Dr. Robert E. Keane is a Research Ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula Montana and a member of the American Forests Science Advisory Board. He received his Ph.D. in forest ecology from the University of Idaho, Moscow. Dr. Keane has researched novel restoration techniques for conserving declining whitebark pine populations in western North America, and has developed models predicting the effect of climate change on fire regimes, landscape dynamics and vegetation composition and structure.

His most recent research includes 1) developing ecological computer simulation models for the exploring landscape, fire, and climate dynamics, 2) conducting field research on the sampling, describing, modeling, and mapping of wildland fuel characteristics, and 3) exploring the ecology and restoration of whitebark pine.

Credit: Bob Keane
Credit: Bob Keane

Why did you choose to go into forest ecology? 

My undergraduate degree was in Forest Engineering and after four years of engineering coursework and some summer engineering jobs, it was obvious to me that the engineering way of life wasn’t all that appealing to me. However, I did like the forestry part and pursued employment in that area. Right after I graduated, I accepted a job doing research in fire ecology and knew right away that this was my dream job, and I’ve never left. Then, the noted fire ecologist Steve Arno introduced me to whitebark pine ecosystems in the mid-1980s and I was hooked like a Montana trout. I guess you could say that the field picked me rather than the opposite.

What is your favorite aspect of your field? 

I enjoy the mystery of ecology — interpreting ecological clues that may shed light on the complex nature of today’s terrestrial landscapes. Figuring out why ecological responses happen, and using modeling to figure out what these responses mean over time. And it’s never boring because every time you think you understand something in nature, you observe an exception that makes you rethink the entire process.

What is the most surprising thing that you have learned or discovered?

When you’re working in whitebark pine, every day is a holiday because it seems you are always learning something new. Perhaps the most surprising observation was that small seedling and sapling whitebark pine can often be as old as the overstory. This is important because many believe that these small trees will release following restoration treatments or wildfire. Our research has shown that this may not always be the case, as some of these 5-foot tall trees can be well over 200 years old.

What was the most difficult moment that you’ve experienced in pursuit of your work?

Building ecological models is darn hard work, especially if you want the results to be realistic. I was scheduled to give a talk in New Zealand on my modeling findings, but two weeks before the conference I found an obvious error in the simulation results. I spent the next five days and nights trying to find the bug in the model, and then, once I found the problem, I realized that the fix required an entirely new modeling approach. I finally finished reprogramming the model the day before the conference with little sleep and totally exhausted. I was conducting simulations during the conference to show in my presentation. That was easily the most stressful event in my career and one that I never repeated.  The most dangerous moment was when my crew and I got caught in a rare summer blizzard in the Montana high country and became hypothermic because we weren’t dressed for that type of weather. As luck would have it, a trail crew was camped along the trail and had a roaring campfire under a tarp that saved our lives.

Do you have a favorite story from your years in the field?

I have many but here’s one: I’ve eaten an endangered species. Once, when in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, a colleague and I were finishing sampling remote whitebark pine stands and radioed to the Big Prairie Ranger Station that we would be hiking there the next day. They radioed back that they had a surprise for supper — they were barbequing a “mystery” meat. What we didn’t know is that the previous night, a grizzly bear had been raiding tents and chasing people at a camp just north of Big Prairie. The game warden had to be called in and he determined that the bear had been so habituated to humans that it needed to be killed. He shot it that night, but couldn’t leave the meat because it would have attracted other bears. So, being a conscientious and smart warden, he decided it was better to butcher the bear and wrap all the meat for the crews at Big Prairie to eat than to leave it and attract other bears. When we arrived at Big Prairie, we were treated to a wonderful BBQ and then asked to identify the bad-tasting meat. We could not guess the animal and, when told, couldn’t believe that we had actually eaten a species on the endangered species list.

What do you think the biggest issue facing forest health is today?

As an ecologist, I would have to say exotic diseases and insects. If you objectively evaluated the ecological damage wrought by just three agents: white pine blister rust, chestnut blight and gypsy moth, it would be obvious that these introduced agents have altered more ecosystems and have changed more lands than other anthropogenic factors. And, equally damaging is that their impacts are especially long-lasting, making mitigation, remediation or restoration of the damaged ecosystems difficult. It takes the impacted species many years to adapt or overcome the effects of the pathogen or insect. This is quite discouraging to many who hope to return these ecosystems to their historical prominence.

Where was the most interesting, most intriguing, most impactful or favorite place you were able to travel to in the name of science and why?

Over the last 25 years, I’ve spent part of my summers in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in central Montana. It holds a special place in my heart. There is a guard station in the center of this special wilderness area that is one of my favorite places on earth — Big Prairie. When you hike there, it is like stepping back in time where life slows down and you can hear the heartbeat of the landscape. I’ve sampled many plant communities in the landscapes surrounding Big Prairie and have enjoyed many campfires with those dedicated people who manage our wilderness. It is truly a state of mind rather than a place.

Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?
The ecologist/doctor in the movie “Master and Commander.” His passion for science was impressive.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be? Why?

I’ve thought about this quite a bit and have narrowed it down to a high school or college teacher, a wilderness ranger, a short order cook or a Peace Corp volunteer, in no special order.

Where is your favorite spot to experience nature and why?

The whitebark pine stands surrounding Missoula Montana. These forests have a very interesting ecology in that the seeds of the whitebark pine are dispersed by a bird, the Clarks Nutcracker, and they are quite beautiful, with amazing views and exceptional natural beauty. The forest is often open-grown and easy to walk through, providing excellent access to all nature has to offer from botanical wonders to wildlife opportunities.