professor David Elmendorf, Ph.D., and philosophy professor Thomas Thorp, Ph.D.

SXU's Yellowstone Project has been led by Thorp since 2013 when the program switched from summer to spring break in an effort to avoid the massive crowds that the park sees in the warmer months. What was new for this 2019 trip is that the Yellowstone Program is now supported by a National Science Foundation's Hispanic Serving Institution grant (NSF 1832511) directed by chemistry professor Bindhu Alappat, Ph.D., with Thorp and Elmendorf as co-principal investigators on that grant. With the funding from the NSF-HSI grant, any and all SXU students can apply for the opportunity to engage in policy-oriented fieldwork under the direct supervision of naturalists, ecologists and environmentalists who live and work in the greater Yellowstone area.

Thorp has published scholarly essays on wolf-human interactions in both the Yellowstone region and in parts of France where wolves have also returned to the landscape. Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park in 1995 and 1996 after considerable legal battles in order to restore the top predator to the ecosystem. In the years since, the wolves have expanded their range outside of the borders of Yellowstone Park and have become living symbols of the clash between ranching culture and wilderness protection in the norther Rockies. Protected initially by special provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the resurgent wolf population of the area can now be controlled through regulated hunting, and ranchers can use lethal means to protect their herds of cattle and sheep.

"With the NSF HSI grant supporting our work through at least 2024, we are in an ideal position to expand opportunities for SXU students to travel and study in this really remarkable ecosystem," said Thorp. "This is an objective strongly supported by President Joyner and Provost MacLaren so, with their support, I'm looking toward opening a second annual trip."

With these goals in place to expand the Yellowstone Project and offer it to more students and possibly even alumni, SXU is delighted to see the deep enthusiasm for science and public policy felt throughout our community!