CLEMSON — Three Clemson University students from the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences spent nearly three months in the summer of 2015 as interns at High Meadow Ranch in south-central Montana. They collected field data for their independent research projects, studied, and did what ranch hands do — they rode horses, herded cattle, and mended fences.

Clemson undergraduate students Marilyn Jackson, Anne Carew, and Matt Nelson (left to right) attending the Home of the Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge, Montana.

Clemson undergraduate students Marilyn Jackson, Anne Carew, and Matt Nelson (left to right) attending the Home of the Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge, Montana.
Image Credit: David Jachowski

Anne Carew, Marilyn Jackson and Matt Nelson are part of Clemson’s Montana Summer Field Program designed by Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology David Jachowski. The goal of the program is to give Clemson students the opportunity to experience the biodiversity and working landscape of the Great Plains through directed undergraduate work and research experience.

Goz and Pat Segars own High Meadow Ranch. In 2012 Goz and Pat Segars and their family established an endowment for Clemson to support students in agricultural majors. “Those students are the “driving force” for the future of agriculture,” said Goz.

David Jachowski joined the Clemson department of forestry and environmental conservation after spending the majority of his career working and conducting wildlife research on the Great Plains.

“The Montana Summer Field Program is an evolving program to engage students in the ranch life experience while they conduct research on their own student-led projects. The program gives them a unique opportunity to apply science to an agricultural landscape while they are actually working on it,” said Jachowski.

“An exciting part of this program is the potential to bring in other Clemson faculty. For example, Dr. Gustavo Lascano, a prominent ruminant nutrition expert currently advises the program. Drs. Tom Scott and Patrick McMillan have also joined the program in 2016 to make this an interdisciplinary and unique opportunity for students from across CAFLS.”

The 3-semester program began in the spring of 2015 when Carew, Jackson and Nelson were competitively selected as fellows to participate in a specially designed Creative Inquiry class to help them develop ideas and draft proposals for their summer research project. Then it was off to Montana for the summer.

On the ranch, the fellows’ research involved using GPS navigation and mapping systems to plot the locations of invasive species by mapping their proximity to water and roads.

Even the team chore of thinning pine trees to prevent encroachment on prairie grasslands led to a collaborative research project to investigate how grasses, forbs and shrubs (key food sources for cattle and other wildlife) respond to the thinning of trees.

“It’s an amazing feeling to look back on the summer and know that I helped write the studies that I executed,” said Anne Carew. “And we’re not even finished yet; this fall, we will be busy compiling and analyzing the data that we have gathered.”

Nic McMillan, a graduate teaching assistant for the Montana Summer Field Program visited the fellows for three weeks in May as a mentor to help them with their research projects, and to adjust to life on the ranch. Chores on a cattle ranch are a culture away from the farms of South Carolina. The verdant biodiversity of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which rise from Clemson’s back yard, is in stark contrast to the vast stretches of grasslands of the Great Plains, which have a biodiversity of their own.

McMillan is also the beneficiary of a graduate research fellowship that is partly funded by the Segars’ gift. Two hundred miles away in another part of Montana, he has set up research plots to determine how bison compare to cattle in impacting ecosystems. His work has brought him in contact with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the American Prairie Reserve, a non-profit conservation organization.

“Each of these organizations has different constituencies and different goals and objectives,” he said. “I try to bridge the gap between them by collecting scientific data in order to help make better land management policies and decisions.”

During this past fall semester, the undergraduate fellows met weekly with Dr. Jachowski to analyze their field data and write a paper for publication and to present to landowners in Montana.

“Living in the west for almost three months definitely had a huge impact on me,” said Matt Nelson, “but I also think that it allowed me to see the amazing things that are all around me every single day.”

Benefits to fellows include experiencing the ecology of the Great Plains in Montana, a paid summer fellowship, and the design, implementation, analysis and reporting of their own research.

“I’m now just understanding the magnitude of change that occurred in my life these last three months,” said Marilyn Jackson. “Being away from home and everything that I am used to/grown up near has been an extremely important learning opportunity for me, one that will continue to impact me for many years.”

The 2015 Montana Summer Field Program Fellows Annie Carew, Marilyn Jackson, and Matt Nelson have now completed analysis and reporting of their summer field study of pine tree thinning and the response of vegetative communities.  A poster highlighting their year-long effort to design the study, collect field data, and analyze and report their findings can be seen at the Clemson Prairie Ecology website.