By Caitlin Styrsky Explore Big Sky Contributor

WEST YELLOWSTONE – The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone will debut a new exhibit by June 1, featuring the Uinta ground squirrel. The exhibit is the first of two new projects aimed at taking visitors beyond grizzly bears and gray wolves and deeper into the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

The Uinta Ground Squirrel Exhibit will give visitors an opportunity to learn about predator-prey relationships in the area. Ground squirrels are an often overlooked but important prey species for indigenous bears, wolves and raptors.

“We talk a lot about predatory species – bears, wolves, birds of prey – but it’s going to be cool and very different to talk about a prey species like ground squirrels,” said A.J. Chlebnik, GWDC Curator of Education.

The exhibit will be surrounded by semicircular plexiglass to offer a surface view of squirrel activity. The enclosure will extend to a depth of 9 feet so ground squirrels can construct underground burrows and hibernate below the frost line.

Unlike the center’s grizzly bears, which remain active year round, the ground squirrels will be allowed to enter their natural hibernation period around August, and re-emerge in March. Graphics in the exhibit will include information about hibernation and how it differs between rodents and bears.

“I think kids, especially, will be able to get close to the plexiglass and really see the squirrels,” said Chlebnik, adding that the squirrels are more likely to be active on hot summer days than the center’s other animals, such as wolves.

The GWDC is also on schedule to open a new riparian exhibit in 2020, which will showcase a habitat of ponds and streams featuring indigenous species such as amphibians, birds, otters and cutthroat trout. An underwater viewing area will grant visitors a one-of-a-kind look at river species in the Yellowstone region.

“People don’t really notice a lot of these riparian species,” said GWDC Director John Heine. “And people don’t get to see bears and wolves every day, so we can hopefully encapsulate the whole [Yellowstone] story here.”

Expansion plans at the center also include new bear den building slated for completion in 2017, and a second bear habitat expected to open in 2024. Improvements to the outdoor amphitheater – including a backstage space for raptor presentations and a large outdoor screen for program visuals – should be completed in time for the theater to reopen in mid-June.

“I think our new projects will add a lot,” Heine said. “It’s the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, but bears and wolves impact a lot of species in Yellowstone and other species are impacted by them.”

Since opening in 1993, GWDC has evolved from a small sanctuary for grizzlies into a globally recognized advocate for bears and wolves.

The organization is an accredited, nonprofit wildlife park that offers a number of year-round educational programs, and is funded by a combination of grants and private donations. Eight bears, six wolves and 10 birds of prey that are unable to survive in the wild currently call the center home, and serve as ambassadors to educate the public.

The GWDC hosted more than 140,000 visitors from around the world in 2014.

Caitlin Styrsky lives in West Yellowstone, where she enjoys fly fishing, yoga and exploring the great outdoors.