It’s not everyday that you get a chance to talk to botanists at Glacier National Park. Somehow I wound up connecting with three amazing women who are not only botanists, but outdoors enthusiasts, mothers, and authors. Jen Asebrook, Shannon Kimball, and Jen Hintz have worked in Glacier National Park for years, and they were gracious enough to share their thoughts with us during their busiest season. Tune into this interview to hear about what makes them feel alive, tag along on a typical day of hiking and documenting plants, gain insight about their climate change research, and learn why they love being outdoors with other women.
How did you first become interested in botany?
Jen A: I studied various science subjects before finding a love for botany. I started out wanting to go to med school, but switched my major to environmental studies in college after taking environmental science and geology classes. Upon graduation, I got a job with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in FL working with sea turtles (another passion for a while). TNC was doing a large-scale native plant restoration project at the preserve and I began to grow interested in native plants – how to grow them, how to control weeds, how to restore disturbed areas. That interest grew to a passion and I went back to grad school to get my M.S. in Plant Ecology from Duke University. My master’s thesis brought me to Glacier in 1993 where they were just starting to implement a native plant restoration program in the park, one of the first of its kind for a national park. I fell in love with the area and with my work in the park and I immediately came back to Montana after grad school and never left.
Shannon: In college I had a work-study job with an organization that identifies and tracks rare plant populations. That’s where I learned exactly what botanists do. This exposure, coupled with my love of the outdoors, led to my exploring it as a career. I’ve loved it.
Jen H: I have always loved plants, and nature in general, but I actually started out studying and working with animals. I have a master’s degree in Marine Ecology, but when I moved to Montana, I found a job with the Park Service working with plants. Working with plants feels more in line with my personal philosophy of not harming nature as much as possible, since so much of animal research feels invasive or even cruel to animals.
What excites you about the outdoors?
Jen A: So many things – the beauty, the freedom, the fresh air, the wildness, the exercise. Seeing so many different things in one day. A day in the field can have so many unexpected observations – first flowers of the season, seeing a rare flower that doesn’t bloom often, a wildlife or bird sighting, particular lighting or colors on the mountains. While I don’t necessarily prefer nasty weather days, I have had some of the most exciting days of my life out-running a thunderstorm, being caught in hail, or trying to remain upright in 60 mph winds. It makes you feel present, aware, alive, part of something.
I also love that you rarely run into a crabby person in the outdoors, particularly hiking on a trail. Everyone is in a great mood and you are sharing this unique experience with them.
Shannon: Being outdoors just feels better than being inside. It’s hard to explain, but those who love the outdoors know exactly what I’m talking about. Of course when it’s less than 30 degrees and windy I’d rather be indoors!
Jen H: I am not an adrenaline junkie, who needs to “conquer” the elements. The outdoors to me is peaceful and where I feel happiest and most at home. If I spend too much time indoors, I start to feel edgy. Ever since I was a child, I have always loved plants, animals and nature, and to spend most of my time with them outdoors studying them is most satisfying.
Can you give a snapshot of what you do on a daily basis?
Jen A: That is a hard question to answer, as every day is different. Here are descriptions of two typical days this summer on 2 projects we were worked on. The first project is part of an international program called GLORIA (Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments) that aims to monitor alpine plants and communities on top of mountain peaks. Most of our GLORIA sites (we have 4) are at least 6 to 9 miles one way to the site. A typical day will start in the dark at 6am when our 4-5 person GLORIA crew will start hiking. After 2-3 hours of hiking, often climbing 3,000 to 4,000 feet in elevation carrying gear, we reach the top of the peak, lay out the monitoring scheme, and begin a fairly monotonous day documenting the plants we see in various size plots and their canopy covers. Because we don’t necessarily want to climb the same peak again the next day (although sometimes we have to due to weather), we will collect plant data for 7 to 8 hours, eating while we work, before hiking out the same 6 to 9 miles. While the days can be beautiful, they are often long. While I always find the work meaningful to our research, the hours can be monotonous and tiring. We are thankful it stays light until 10pm in the summer as we sometimes will work a 15 hour day. I ALWAYS reach the truck exhausted, ready to take my boots off, yet feeling extremely happy about the whole day.
