MISSION & HISTORY
The mission of the Montana Natural History Center is to promote and cultivate the appreciation, understanding, and stewardship of nature through education. Founded in 1991, MNHC was the brainchild of a group of educators who were involved in various efforts to educate both kids and adults about the natural history of western Montana, and who decided to unite those efforts into one environmental education organization. MNHC was originally housed on the University of Montana campus, then moved to Fort Missoula, and at last has a permanent home at 120 Hickory Street, near McCormick Park in the heart of Missoula. MNHC provides nature education programming for people of all ages through summer camps, kids’ activities, Visiting Naturalist in the Schools, Master Naturalist certification courses and Field Days, evening programs, Field Notes on Montana Public Radio, museum tours, and more. Please stop by and visit!
Thurston Elfstrom, Executive Director, spent 20 years developing digital experiences for the Montana Office of Tourism prior to joining the team at the Montana Natural History Center in 2015. Thurston grew up in western Montana and spent his early years exploring area streams, ponds, and trails, as well as collecting geological specimens. He earned a degree in Anthropology from Montana State University in 1993. After college, Thurston taught archaeological field school at First Peoples Buffalo Jump and worked in cultural resource management archaeology before coming to work at the State of Montana. Returning to Missoula in 2008 he coincidentally uncovered his passion for the community, philanthropy, and fundraising. In their free time, Thurston and his wife, Suzanne, like to take in live music and travel the state to experience its varied and rich cultural heritage and natural history.
Lisa Bickell, Education Director, started with MNHC in 1999 as a college intern. She has taught natural history and outdoor education to school groups at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Minnesota and the North Cascades Institute in Washington. Lisa has a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from the University of Montana and an M.Ed. in Science Education from Western Washington University, as well as an enduring passion for teaching and learning about the natural history of western Montana. Lisa is the 2006 recipient of the Montana Environmental Education Association’s Educator of the Year award.
Allison De Jong, Communications Coordinator, spent her childhood in Iowa, where she climbed trees, splashed in streams and puddles, and explored parks, fields, and the wildish green spaces scattered throughout her hometown. In between outdoor explorations, she spent most of her time reading and writing, which eventually led to a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Dordt College. Allison has always been passionate about volunteering and doing work that gives back, spending several summers in high school and college volunteering for service projects in both the U.S. and abroad. After college, she spent a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Chicago, then canvassed for environmental issues with North Carolina PIRG, which inspired her to pursue an M.S. in Environmental Writing at the University of Montana. Living in Missoula has given her an even deeper appreciation for the natural world, and she and her husband, Greg, and son, Rowan, get out into Montana’s beautiful wild places as often as they can. At MNHC, she’s thrilled both to work at an organization whose mission is to connect people of all ages with their place, and to get to combine her love of nature with her love of writing.
Christine Morris, Community Programs Coordinator, has a B.A. from Stanford University in Anthropology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana, where she focused on Environmental Education. Her previous experience includes work as an Interpretive Park Ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, middle school science curriculum writer for Rice University’s digital textbook, STEMscopes, and as the Environmental Education Director for Boys & Girls Clubs of Seattle and King County, Washington. Christine is constantly fascinated by the organisms and elements of the natural world and loves wandering around in the woods.
Christine Wren, Teaching Naturalist, is an educator with 20 years of experience teaching in elementary public schools and outdoor environmental education programs. She earned a B.A. in English-Creative Writing and M.A. in Bilingual-ESL Education from the University of Colorado. She credits her husband, Richard, for first awakening her naturalist tendencies and their many miles of hiking together for nurturing that identity. The Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program at MNHC provides a great place for her efforts to integrate academic content with hands-on, inquiry-based learning.
Stephanie Laporte Potts, Youth Programs Coordinator, has an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana, and B.A.s in Environmental Science and International Studies from American University. After falling in love with the natural world while at summer camp in her native Michigan, she has spent the last decade working in environmental outreach, education, and program management in Montana, Chile, Canada, and on the East Coast with organizations including the Student Conservation Association, EarthShare, the University of Montana, and Garden City Harvest. An avid birder, hiker, and gardener, Stephanie can often be found weeding her front lawn while surrounded by chickens, or exploring the rivers and mountains of Montana.
