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At Home on the Range

Becca Bolton, a member of Washington and Lee’s Class of 2012, spent the past five months roaming around Yellowstone National Park, observing the increasing population of bison.

She is a biological technician working on a research project that is a collaborative effort among W&L biology professor Bill Hamilton and colleagues Douglas Frank (Syracuse University) and Rick Wallen (head of the Yellowstone Bison Management Program).

“We have six different field sites located in the northeast section of Yellowstone,” writes Becca. “Fortunately, this area is the most beautiful part of Yellowstone, and I get to see bison, wolves, bears, pronghorns, and wonderful scenery while at work.”

As Becca explains, Yellowstone is one of the last areas with a free-ranging population of wild bison, which has increased in the past few years. That growth has led managers to become concerned about the impact of grazing intensity on grassland processes.

The goal of the project is to “examine the effects of an increased bison population on grassland production, nitrogen cycling, and species composition.”

There are two different grazing experiments. One is a “clipping” study that is done in a large permanent “exclosure” (an area from which unwanted animals are excluded). The bison are unable to enter this area, which contains 28 1.5-by-1.5-meter plots. “We simulate bison grazing by clipping different plots at grazing intensities ranging from 0 to 90 percent. We then measure aboveground production, soil moisture, and nitrogen levels,” writes Becca.

The second experiment is a natural grazing study in which small exclosures are constructed at each site, and the bison can graze around each exclosure. “We measure production, soil moisture, and nitrogen levels inside the exclosure as well as outside in order to determine if there are differences between the grazed and the ungrazed grassland,” she writes.

This field study will end in October, and Becca will head back east to the lab at Syracuse, where she’ll test the collection of five months’ worth of grass clippings.

A double major in biology and environmental science, Becca also starred on the Generals basketball team and holds several scoring records, including the single-game record of 39 points against Lynchburg in 2011.

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