Other projects are more straightforward. A second typical day could be one where we monitor a whitebark or limber pine restoration project. These five-needled pine trees are imperiled due to a non-native rust that was introduced to the US around 1900. Glacier is trying to restore disease resistant trees to the park with our research and help from plant geneticists. So far planting crews have planted over 9,000 limber pine trees and over 15,000 whitebark pine trees in the park, many of which Jen Hintz and I have been monitoring over the past 13 years to assess the restoration success. While some of these sites require a 12-15 mile round trip hike, several planting areas are closer to roads or a shorter 2 to 4 mile hike. We typically hike in, navigate off-trail with a GPS to a pin that marks permanent plots, and use measuring tapes and a compass to locate planted whitebark seedlings. We measure their height and width, check them for any signs of rust, and take data on environmental variables that they experience – slope, aspect, wind protection, etc. Once all plots have been monitored, we take photos and hike back to our car. We typically work a 10 hour day to accommodate driving to a trailhead, hiking, and completing our field work.
Shannon: I’ve done a variety of things at different times, some within Glacier and some outside Park boundaries. There are field days collecting data, office days analyzing data and writing reports, and meetings with agency personnel. Botany’s very diverse, which is another reason it’s so interesting.
Jen H: Our daily work is quite variable! Most field days involve hiking to a study site, navigating to study plots, identifying the plants in the plot and estimating percent cover of each species. It’s often a juxtaposition between the quite physical exertion of getting there and then spending hours with your nose to the ground looking at tiny plants.
What’s it like to work at Glacier?
Jen A: This is my 21st year in Glacier and truly this park is something special. While I have been many places in Glacier, it is a million acre area and there are always new places to explore. Even with increases in visitation each year, it is still easy to have many field days where you feel like you have the park to yourself. You see and hear no one – it is truly a place that you can find solitude. Glacier is also a wild place so I also need to be aware of my surroundings at all times. With this level of alertness, mostly for bears, I take in many other details of the park as I hike. The views, the wildlife, the beauty still bring me to my knees many times a year. I have visited many other beautiful landscapes across the world, but it always feels good to come back to Glacier.
In terms of working at the park, the people I work with directly are amazing. Very caring, very attune to changes that are happening with the resources of the park, very kind.
Shannon: The landscapes are very dramatic in Glacier and it’s obviously very beautiful. On the flip side it can be dangerous, with bear encounters and sudden snowstorms always a possibility.
Jen H: I feel fortunate to have one of the most beautiful “offices” I have seen! Being a field person, I get to spend most of my time out there in Glacier’s glory, rather than bogged down with administrative duties.
Best part about the job?
Jen A: Being so intimately knowledgeable about this specific place. After 21 years, I really feel like I know the flora, the plant communities, the drivers that have created and continue to create this landscape. I also feel that our recent research in alpine landscapes and in wetland communities are lending to the big picture data set of understanding impacts to vegetation with climate change. They are long-term questions but I feel proud to have been on the leading edge of setting up some of these studies. Similarly, our work restoring whitebark and limber pine and our 20+ year data set for monitoring native plant restoration has influenced how we do things in the park and helped other national parks get started with these programs.
Also – the lovely people on the crews that I work with. Working in a beautiful place.
Shannon: Jen Asebrook and I used to talk about “the perfect field day,” which was a rare occurrence. Those are the best days to be a botanist, where the temperature is hovering around 72 degrees, there’s a light breeze, and there aren’t any biting bugs.
Jen H: The part of my job that I love the most is being out in the field in glorious settings studying an amazing ecosystem. I love the physicality of hiking as well as the mental challenge of identifying plants, since we have over 1,100 species of plants in Glacier National Park.
Most challenging part?
