History of the Flathead Lake Biological Station

View of Yellow Bay from the picnic area

The University of Montana Biological Station at Flathead Lake is one of the oldest active biological field research stations in the United States.   It was established near Bigfork in 1899 by its first director, Dr. Morton J. Elrod, UM Distinguished Professor of Biology. It was moved to Yellow Bay in 1908.

Since opening in 1899, students from around the country and all over the world have been coming to the station to learn firsthand about biology.  By 1977, year-round research was being conducted at the Morton J. Elrod Laboratory. With the 1981 construction of the state-of-the-art Schoonover Freshwater Research Laboratory the Flathead Lake Biological Station became one of the finest freshwater research facilities in the country.

The Flathead Lake Biological Station itself is located on a peninsula that shelters Yellow Bay from the main body of Flathead Lake.  The grounds include a springbrook and an old growth stand of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and larch.  The station also has land on Bull Island and Polson Bay, and co-manages the Bird Islands.

Students and visiting faculty live in cabins along the lake shoreline or in a winterized dormitory.  The grounds are home to several full-time residents including the director, visiting research staff and a caretaker who live with their families in homes and apartments on the station grounds.  Students and faculty dine together in the Prescott Center, a commissary and meeting complex.  Four laboratory buildings house the inside biology, limnology, aquatic ecology, and terrestrial ecology labs and specialized research projects.  Ongoing limnology research is based in the Schoonover Freshwater Research Laboratory.

Around the Flathead Valley

The Flathead Lake Biological Station lies within the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem.  The clear, deep waters of Flathead Lake lie in a glacial trench cut by Pleistocene ice, which profoundly molded all of the mostly montane landforms in northwestern Montana.  Flathead Lake is fed by the Flathead River that gathers its waters in the spectacular mountain ranges of Glacier National Park, the Great Bear Wilderness Area, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.  These mountains are characterized by a beautiful banding pattern of precambrian sediments and many of the ice-sculptured peaks rise more than 9,000 feet above the valley floor.  The geography in and immediately around the Flathead Valley creates a wide variety of habitats that are easily accessible from the station.  Plant communities include palouse prairie grasslands, montane fir, cedar and pine forests, subalpine meadows and tundra.

Water is everywhere, and aquatic ecologists/aquatic biologists will find lakes, ponds, swamps, bogs, springbrooks, streams and rivers up to the 7th order.  Four national wildlife refuges are located near the station. Coupled with adjacent mountain ranges, these areas offer a relatively untouched and remote home to most of the Rocky Mountain fauna, including rare species such as the grizzly bear, bald eagle, and westslope cutthroat trout. 

Students, faculty and research staff meet often for seminars and discussions.  With Flathead Lake as the backdrop, the station provides a warm and relaxed academic atmosphere for the exchange of limnological and ecological knowledge gathered through field trips to nearby lakes, streams, and mountains.  Backpacking into the nearby Glacier National Park and hiking the wilderness areas surrounding Flathead Lake typically occupies most of the spare time of students and staff.  In the winter, although research sites are typically snowed in, they are still often accessed by skiing.   The area is a photographer's paradise and superb fishing delights the angler.  Visitors enjoy swimming and boating on Flathead Lake and kayaking and canoeing on the rivers. 

A stay at the Flathead Lake Biological Station is truly a memorable experience!