Drew Lefebvre, Teaching Naturalist and Volunteer Coordinator, grew up in the hemlock forests of southern Maine. She attended college in Boston, where she received a B.A. in Linguistics and Philosophy. In 2009 she moved to Missoula for a season of trailwork, and has been spending as much time as possible outdoors ever since, building her skills as an environmental educator and naturalist. Most recently, she received an M.S. in Environmental Studies, with a focus on Environmental Education, from the University of Montana. Drew spends her free time exploring the natural world through hiking, backpacking, gardening, reading, and birding.
Bailey Zook, Teaching Naturalist, was born and raised in north-central Florida where she spent most of her time exploring the lakes and conservation property in her backyard. This spurred her to study Environmental Science at Florida State University and continue on to receive her Masters in Geography. Through her work as a Fire Ecology Intern, Youth Leader, Instructor of Undergraduate Environmental Studies, and Teacher’s Aid, her love and appreciation for environmental education continued to deepen. In 2013, she and her husband traveled around the country in search of mountains, trees, and water, and have called Missoula home ever since. She enjoys wandering on foot and by boat to learn the biogeography of the surrounding landscapes as well as watching her chickens flap around their yard. Bailey loves to share her naturalist enthusiasm and knowledge and is grateful to be doing so at MNHC.
Sarah Millar, Director of Marketing and Corporate Relations, has an M.Ed. from the University of Montana and a B.S. in Wildlife Biology. Her experience includes several field seasons as a wildlife technician, working as a mountain bike ranger for the Forest Service, and teaching elementary-aged students in a variety of settings. She has a passion for science education, natural history, skiing, and sailing with her family on Flathead Lake. Most recently, she and her husband opened The Dram Shop in downtown Missoula.
Jenélle Dowling, Staff Scientist, began training as a biologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She completed her Ph.D. in behavioral ecology at Cornell University in New York. Before and during graduate school, she conducted field research in many remote, beautiful, and scientifically interesting locations, with many fascinating species, including the oriole shown in the photo. Learn more about her research at www.jenelledowling.com. She is a dedicated educator and has had diverse experiences in different teaching contexts, including higher education, early childhood, K-12, prison education, and public outreach. She is a naturalist in her free time and an amateur natural sound recordist, and enjoys exploring the mountains and following animal sounds with her partner, Cedar. The Wings Over Water program at MNHC (in collaboration with Erick Greene at UM) incorporates research, education, and conservation, and centers on Ospreys, one of Montana’s loudest and most charismatic birds!
Alyssa Cornell-Chavez, Front Desk Associate, grew up in Livingston, Montana, which afforded her the opportunity to explore local hiking trails and the Yellowstone River, as well as frequently boat, fish, and enjoy time with her friends and family at Hebgan Lake. When not outdoors, she could be found reading, enjoying athletics, or playing with her family’s dogs, Raider and Tyson. Thanks to her father, reading, and an internship at the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, history became her passion. She received her B.A. in History at Arizona State University and M.A. in Public History from Arizona State University. Internships at the Arizona Historical Society Museum as well as the Scholar-Baller Initiative helped deepen her love for history, giving back to the community, the outdoors, and education. She is excited to be a part of an organization that connects people to nature through education and looks forward to learning as much as possible through the MNHC.
Kelli Van Noppen, ID Nature Coordinator, grew up all over the Pacific Northwest. From splashing in the Puget Sound and hanging out with shore crabs to skiing the Cascades of central Oregon and relishing the smell of sagebrush after a lightning storm, she couldn’t help but develop a love of the natural world. Kelli earned her B.A. in General Social Science from the University of Oregon in 2007. Rather than attending graduation, she and her husband loaded up a moving truck and moved to Missoula and never looked back. She received her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction in 2010, then worked for seven years as a classroom teacher in Missoula, where she fell in love with science education. Deciding to concentrate her efforts and sprinkle the wonder even further, Kelli jumped at the chance to partner with MNHC. She aims to deliver engaging science to a wider audience and work to empower classroom teachers to rediscover the joy in science education.