Jen A: After 21 years, I am still a seasonal employee. There were times that particular permanent jobs opened at the park but were not quite what I wanted to do. I also could have moved to another state and would have likely found a permanent job in my field. But I am raising my family here and really enjoy field work – those factors have, unfortunately, not led to a permanent job with the Park Service.
Field days are often long as well – hard to balance family and work. Spring days when the mosquitos can be thick can also be challenging.
Shannon: Trying to stay warm on days that weren’t so perfect; when it’s windy, rainy, cold and buggy.
Jen H: One of the most challenging parts of the job is that it is seasonal, so I only work 6 months a year here, with no benefits. It’s a trade-off between being a full time desk jockey with benefits and being in the field most of the time. It’s challenging to make a living as a field biologist.
Could you talk about your experience dealing with the impact of climate change?
Jen A: We are involved in several projects right now that are aiming to quantify the impacts of climate change on plants, particularly in the alpine. Some of our projects have already documented a shift in treeline (trees in certain areas are extending higher in elevation), shifts in ranges of plants, and the establishment of lower elevation plant species that are creeping to higher elevations. Changes in plant phenology are constantly being documented, showing shifting flowering times, seed dynamics, and plant cover – all of which have impacts to insects and wildlife. Plant research in terms of climate change is mainly trying to document those changes, model the potential outcomes to see if there is anything we could be doing (for example, planting in other areas? Collecting seed for seed banks?), and also monitor if relying insects/pollinators and wildlife behavior are shifting in a similar way.
Shannon: There are long-term studies underway to document whether or not climate change is affecting Glacier’s vegetation. That said, in the timeframe that I’ve been hiking in Glacier (a 30-some year period) I’ve seen a remarkable reduction in the size of our glaciers. It’s shocking.
Jen H: Several of our projects provide baseline data which could be used to look at vegetation change over time in the future. We are very involved with the Inventory and Monitoring program, whereby we collect data annually in grasslands, wetlands and streams which monitors change over time of many parameters in these ecosystems. The GLORIA project (led in Glacier by Dan Fagre of the USGS), poses a direct question of how alpine plants are responding to climate change. This year marked the second re-read of 4 alpine peaks in Glacier.
What has your experience been like working with digital plant tools?
Jen A: I actually don’t like them very much. I think some of them are helpful for a non botanist who generally wants to know common plants or the general name of a wildflower or tree. But they are not very useful for us when we need to know the species of a particular grass, sedge, lichen, or very small alpine plant. We work at the subspecies and variety levels of plants so we need to be very specific when identifying something. Current digital plant tools are not complete enough at the moment for that kind of detail.
Shannon: With the help of a couple of tech-savvy colleges I’ve published an app for wildflower identification in Glacier. So of course I love digital plant tools! Our app been well-received since it came out, 2 years ago. I’m not sure whether it’s the wave of the future or not. Time will tell.
Jen H: We use GIS fairly extensively for mapping plant populations and monitoring areas. It is an amazing tool and I can’t quite imagine how field biologists did their work without it! Previously, people had to do a lot of hand mapping, which was incredibly time-consuming, and potentially not very accurate.
Could you share your perspective on women in the outdoors?
Jen A: While I have spent many lovely days in the field with men (including my husband!), I think I have had some of best days in the outdoors with women. I find that a group of women – big or small – generally has little competition or ego in the outdoors. We chat while we hike, we bring fun snacks to share, and we are always looking out for one another. I have worked with some incredibly strong, giving, sensitive women in the park but I have also found a great group of women friends from all occupations that I regularly hike, bike, ski and back pack with. The friendship and the sometimes challenging activity that we are pursuing ends up allowing us to feel a more intimate experience with each other. There is really time to talk and be with someone in the outdoors. I find, too, that we push each other in our skills in a different, helpful way – my husband could never get me to ski a black diamond run when I was learning to ski but my female friend was the perfect instructor!
Shannon: I’ve loved seeing more and more women choose careers that take them outdoors and to amazing places like Glacier National Park. Even though the field work can be demanding, the women I’ve worked with are often tougher than the men.
