Spending your days with a herd of bison is an idyllic way to pass a summer. I would know, because most of my days from May to August were spent observing the behaviors of a herd of about 300 bison in Montana. I’m an intern with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Northern Great Plains program, a collaboration with American Prairie Reserve. For the last six months, I have worked with SCBI and the Reserve to study bison behavior.
This is my second internship with SCBI since I graduated from college in 2019. My first was at SCBI headquarters in Front Royal, Virginia, where I contributed to eMammal camera trapping projects and studied how deer browsing (eating small shrubs and plants) impacts forest vegetation. I have always had a passion for behavioral ecology, the study of the relationship between an animal’s behavior and their environment, so I was excited to hear that SCBI ecologist Hila Shamon was looking for interns in Montana. A few months later, I was driving down the long, bumpy dirt road leading to the field house.
On an average day, we would head out to find the herd of bison, binoculars in hand. Eighty of the bison at the Reserve are equipped with GPS ear tags, and more will be tagged this winter. An app on our phones showed us their most recent locations, and we would drive across the prairie to meet them. We settled in around 200 meters (650 feet) from a large bison group, far enough away that we could see them but without stressing them or influencing their behavior. At the beginning of the season, female bison with their newborn calves in tow were wary of our truck, but they grew accustomed to our presence over time.