Current Graduate Research

Application of fecal indicator bacteria and host-specific genetic markers for microbial source tracking of bacterial contamination in a high use Wilderness Area

Daniel P. Pendergraph1, Matthew J. Church2, John Raineri2, Robert O. Hall2, Lochlin Ermatinger3, Alexander L. Metcalf4,  Thomas J. Deluca5

1The Wilderness Institute, W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, Missoula Mt USA

2Flathead Lake Biological Station, Division of Biological Sciences, University of Montana, Polson, Mt USA

3Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman, Mt USA


4Human Dimensions Lab, W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, Mt USA


5 W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, Mt, USA

Recreational impacts to water resources are extensive and well-studied in protected areas globally. Bacterial contamination, specifically fecal bacteria, poses an imminent threat to human health because of the risk for transmission of illness and disease. Water sources in designated Wilderness areas are particularly vulnerable to fecal water contamination due to high volumes of overnight visitors and lack of backcountry facilities. To determine the occurrence of fecal water contamination in Wilderness water resources, an exploratory analysis was conducted at various water sources across the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, MT/WY using fecal indicator bacterium (FIB), total coliform/E.coli. To determine if human recreation is contributing to overall fecal contamination, we attempted to develop a ddPCR based assay using a host-specific genetic marker, BacH(Bacteroides ssp.), for the detection of human fecal matter in Wilderness water sources. E.coli was detected at 11 popular water sources across the Wilderness while most sites in our assay are right near the limit of detection (10 copies per reaction). 7 of the 15 sites in the assay were above the limit of detection for BacH, indicating human fecal contamination. The results of this study suggest a need for the further exploration of the spatial and temporal dynamics of fecal water contamination from recreation as well as further development of the PCR based assay to determine the contribution of human fecal contamination to total fecal contamination in Wilderness water sources.


Photo of Dan Pendergraph


Recreation Trends and Impacts:  A Case Study of the Sawtooth Wilderness

Chelsea Phillippe1

Elizabeth Covelli Metcalf2

1 M.S. Candidate Resource Conservation, W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, Missoula MT USA

2Human Dimensions Lab, W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, MT USA



Public land managers strive to find a balance between recreation opportunities and wilderness resource protection. In response to increasing visitation rates, land managers have historically prioritizedindirect methods of control, such as Leave No Trace education, but as detrimental recreation impacts compound so do  pressures to utilize direct methods of control like restrictive  permitting systems. This research will help managers gain a better understanding of detrimental recreation trends and behaviors in the Sawtooth Wilderness to facilitate their prioritization of indirect methods of control by preparing targeted Leave No Trace messages.  This mixed method research pairs quantifiable recreation trends and their associated impacts in the Sawtooth Wilderness with qualitative interviews to provide a holistic understanding of recreation impacts in the Sawtooth Wilderness over time.  An analysis will be conducted on decades of data collected in the Sawtooth Wilderness including required wilderness entry permits, campsite monitoring reports, wilderness ranger field notes, Wildlands Education reports, U.S. Forest Service management actions, and interviews with long-term employees, businesses, and local residents. 


Chelsea Phillippe



Mikensi Romersa - Environmental and Natural Resource Journalism - "Grasping Wild"

Mikensi is working on a documentary in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, focusing specifically on relationship to place within wilderness. This is a visual story of the relationship between humans and their environment, the desire to explore untouched terrain, and the need to preserve it, and how this area of Montana has done its best to keep tourism at bay in a growing recreational tourism climate. Furthermore, it will look to address the current threats being made to land in these areas and pose the question of how we, as citizens, want land to be managed for generations to come.


Mikensi Romersa



Past Research with Students, Faculty, and Community Partners