Jen H: These days, it seems as if there are as many women as men who are outdoor enthusiasts. I don’t feel that there are any barriers keeping women from doing anything that they desire in the outdoors.
How do you balance work and family life?
Jen A: It’s hard! I have two sons, ages 10 and 13, and I am constantly figuring out how to spend more time at home. Summer work days can be very long which can be hard on the whole family. In fact, it almost feels harder now that my kids are older and don’t want to be in a camp all summer or with a baby sitter. I do lots of friend swaps and when I’m really lucky, they periodically come out in the field with me. They are both such strong hikers, skiers, Nordic skiers, and bikers already, having grown up in this lifestyle. My husband, thankfully, has a lot of flexibility with his job in the summer.
Shannon: I made the choice to give up most of my field work when I had kids. I turned my attention to writing a field guide to Glacier’s most common plants, which I was able to do from home. As my kids have gotten older I’ve been able to get back into the field, but not at the level that I once worked.
Jen H: I don’t have children, so that makes it a bit easier. I am married and do have several animals, however (horses, dogs and chickens), that require a lot of care and attention. Summers can be tough, in that I work long days and often travel for work. Quiet winters are the antidote to busy summers, but balance is always a challenge.
Advice for women looking to work in your field?
Jen A: Specifically with botany or plant ecology, I would hope that anyone looking to get into this field would have a passion for looking at and understanding plants. In particular, they should love to get down on their hand and knees and truly enjoy keying out a plant. Spend time with dichotomous keys, looking at plants in a microscope, understanding the similarities and differences of plant families. We have met many students who graduate with a lot of computer and technological skills. While these are also helpful, true botanists are a bit of dying breed. It takes an odd focus, an odd passion to want to look at plants all day. So my advice is really to love the study of the subject you are working in. It also doesn’t hurt to be physically fit and have a personality that can handle the occasional harsh working day in the rain, the cold, or the humid day. Must be able to go with the flow with the unknown changes in the field!
Shannon: The time I spent volunteering with different botanists early in my career was invaluable. Not only did I learn Montana’s plants and habitats, I created lasting relationships with others in my field that have been rewarding and so much fun.
Jen H: Get as much education and experience as possible, since it’s getting very competitive as jobs become fewer in this field. Expectations may be challenged; to be a full-time field biologist doesn’t usually equate to full time work. There is a saying, “when you move up, you move in”, meaning that the higher positions usually require more office work than field work. Also, moving up often requires being able to relocate, so flexibility is important to someone who is seeking a higher position. That said, there are people out there who still maintain a field component to their work as they have advanced, and I have seen as many women as men in these positions.
Who are your inspirations?
Jen A: I guess I don’t really have well-known people who are my inspirations. I have always been inspired by my parents and family for their work ethic. I am inspired by my children everyday who soak in this world with such new enthusiasm that it is contagious. I am inspired by so many people who are dedicated to what they do and become really good at it, often without glory or recognition.
Shannon: Professionally the person who’s influenced me the most has been Peter Lesica. He’s the co-author on the 2 books I’ve written and is a living catalog of information on Montana’s flora, especially Glacier National Park. He’s devoted his life to his work, and has shared it with others by writing floras of both Glacier and Montana. But of course my 2 greatest inspirations are my kids.
Jen H: Many of the people that I admire most are the “old-time” naturalists or Park Rangers who used to know everything about all the plants, animals and geography of an area, often balancing the science of nature with art.
How do you define adventure?
Jen A: I think adventure is often something new, although I think you can have adventures in familiar places with new circumstances, including new people. I think I feel like something is an adventure when I can’t predict my day, when things happen that are unexpected.
Shannon: My definition of adventure has changed over the years. My most enjoyable adventures include a mix of beautiful scenery, fresh air and a long day of strenuous exercise, followed by a hot meal and a beer around a campfire.
Jen H: Adventure, to me, is a state of mind, whereby one challenges one’s self to new activities, new places or situations, or new ideas.