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History by the Years

  • 1891 - S. A. Forbes, one of the world's first notable aquatic scientists, completes the first study of Flathead Lake.
  • 1893 - The University of Montana chartered.
  • 1899 - FLBS founded by Professor Morton J. Elrod in the "River House" on the Swan River at Bigfork; Elrod establishes FLBS as the "Sentinel of the Lake."
  • 1901 - First organized summer academic session for college students held at FLBS.
  • Professor Morton J. Elrod, 1905, "More and more the work done here is attracting the attention of science men throughout the country. Morton J. Elrod..."
  • 1910 - FLBS notoriety and work of Elrod helps establish Glacier National Park.
  • 1910 - Elrod moves FLBS to the current Yellow Bay property granted to UM by Federal government.
  • 1912 - The "Brick Lab" constructed with $5,000 appropriation from Montana legislature.
  • 1915 - First detailed study of Flathead Lake fishes by Station scientist Robert L. Young and Elrod.
  • 1924 - "Elrod's Guide To Glacier National Park" published as official guidebook of Park.
  • 1929 - R. L. Young publishes "Botany and Zoology of Flathead Lake."
  • 1933 - Elrod's last summer as Director and FLBS closes due to lack of funding.
  • 1935 - R. L. Young publishes "Life of Flathead Lake" in Ecological Monographs; Kerr Dam completed.
  • 1934 - J. J. Johnsrud hired as caretaker of FLBS and begins his Yellow Bay Diaries, daily chronicles of Johnsrud's life watching over the "sleeping" Biological Station.
  • 1948 - Professor Gordon Castle becomes Director and reopens FLBS with gusto from a cadre of soon-to-be-famous young ecologists teaching a full slate of classes; 40 cabins, 4 classroom buildings, a maintenance shop, caretaker home and boathouse are constructed around the Brick Lab.
  • 1951 - Professor Gerald W. Prescott, world-famous aquatic ecologist, begins work at FLBS.
  • 1953 - Hungry Horse Dam completed on the South Fork of the Flathead River.
  • 1955 - First field classes for high school biology teachers held at FLBS.
  • 1962 - Professor Richard A. Solberg becomes Director; adds research emphasis to the highly successful summer academic program.
  • 1964 - Largest flood on record occurs in the Flathead River.
  • 1967 - New Elrod Lab constructed with National Science Foundation funding, replacing the old Brick Lab.
  • 1970 - Professor John F. Tibbs becomes Director; initiates year-round research and maintains student enrollment in the summer sessions at an all time high.
  • 1973 - EPA funds first large pollution study by FLBS of Flathead Lake; Yellow Bay Sewage Treatment plant built as a demonstration in pollution control.
  • 1974 - FLBS benefactor Dr. Jessie M. Bierman funds construction of winterized housing for researchers.
  • 1976 - Proposed Cabin Creek Coal mine in Canada threatens Flathead River-Lake ecosystem.
  • 1977 - EPA funds $4M 5-year Flathead River Basin Study that initiates year-round research.
  • 1979 - FLBS scientists organize the world's first international symposium on regulated Streams.
  • 1980 - Jack Stanford becomes Director; initiates ecosystem research emphasis and dramatically increases research funding and a permanent scientific staff.
  • 1981 - Freshwater Research Lab completed with $850K from Fleischmann Foundation, Reno, Nevada.
  • 1983 - First lakewide bloom of pollution algae in Flathead Lake is reported by FLBS scientists; Montana legislature creates the Flathead Basin Commission to oversee pollution control and authorizes Flathead and Lake counties to ban the sale of phosphorus-containing detergents.
  • 1984 - FLBS research clearly underscores decision by the International Joint Commission that Cabin Creek Coal mine not be developed due to potential impacts on Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake.
  • 1986 - Dr. Jessie Bierman creates distinguished professorship at FLBS; Prescott Forum, a dormitory and commissary, is completed with $800K of UM funds.
  • 1987 - Kokanee fishery in Flathead Lake collapses due to invasion of nonnative mysid shrimps; FLBS research documents consequences of this new problem.
  • 1987 - FLBS hosts international scientific think-tank on river ecology sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), substantially changing the discipline in theory and practice.
  • 1989 - "Jessie B," the FLBS research vessel, is launched with $80K from the NSF.
  • 1991 - FLBS hosts international meeting on effects of dams on rivers.
  • 1993 - Second lakewide bloom of pollution algae occurs; water quality concerns increase.
  • 1995 - Construction of advanced wastewater plants, recommended by FLBS research, completed in Kalispell, Bigfork, Whitefish and Columbia Falls further reducing pollution loads to Flathead Lake.
  • 1996 - FLBS hosts international meeting of aquatic ecologists in Kalispell; 835 scientists attend.
  • 1999 - FLBS celebrates 100 years as "Sentinel of the Lake;" over 800 valley residents attend the festivities.
  • 2000 - Distinguished Limnology professorship established through $1M contribution.
  • 2001 - NSF funds $2.6M study of Nyack floodplain biocomplexity.
  • 2003 - Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awards $1.6M for biodiversity and bioproductivity studies of pristine Pacific salmon ecosystems.
  • 2004 - FLBS hosts Mayfly/Stonefly International Meeting. FLBS director receives Award of Excellence from the North American Benthological Society.
  • 2005 - Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awards $1.7M for development of a typology for all medium to large salmon bearing streams along the Pacific Rim.
  • 2007 - Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awards a 3-year $4.6M grant to continue studying pristine salmon and trout watersheds.
  • 2007 to 2008 - NASA funds $2.7M for land-surface freeze/thaw state study; PPL Montana funds $619K for Flathead Lake northshore erosion projects; AYK SSI funds $268K to study ecotypic variation in AYK sockeye stocks.
  • 2008 - Hauer heads up $600,000 effort on N. Fork Flathead baseline in response to extractive industry threats to the Flathead watershed
  • 2008 - Windstorm on December 13 downs trees, including +350 yr old P. pines, with spikes above 100 mph
  • 2009 - Walton Family Foundation Gift of $1M provides for 2 new faculty hires and a 'green technology' retrofit for Elrod building completed in 2010 plus research support building
  • 2009 - NSF funds collaborative research focused on bioeconomic linkages of the greater Glacier, Yellowstone and Salmon River ecosystems that is linked a second project funded by NSF for collaboration between FLBS, Yellowstone Ecosystem Research Center and Taylor Wilderness Ranch (U. Idaho), and the Montana NSF-EPSCoR program.