By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern
Beginning at a young age, Dr. Cristina Eisenberg has had a passion for science, describing herself as the nerdy kid in second grade who spent her time in the library reading every book on wildlife, anthropology, archeology, and paleontology that she could get her hands on.
“I was fascinated by it,” Cristina said. “But like many people, I got sidetracked away from science.”
Today, Cristina is Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist – overseeing a portfolio of more than 50 research studies around the world, including her own, which focuses on the relationship between fire and wolves in the Canadian Rockies. Her research is playing a crucial role in restoring the once extensive grasslands of Waterton Lakes National Park back to their pre Euro-American settings.
In 1999, with a bachelor’s degree in painting, Cristina relocated to northwest Montana along the continental divide. A naturalist and stay-at-home mom at the time, she learned to track animals that passed through her land – a system developed to ensure her children’s safety. On a cool and misty July morning, as she was working outside in her garden, Cristina watched as a deer burst from the woods into the meadow in front of her home with two wolves in pursuit.
“It ran towards us and came within about 20 feet of us and right behind it was a pair of wolves, a grey one and a black one,” Cristina said. “Later I learned that it was an alpha male and female pair. They had started a pack.”
Cristina determined these wolves were traveling down from Canada and recolonizing the landscape, which was located just 400 miles from Yellowstone National Park.
This rare sighting sparked her interests and she began tracking wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a volunteer basis. She was a citizen scientist in action. In 2003, she returned to school and obtained her master’s in conservation biology and environmental writing from Prescott University. Cristina’s first book, The Wolf’s Tooth, was based on her master’s thesis. She then went on to pursue two doctorates in wildlife and forestry at Oregon State University.
While completing her doctorate, Cristina hired interns with field experience to support her research, several of whom had volunteered on Earthwatch expeditions. While she had heard of Earthwatch in the past, this was her first real exposure to the organization.
But her ties to Earthwatch were only just beginning. In 2010, she gave a talk on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she met Earthwatch’s Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman. Three years later, she spoke again at a fundraiser in Seattle about the relationship with her volunteers and their importance in her research, which Stan also attended. He recognized her passion for environmental science and for citizen science, and suggested she write a proposal for an Earthwatch research project. In 2015, Cristina launched her first Earthwatch expedition: Tracking Fire and Wolves through the Canadian Rockies.
“The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know.” – Cristina Eisenberg
During the Westward expansion, large carnivorous predators were wiped out to eliminate human settlement interactions as well as increase the availability of game. These actions resulted in a boom in herbivore populations. At the same time, fire was suppressed in order to protect forest resources and human interests. Funded by Parks Canada, Earthwatch, the Kainai First Nation, and the AGL Foundation, Cristina’s research examines the effects that these conditions have had on the species within Waterton Lakes National Park, a biodiversity hotspot located in Alberta, Canada. With the natural recolonization of wolves and use of large prescribed fires, the area has experienced drastic change.
In September of 2014, she was hired as Earthwatch’s Lead Scientist, and more recently assumed the role of Chief Scientist. With more than 10 years of field experience under her belt, Cristina is a scientist who is “attached to the natural world.” She has had some exciting experiences in the field, including a memorable 24-hour period in May pulling transect tape in a blizzard as wolves silently hunted behind her, or watching as an elusive alpha female wolf devoured a fully grown elk. Her work more recently includes working alongside the aboriginal Kainai Tribe, where she is supporting efforts to update their timberland management plan to protect their sacred lands.
While Cristina is now stationed at Earthwatch’s headquarters in Boston, each May she returns to the field with a group of volunteers, continuing the conservation of one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. Her research has and will continue to unfold the ecological mysteries of this area, while posing new questions for years to come.