About the Wild Rockies Summer Semester

Study conservation issues on a spectacular backpacking course with WRFI this summer. We begin our explorations in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem of south-central Montana, and trend steadily north in a series of backcountry trips and frontcountry meetings with regional community and conservation leaders. We will finish the course in the wildly beautiful Canadian Rockies. This course examines conservation at a broad regional perspective, a Native American perspective, and at the local landscape level, with the goal of finding a comprehensive understanding of these issues.

This course area is the heart of a bioregion known as Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y). This mountain ecosystem stretches 2000 miles from Wyoming to just below the Arctic Circle in the Yukon. This region includes some of the most intact wildlands in North America, and is also home to many rapidly growing human communities. Conserving these critical wildlife habitats while making room for expanding human development is a tremendous and complex challenge. That is the long-term task that many regional communities and conservationists have set for themselves through an organization called the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Subjects we will address include conservation biology, community-based conservation, regional environmental policy, restoration ecology, and traditional ecological knowledge.

Our backpacking trips will take us through core habitat areas where we will learn about local natural history, population biology, and disturbance ecology. Our frontcountry travels will take us to “fracture zones” – places where transportation routes and extractive industry limit wildlife movements. During frontcountry sections we will meet with an array of people concerned with conservation in the region: land managers, tribal representatives, environmental activists, restoration ecologists, and industry representatives.

To complement and deepen these travels, we will introduce students to Salish and Kootenai traditional knowledge and practices. Students will attend a variety of talks by tribal members, which range from sittings with tribal elders on ecological and spiritual perspectives to presentations by tribal officials on the significance of traditional values and practices as they relate to current tribal conservation efforts. Students will also experience traditional knowledge in-practice through various interactive lessons, such as hide-tanning and ethnobotany.

The future of this region will evolve from a conversation between people and the land. Our goal is to give students the knowledge and experience needed to productively participate in regional conservation issues. Students leaving this course will understand the biogeography and politics of the Yellowstone to Yukon region, appreciate the natural processes, communities and economies that have shaped it, and have some ideas about the future prospects for wildness and humanity here. We hope to involve you in that conversation, please join us!


Colorado Plateau: Desert Canyons and Culture is a 12-credit, nine-week course that allows students to backpack through spectacular red rock canyons, float down winding rivers, and meet the people that call this region home. Course content focuses on desert ecology, land use history, and wilderness ethics to Native American history and philosophy, geography, and the current environmental issues the people and this region face.

Wilderness travel through the red sandstone heart of southern Utah takes us into some of the most remote canyons in the region. The course begins and ends in Green River, Utah.

For the first three weeks students backpack through the seldom-visited Horseshoe Canyon and Dirty Devil River Canyon. Week Four is spent canoeing through the Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon. This landscape helps students develop a sense of place and gain a firm understanding of the Colorado Plateau’s natural history. We study the incredible ecological interactions and geological phenomena that make this place unique, and contemplate the lives and livelihoods of the first indigenous people that walked this land. In addition, we learn of the political and social issues that shape our personal and societal connection to the Colorado Plateau.

Following our extended backcountry trips, we spend two weeks in the front-country meeting with local environmental activists and resource experts. We head south from Moab to northern Arizona to explore prehistoric human dwellings at Hovenweep National Monument, which we learn about from archaeologists and park rangers. Traveling back to the present, we travel south to spend several days living with a Navajo family. We will be involved in a daily living ceremony, participate in a sweat, and talk to leaders in cultural and natural resource positions. The Hopi Reservation is inside the Navajo Reservation, so we will also visit with Hopi people to gain knowledge and perspective on the history and current politics on the Colorado Plateau: power generation, culture, and land use. We will get to see first-hand several controversial power (and revenue generating) projects, including Glen Canyon Dam, the Navajo Generating Plant, and the Black Mesa Coal Mine. We will also visit with endangered species biologists working with the California condor project and with the willow flycatcher in the Grand Canyon. We will camp near historic Lee’s Ferry and visit Lake Powell.

Our final backcountry section will be in the Dark Canyon Primitive and Wilderness Areas. The backpack trip will take us through a series of life communities, from desert to mountain, and a variety of public land management areas and designations. We will experience both healthy and altered landscapes in order to understand the different ways in which human cultures have chosen to interact with their environment through time.

Readings for the course include writings by Leslie Marmon Silko, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and selected articles on conservation biology, environmental ethics, public lands policy, and ecology. We also meet with several local conservationists, wildlife biologists, land managers, recreation planners, and archaeologists from various federal, tribal, and private land management organizations.

In addition to the academic topics mentioned above, students will learn group safety skills for backcountry travel, minimum impact camping skills, orienteering, and plant, animal and mineral identification.