Mark Schleicher, Development Director, grew up in Minnesota where he discovered and explored his love for nature during frequent family trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along with annual cross-country camping trips. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison he started his development career at the University of Wisconsin Foundation, which now includes stops at the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and the University of Montana Foundation. Mark and his wife, Holly, moved to Montana in 2004 and now have two sons, Cedar and Leo, who are great exploration partners in the the mountains, rivers, and lakes of Montana.
Pat Little, Front Desk Associate, grew up in England and came to the U.S.A. in 1980 pursuing a career in aeronautical engineering. One day he got tired of working for large companies, quit his job, and started volunteering at The Nature Conservancy. Eighteen months later they hired him as their first IT Manager, and he worked for them, in Seattle, for eleven years. In 1994 he took a hawk ID class, which opened his eyes to the world of birds and changed his life. Pat has spent many falls since then sitting in cold drafty blinds on mountain ridges trying to trap and band hawks. Pat and his wife moved to Missoula in 2009. They took the Montana Natural History Center’s Master Naturalist class together a few years ago. Pat has learned a lot from attending various nature classes over the years, and he is thrilled to be able to work for an organization that provides nature education. Pat also serves on the board of the Five Valleys Audubon Society, and he is hoping to get some flickers to use the nest box in his back yard if he can keep the squirrels out.
Laura Lee, Bookkeeper, is a long-time keeper of nonprofit and for-profit books. She keeps MNHC’s finances ship-shape. In her free time, she and two of her three sons play with swords (in other words, she is the Director of the Missoula Fencing Association).
Courtney Jaynes, Garden Manager, grew up in the Kootenai River Valley of northwestern Montana, where she enjoyed fishing, hiking, and exploring in the beautiful Cabinet Mountains. She moved to Missoula with her husband in 2013 and received a bachelor’s degree in Natural History Biology from the University of Montana in 2016. She developed a passion for science while working for spectrUM Discovery Area and was inspired to pursue environmental education after completing the Master Naturalist class and then working as a field trip educator at MNHC. In addition to tending the native plant gardens, Courtney also teaches kindergarteners in the Clark Fork School after-school program. In her free time, she enjoys increasing her knowledge of Missoula’s natural history by taking classes at MNHC, and also loves exploring the vast natural areas in and around Missoula, watching birds, identifying plants, nature journaling, baking, quilting, and playing with her puggle, Miley.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Ian Foster, President, was raised in Boise, ID, and studied Biology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. He has earned graduate degrees in Education and Recreation Management. He taught elementary and middle school sciences in San Francisco, Boston, and here in Missoula. Ian was also an environmental/outdoor educator for San Mateo Outdoor Education, Massachusetts Audubon, and Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures. Ian and his wife April moved to Missoula for many great reasons in 2008 and love the access to wild places. Ian currently has the pleasure of spending his days with his young son and can be found enjoying Missoula’s parks and trails on a daily basis. Ian also volunteers with Missoula Children and Nature and Friends of Missoula Parks.
Kelley Willett, Vice President, is a native Montanan and a fundraiser. She spent 5 years at the University of Montana Foundation, and now is Director of Development for Montana Trout Unlimited. Previously she served on the board of the WestSlope Chapter of Trout Unlimited. She has a BA in political science from Wellesley College, served in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria, and tries to fish about 75 days a year.
Stephanie Lambert, Secretary, grew up on a farm in western North Dakota and graduated from the University of North Dakota with a degree in Communications and Graphic Design. She and her husband, Anthony, moved to Missoula in 2006 and opened Lambert Family Chiropractic. Stephanie recently started Vintage 44, which specializes in antique and unique event rentals. Stephanie and Anthony have three children, Lillie, Ella, and Lakin. They love exploring the rivers, mountains, and forests of Montana. She is excited to be a part of the MNHC board and support its mission.
Peggy Christian is a naturalist, writer and photographer. Nurturing a life-long sense of wonder, she seeks, through her art and writing, to deepen our relationship with the natural world and explore how that relationship guides the way we live our lives and the choices we make every day. She is the author of several children’s books, including If You Find a Rock, and has taught writing and book arts for more than twenty years. She is a Master Naturalist and has volunteered for a number of environmental and literacy non-profits. Hiking, growing and preserving food, and skiing, both cross country and downhill, are her passions. She lives in Missoula, and shares her wanderings and wonderings on the blog BackwoodsandBeyond.com (An Exploration of the Wild Inside and Out).
