CWC Student, Guenther, researches at 11,000 feet in mid-winter

Central Wyoming College student Nate Guenther is using Geospatial Information Science and Technology (GIST) and photography to gather data for a paleoclimate study of the upper Dinwoody area in the Wind River Mountains. His mid-winter research into environmental conditions at 11,000 feet above sea level is part of the CWC Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expedition (ICCE) project to analyze the Dinwoody Glacier and human use of the high alpine region throughout the last 12,000 years.

With the guidance from CWC faculty, Guenther documented mid-January snow accumulation patterns, winter wildlife communities and predator/prey behavior is a component of the archaeological analysis of the highest known bison jump in North America, a recent discovery by the CWC archaeological field school last summer. This significant site, which is likely to change the understanding of ancient people’s relationships with the mountains and glaciers, has attracted international attention.

“We’ve been postulating that people who had tons of dried buffalo meat from a summer or fall jump, plus bighorn sheep and elk meat, hundreds of pounds of pine nuts and other plant foods might have stayed up high rather than carry everything down to the Wind River valley on their backs,” said Todd Guenther, professor of anthropology and history. “Remember this was in the days before horses, so it was very important to evaluate the winter conditions up there.”

Along with finding the jump the students also found flowing springs, plenty of firewood but not much snow accumulation, and avoidable drifts, Guenther said.

“This was an important trip because it demonstrated that it was imminently possible that prehistoric people stayed up at 11,000 feet, there in the vicinity of the jump site at least into the winter, if not all through the winter,” Guenther said. “Of course this doesn’t mean the conditions allowed them to stay every winter, but they probably couldn’t have a jump every year, either. But at least some years it’s likely they did not come down into the Warm Valley at the end of summer.”

Nate Guenther’s work required a long snowshoe expedition deep into the Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area in the Shoshone National Forest. Preliminary data suggests that, contrary to traditional beliefs, prehistoric people supplied with thousands of pounds of dried buffalo meat, pine nuts and other plant foods could have wintered at that elevation. Guenther helped document moose, elk, mountain sheep and wolves in the project area during the Jan. expedition.

“It was stunning being in the mountains in January; untouched by humans, just pristine wilderness, us, bighorn sheep, elk and wolves,” Guenther said. “Winter backpacking in the mountains is a fantastic experience. It puts you more in the moment than any other winter activity I’ve ever done.”

Guenther used military applications of GIST while serving as a first lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne and is now pursuing a GIST degree at CWC. GIST is a fast-growing field which uses contemporary software and hardware to facilitate data collection and presentation, and assists in identifying spatial relationships and trends. GIST harnesses the power of satellite imagery, 3D mapping and computer science to collect data and analyze features on the earth’s surface.

Geospatial mapping is used in industries ranging from oil field development and resource exploration to monitoring and improving wildlife habitat. This field of study prepares students to be technicians working in a variety of useful professions including planning urban growth, designing roads, managing forests, exploring natural resources, mapping natural disasters, real estate site selection and much more.

CWC science students participating in the multi-year ICCE project are collecting data on glacial ice-loss and its causes, water flow and quality on the Dinwoody Glacier located on Wyoming’s highest mountain, Gannett Peak. Archaeology students are studying human adaptations to the high alpine and CWC Outdoor Ed students are using critical mountaineering skills to enable the expedition to transpire safely under the guidance of professors Jacki Klancher, Todd Guenther and Darran Wells. Information acquired by this project is provided to several universities and government agencies for use in developing management plans.

“I think our ICCE project is likely to change our understanding of prehistoric peoples’ relationships with the high country and what types of food were available there,” Guenther said.

 

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