Outfitting To Research: The University of Idaho’s Taylor Wilderness Research Station

The University of Idaho has owned a research station in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho since 1969. The station focuses on environmental education for undergraduates and graduates from all over the country.

The Taylor Wilderness Research Station in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area has been owned by many people over the years. The University of Idaho (UI), who owns it now, acquired the property from Jess and Dorothy Taylor in 1969 for $100,000, who had bought the property from David “Cougar Dave” Lewis in 1935 for $1,200. The university intended to fund the research station for a couple years before research grants would fund it self-sufficiently, a hope that remains unfulfilled. The station has adapted, though, and still focuses on education and research.

One unique opportunity at the station is the University of Idaho’s Semester in the Wild Program. This program allows students to spend a semester in the wilderness taking an integrated set of classes in the sciences and humanities, while receiving field experience.

The main focus and goal for the research station has remained education, broadly defined, rather than publishable research. The research station produced even more educational research opportunities when the university bought it. For example, the caretakers Jim and Holly Akenson, who were hired by UI, managed the property from 1982 to 2003 and developed an internship program, accepting and encouraging interns and students to come do research, especially in wildlife ecology. The Akensons took the interns on backpacking and horseback riding excursions to trap wolves, cougars, bobcats, and bears to tag them and collect data. They also investigated carcasses they happened across to determine how that animal was killed. Mostly, this research focused on students’ learning opportunities and backcountry skill-building rather than academic publication. It worked, because student experiences made them more marketable for future jobs.

In recent decades, the station moved towards more long-term monitoring programs, reflecting shifts in the history of ecology, which will provide the groundwork for potential future research. Some long-term monitoring efforts have already happened. For example, bird observations are made over the seasons to determine the presence or absence of specific bird species. Another project has compared the biomass of bluebunch wheatgrass to bighorn sheep populations. This research has been active for more than 25 years. As for today, one of the caretakers is conducting a research project on the pheromones of cougars to determine if we can identify cougars based on their different smells alone. UI also collaborates; Idaho State University researchers come to the research station each year to sample multiple creeks in the Big Creek drainage, looking at the riparian area and stream productivity. This has been conducted for 31 years, which gives us data from before a major fire in 2000 that significantly affected the ecological relationships in the watershed. Research here is limited to non-invasive practices, because it is a wilderness area. Permits also limit the station’s ability to conduct research in the area. However, even with the regulations in wilderness, research continues. The size of the wilderness area makes TWRS an especially useful research site in many of the environmental sciences.

The station is invaluable for giving students hands on field experience in an unusual learning environment. It allows long-term research to be carried out in a place where getting research permits can be hard. The educational opportunities that are provided here let students from all over the country experience wilderness and education in a whole new way.