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Field in Focus

Field in Focus is a video series that brings you into the field with Smithsonian scientists working to save species around the globe.

With an ecosystem that supports an abundance of wildlife, from mighty bison to tiny insects, the prairie is one of North America's greatest treasures. But decades of alterations have drastically changed this landscape and impacted the plants and animals that call it home.

Today, Smithsonian scientists are collaborating with the American Prairie in Montana to help understand, restore and preserve this wild landscape. Follow ecologists into the field as they attempt to answer big conservation questions in an even bigger place: the American prairie.

Updates From the Field

Learning About Swift Foxes from What They Leave Behind

Sept. 10, 2021 | Dana Nelson

Sometimes, science stinks — literally! Poop, or “scat,” is one of the best sources of information for learning about wild animals. Scat contains DNA and hormones, which can reveal a lot about the animal that left it behind. We are starting to set up “scat traps” around Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana to attract swift foxes — and entice them to leave some droppings behind. Swift foxes had been absent from the grasslands of Fort Belknap for decades until the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) Tribes took on the ambitious goal of bringing them back. In September 2020, tribe members and conservation partners, including the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, kickstarted a five-year reintroduction program with the release of 27 swift foxes on tribal lands.

Read More.

Featured Videos

Every hour, solar-powered GPS ear tags tell SCBI scientists where bison on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana roam.

Using GPS collars, ecologists are tracking bison as they move across the grasslands of Montana.

Camera traps help ecologists learn more about the animals living on the prairie.

Ecologists track long-billed curlews with solar-powered, GPS transmitters.

Meet the Team

Landscape ecologist Hila Shamoon in the field at the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Hila Shamon, Landscape Ecologist

Hila Shamon's focus is on understanding the prairie's ecosystem engineers — the plants and animals that help shape this unique habitat. Her current study revolves around two grassland species: American bison and black-tailed prairie dogs. She uses camera traps, audio recordings, GPS tags and other technology to collect data.

Wildlife ecologist William McShea in the field at the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Bill McShea, Wildlife Ecologist

Bill McShea is passionate about wild animals in wild places. His work has taken him around the world, where he has seen firsthand that conservation science is most effective when combined with compassion for the people living with wildlife. His current focus is helping to inform the management of wildlife and forests.

A head shot of ecologist Andy Boyce in the field at the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Andy Boyce, Conservation Ecologist

Andy Boyce is interested in just about every aspect of how birds live, where they are found and how evolution shapes the way they reproduce and care for their young. His fascination with birds and biology began in the tropical forests of Venezuela and Borneo, but these days he applies them to a system closer to home — the short-grass prairie and sagebrush steppe of Eastern Montana.

Camera Trap Photo Gallery

Studying wild animals across vast expanses of land is no easy task. Ecologists often employ technology, such as camera traps, to help. These motion-sensitive cameras snap a picture whenever they detect movement, giving researchers extra eyes in the wild.

The camera traps set up around the study site in Montana are deployed 24/7, which allows researchers to gather data without disturbing animals and to collect samples even when they are not in the field. The photos they collect will help build a clearer picture of the ecosystem — what animals are present and when, how species interact, which habitats they prefer and whether their land use changes with the seasons.

Meet some of the residents of the American Prairie Reserve

A pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) caught on film by a camera trap in the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)

A bobcat (Lynx rufus) walking through tall grasses caught on film by a camera trap in the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Bobcat (Lynx rufus)

An American bison (Bison bison) grazing in short grass caught on film by a camera trap in the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

American bison (Bison bison)

A camera trap photo of a white-tailed deer with large antlers walking through tall grasses and shrubs

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

A group of three elk (Cervus canadensis) with long horns walk through the grass. They were caught on film by a camera trap in the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Elk (Cervus canadensis)

A black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) standing on its hind legs in the grass caught on film by a camera trap in the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)

A camera trap photo of a mule deer with large ears and thick fur at the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

Camera trap photo of a bird on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.

Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis)

A camera trap photo of a coyote (Canis latrans) on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Coyote (Canis latrans)

A camera trap photo of a pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) grazing in the grass at the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)

A camera trap photo of an elk (Cervus canadensis) standing in the grass at dusk in the American Prairie Reserve in Montana

Elk (Cervus canadensis)

Camera trap photo of a North American porcupine on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.

North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

This collaboration is made possible by the generous support of John and Adrienne Mars.