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Where the Bison Roam

  • Camera trap of a coyote at the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.
  • Camera trap photo of a bird on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.
  • Camera trap photo of an antelope at American Prairie Reserve in Montana.
  • Camera trap photo of a North American porcupine on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.

The prairie is one of North America’s greatest treasures. Its unique ecosystem supports an abundance of wildlife, from the mighty bison to the tiniest insects. Ecologist Bill McShea shares how the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s collaboration with American Prairie Reserve will help scientists better understand how changes to the grasslands affect the wildlife that call it home.  

How did this partnership come about?

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute has studied grasslands all over the world—from Africa to China to Mongolia. However, conservation does not have to happen far away; there is a real need for it right here in America. The American Prairie Reserve (APR) is located in northern Montana. Their grasslands are one of the country’s most unique ecosystems.

It is fitting that the Smithsonian’s conservation scientists have collaborated with American Prairie Reserve practitioners to understand, restore and preserve that ecosystem. The practitioners are buying land, removing fences and reintroducing American bison back to their native habitat. As for the SCBI scientists, we know how to tease answers out of a complex system by studying the animal and grass communities and how they interface with one another.

Why does the prairie need to be preserved?

When settlers moved out west, they converted the prairie to farmland and rangeland. This made it a very different landscape than it was originally. Native grasses were replaced with exotic species to feed cattle and produce crops. Concurrently came the reduction or elimination of native wildlife species, including American bison, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, prairie dogs and so on.

The alteration of this landscape in favor of cattle and agriculture affected all wildlife. Pronghorns, for example, face an obstacle in the fencing. To forage for food, they move from one ranch to the next. Manmade ponds that were created for the cattle, too, disrupt the grazing patterns and the distribution of native grasses.

The bison, the prairies, the mesas—they are America. The land APR is restoring is where the iconic Lewis and Clark expedition first saw vast herds of wildlife. You can read their journal and stand in the exact place they were standing when they wrote it. In it, they talk about the wildlife, the vistas and especially the grasslands.

American Prairie Reserve: SCBI staff set up camera traps.

SCBI researchers set up camera traps in Montana to capture photos of animals as they move through and utilize areas.

How do the animals factor into the health of the ecosystem?

That is what we are hoping to find out!

For example, we know that prairie dogs have a significant and visible footprint on the prairie. Prairie dogs eat a lot of grass, which can alter the types of grass that are on the grasslands. They also serve as prey for many predators.

Another keystone species, bison, are the architects of the prairies. They break up the turf with their hooves and create wallows during their dust baths, which create depressions and fill up with water when it rains. They are big animals who have a big impact on the landscape.

American bison on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.

An American bison grazes on the prairie.

How is the Conservation Ecology Center poised to help the prairie?

I have traveled to American Prairie Reserve to establish a Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute duty station at APR’s Enrico Research Center. We are bringing the knowledge and technology that we have in our conservation tool belt to assist APR in their efforts and to explore how animals, plants and vegetation are interacting.

Prairie wildlife need large landscapes to persist. The American Prairie Reserve is comprised of hundreds of thousands of acres where we can study the diversity of wildlife, birds, plants and insects. Through partnerships with APR neighbors—such as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation—we have 500,000-plus acres of habitat to study. Here, we cannot only release endangered species, but also use conservation science to better manage this iconic landscape.

This story was featured in the February 2019 issue of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute News.