Where the elk and the antelope play

Allegheny students travel to Rocky Mountains, study ecology as part of EL Seminar

Experiential Learning Seminars are an interdisciplinary learning experience where students travel to distant locations to conduct research and experience local cultures. While the EL to the Rocky Mountains National Park did not require students to travel too great a distance, it certainly emphasized interdisciplinary learning.

The three-week excursion to the Rocky Mountains was led by Rich Bowden, professor of environmental science and sustainability. While there, the 13 students studied a variety of topics, ranging from local elk populations to the culture of the Lakota people.

“A lot of the issues that are facing the Western Region (of the U.S.) are pretty complicated,” Bowden said. “They have natural history, ecological, economic and cultural components. The different topics that we explored included lots of those components.”

Bowden said the main goal for the trip was to explore conservation challenges in portions of the Western U.S.. While it had an environmental and conservation theme, the trip had several aspects that had a social science focus.

“(The EL) also brings in not just the natural history and natural science component of it, but the cultural aspects as well,” Bowden said.

The first and third weeks of the trip were spent in Colorado, in the town of Estes Park, described by Bowden as the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park. For the second week, the group ventured to the Black Hills, located in South Dakota.

While in Estes Park, the group focused on the ecological and economic impacts of tourism in the national park. A main talking point was an overabundance of elk in the area.

“They’re cute, big animals,” Bowden said. “Tourists like to see them, people like to see them, so they’re aesthetically attractive. You see a lot of them in the spring as the cows are having their calves, and again in the fall during the rut season. You hear the males bugling, and it’s a beautiful sound.”

Despite the elk’s appeal, Bowden said, there are too many of them in the park, to the point that the park cannot ecologically support the growing species.

“There’s not enough food for them in (the park), and when they get hungry they eat everything in sight,” Bowden said.

The number of elk are too high because their main predators, which include wolves and cougars, have been extirpated, according to Bowden.

“With no predators, the prey dramatically increased, and the elk began eating lots and lots of vegetation, which there’s now not enough vegetation growing to feed the number of elk,” Bowden said.

He described a solution to the overpopulation issue: remove the elk via the reintroduction of wolf species native to the area. While supported by ecologists, the idea would not go over well with local farmers, ranchers and homeowners.

“The businesses in Estes Park like …  to travel up to Estes Park and see lots of elk,” Bowden said. “Elk are everywhere. They’re on the golf course in town, they’re roaming through the main drag, they’re crossing the road — so everybody loves to take pictures of them.”

Traffic jams in the area are often referred to as “elk jams.” While tourists and the local tourism industry enjoy the presence of elk, local farmers have a mixed, often negative, reaction.

Even though the trip took place in the mountains, the EL attendees were not expecting 17 inches of snow while in the Black Hills.

“We lost power for two days and had to deal with moving material from one cabin to another,” Bowden said. “There were trees down all over the place, roads were impassable, so that made a lot of fun.”

The inclement weather did not stop there — the group experienced hail and thunderstorms while driving from South Dakota to Colorado.

“(We) learned later that tornadoes had passed by the area where we had been,” Bowden said.

The group traveled to South Dakota for the second week of the EL and stayed at the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation, home to the Lakota people.

Environmental science major and spanish minor Julia Holder, ’22, pointed out that her favorite part of the trip was visiting South Dakota because of the eye-opening experience.

“You have this idea of what a Native American reservation is going to be, but then you go there, and it’s a completely different thing than probably what you expected (it) to be,” Holder said.

Holder said one of the main assignments during the trip was to record a journal of their experiences.

“It was really eye-opening to talk to people who actually live there and people who are trying to make a difference there,” Holder said. “It was really emotional at certain parts, too.”

Holder said the way the Lakota people view Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one thing that stood out to her. The students were assigned a reading about the Lakota people, which describes Mount Rushmore as offensive because it is stolen land.

“Our tour guide, who’s a Lakota woman at the reservation, told us that every single president on Mount Rushmore has had some sort of hand in the destruction or (the) hurting of indigenous peoples,” Holder said.

Holder said one of the biggest mass executions in U.S. history was done by President Abraham Lincoln — when the tour guide explained Lincoln’s action, she started crying. Holder said she was shocked to see someone cry about something that happened so long ago and that it almost felt like the Lakota who were killed were part of her own family.

Environmental science major and geology minor Sara Galley, ’21, also mentioned receiving an emotional response from the native people with regards to stolen land.

“A lot of land was taken from the Lakota people that’s really important to them, and then it was kind of Americanized,” Galley said. “They have this one monument people call Devils Tower. That’s the American way that everyone knows it, but there’s a translation. It’s supposed to be called Bear Lodge and it’s really important to them.”

One of Galley’s favorite parts of the trip, she said, was learning from the Lakota culture.

The trip was a great learning experience for all who attended, according to the attendees. Many of them have pointed out how eye-opening the experience was, both ecologically and socially.

“It’s great that more people can experience the land, but we’re kind of tearing it down,” Galley said. “We learned about the natural history of it, and those mountains have been built and torn down and rebuilt just because of weathering and erosion and all that other stuff. We got a lot out of it, a lot of different things.”

Holder echoed her colleagues, elaborating on the main goal for the trip set forth by Bowden. She pointed out how it was a unique experience to see the park from the people who run it rather than simply reading about it online.

“I guess the main goal is just to change what we originally thought (going into the experience),” Holder said. “(Bowden) wanted us to change some of our preconceived notions about park management and Native American reservations.”

She thought the trip was great and that Bowden was a fantastic group leader.

“I would love to go back to Colorado and love to go back to South Dakota,” Holder said. “I recommended it for everybody, especially people who want to major in (environmental science), or just to see life on a Native American reservation and to get that sort of eye-opening experience (that) was really valuable to me.”

Galley also recommended the trip, whether as part of an EL or a visit to the Rocky Mountains.

“I never really thought about how the land was used before (the U.S.) just took it, and I never really thought about the mark that we (left),” Galley said. “It’s an amazing place and we should be able to experience it, but experiencing it with that mindset of, ‘you want other people to enjoy the same way you did’ is really important.”