Hank Fischer is a conservationist, author, journalist, and guide, and has been extensively involved in endangered species restoration in the northern Rockies. Hank studied wildlife biology and journalism and has an MS in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. From 1977-2002, Hank was the Defenders of Wildlife Northern Rockies’ representative and his 1995 book, Wolf Wars, chronicles the effort to restore wolves to Yellowstone. Hank created the Defenders of Wildlife Compensation Funds for reimbursing farmers for wolf and grizzly bear livestock losses. Hank has been honored with many awards including the Don Aldrich Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Award, the Edward Lowe Enviro-Capitalist Award and a Special Achievement Award from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
Katie Guffin, a Missoula native, studied Biology at Colorado College and earned her JD and MS at the University of Montana. She taught outdoor environmental education at Exploring New Horizons Outdoor School and San Joaquin Outdoor School in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, and then taught science at Campbell Hall School in Los Angeles. She also enjoyed working as a summer field instructor at the Montana Outdoor Science School and the Gore Range Natural Science School, and spending a legislative season with Montana Trout Unlimited. She works as a civil defense attorney at Bohyer, Erickson, Beaudette & Tranel, P.C. and loves Montana’s wild, open, and accessible places.
Sarah Megyesi is the Camp Director and Outdoor Program Manager for the Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming. She is a lifelong Montanan with a passion for educating stewards of our environment through education, play, and outdoor adventure. She holds a B.S. in Biology from Rocky Mountain College, a secondary science teaching license, and an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana. To feed her competitive spirit, Sarah plays hockey, and she just can’t quit basketball and Ultimate. The mountains beckon her every day, but they only get her on the weekends. For years, she has invested in herself by skiing, mountain biking, and mountaineering. These days, she looks forward to investing in her new daughter, Juniper, and sharing those mountain experiences as a family.
Edward Monnig has worked as an ecologist for the US Forest Service and held a variety of positions in the agency, including District Ranger on the Kootenai National Forest and Forest Supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. He enjoys a variety of backcountry activities, including skiing, backpacking and hiking, whitewater boating, hunting, and just aimless wandering in our wildlands. After retiring from the Forest Service, Ed and his wife Jackie returned to Montana where they had raised their two sons, who promise more frequent visits now that Ed and Jackie are back in Missoula. Ed also serves on the Board of Directors of the Five Valleys Audubon Society.
Rick Oncken works at Lambros Real Estate, specializing in ranch and recreational land. He is a member of most of the hunter-conservation groups working in Montana and is currently on the board of directors of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Rick’s interest in nature goes back to his youth, growing up in Iowa. Pets such as crawdads and turtles (mom said no to snakes), fishing with a cane pole, and helping relatives on their farms helped foster a lifelong interest in the world around us.
Rick Potts – bio & photo coming soon!
Stephen Speckart is a retired oncology physician and ardent outdoorsman. He has hiked and backpacked through much of the West and volunteers with federal and state wildlife officials working on wolf research. He is active with the Rock Creek homeowners association and is a supporter of Five Valleys Land trust. In their spare time, he and his wife, Patricia Forsberg, have studied Italian and Japanese language and cultures. Stephen is a gourmet cook and is known for his lively wit and use of double entendres!
Allison Young is a pediatrician with Missoula Valley Pediatrics at Community Medical Center/Community Children’s. After finishing her pediatric residency training at Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2010, she and her husband were easily lured to Montana by its unique access to remote mountain wilderness and rivers. Originally from the east coast, she earned her undergraduate degree in Anthropology from Harvard. She taught high school biology in the Boston area and spent a couple of years working for non-profit organizations focused on improving adolescent health before returning to Harvard for medical school. In 2018 she was selected for the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars program based on a proposed work using technology to reduce barriers to healthcare access for children in rural communities. With her hydrologist husband and eager daughter, she and her family spend free time on trails and rivers, fretting about their backyard chicken flock and maintaining an overgrown herb garden.