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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 Reserve 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

Bison and Lobsters: Neighbors Separated by 75 Million Years

Sept. 11, 2020 | Andy Boyce

In late July, I was exploring along Box Elder Creek in Montana, not far from the field site where I work as an ecologist for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Seventy five million years ago, during the late Cretaceous period, this area of the Northern Great Plains was the floor of a shallow sea. Today, fossils can sometimes be found along the undercut banks of the creek where flowing water has eroded the soil and rocks, creating an overhang or small cliff.

Read More.

  • 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.
  • After an absence of more than 50 years, the swift fox has returned to the grasslands of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana.
  • Ecologist Andy Boyce discovered a lobster fossil near his field site in Montana, evidence that long ago this area of the Northern Great Plains was once the floor of a shallow sea.
  • The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute has welcomed “Lucy” and “Gally,” two juvenile female American bison.
  • At their field site in north-central Montana, ecologist Andy Boyce and intern Andrew Dreelin are learning more about how black-tailed prairie dogs change the landscape and support the many species that call the prairie home.
  • Landscape ecologist Hila Shamon lives and works in Montana, where she studies the prairie and its wildlife. Over the last year and a half, she has been working with Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and other collaborators to develop a swift fox reintroduction program.
  • Smithsonian ecologists worked with American Prairie Reserve staff to fit bison with GPS ear tags. Their movement study will help researchers understand how bison move and use the landscape at the Reserve in Montana.
  • Long-billed curlew are shorebirds that spend their summers breeding in the grasslands of Montana. Smithsonian ecologists are equipping them with GPS trackers to learn more about their movements.
  • How can you begin to study something as vast and diverse as the American prairie? Find out in the latest blog from landscape ecologist Hila Shamon who is stationed at American Prairie Reserve in Montana.
  • All seasons on the prairie are special. But spring is just a little more special than the rest, as every day birds return for summer breeding season.
  • Landscape ecologist Hila Shamon spent the first two weeks of April working with American Prairie Reserve to place GPS collars on plains bison.
  • Conservation ecologist Andy Boyce lives on the American Prairie Reserve in Phillips County, Montana. It's rugged, it's wild and it's one of the only places left on Earth where scientists have the chance to preserve a complete prairie ecosystem.
  • 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.

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

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.

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.

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

Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)

Bobcat (Lynx rufus)

American bison (Bison bison)

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Elk (Cervus canadensis)

Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis)

Coyote (Canis latrans)

Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)

Elk (Cervus canadensis)

North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

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