Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer

ENNIS – A group of Montana State University professors visited the Jack Creek Preserve this June, touring what will soon be the new Outdoor Education Center and interpretive nature trail.

Part of the Earth Sciences, Ecology, Animal and Range Sciences Department, the 10 professors also spent time walking through some different habitats in the 4,600-acre preserve, which sits between Big Sky and Ennis. The idea was to introduce them to the facility and natural laboratory that will be available to their students as soon as this coming fall.

The foundation aims to conserve and protect wildlife habitat in the preserve and the surrounding area, and to connect young people to ecology, conservation, wildlife management and hunter conservationists. It has offered summer camps for school children for the past seven summers.

The professors’ visit was part of the foundation’s effort to expand the reach of its mission to MSU students. It’s currently starting the process of formalizing what may be come a partnership with the school.

The group explored some of the preserve’s diverse habitats, which range from 6,000 to 8,500 feet, brainstorming possible research projects. They were excited about the opportunity for students to do fieldwork there.

That kind of experience will help them be competitive in the job market when they graduate, said Bob Garrott, director of MSU’s Fish and Wildlife Ecology Department, who is also on the foundation’s board.

Professor Dave Roberts, who heads MSU’s Plant Ecology Department, envisioned having undergraduate students inventory vegetation on the property, and also map vegetation distribution.

The preserve has several non-productive grassy areas in need of restoration to make them more attractive to elk and deer. Assistant Professor Bok Sowell, from the Animal and Range Sciences department, suggested it would be interesting to do small controlled burns in these areas over several years to see what would regrow.

Dave McWethy studies climate history by looking at tree cores and lake sediment cores. He thinks that some of the alpine lakes on the preserve could have been there since the last glaciations and would like to take core sediment samples and collect climate data.

The professors “were enthused before they got here, but they were even more enthused once they saw the diversity of habitat and flora and fauna and elevations,” said Jack Creek Preserve founder Jon Fossel. Fossel himself was “fired up” about the concept. “You can learn a lot more out here than you can sitting in a classroom in Bozeman,” he said.

The foundation this spring broke ground on the Outdoor Education Center. The facility will have classroom space to accommodate 50 people and overnight sleeping space for 40 students and teachers. It will be powered by a mini-hydro plant onsite, and will use solar resources to heat water for showers.

The center will be open seasonally to the public and available for use year round by educational and community organizations. The foundation anticipates the building will be completed by next spring.