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Field in Focus

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

Studying Animals in Extreme Landscapes

Aug. 12, 2019

Every time I meet a visiting researcher, their first reaction is “Wow, the scale of this place!” My study area on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana spans more than 2 million acres. I’ve lived here for a year and can tell you the landscape is fierce, beautiful and always surprising.

I often wonder how wildlife can survive the extreme weather — from raging winds and thunderstorms to blazing heat and freezing cold. And yet it does. Pronghorn, mule deer, elk and many more mammals call the prairies, shrublands, forests, rivers and streams of the Northern Great Plains home. So do ranchers and farmers.

Read More.

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 Shamoon 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.

Meet the Team

Hila Shamoon, Landscape Ecologist

Hila Shamoon'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.

Using Camera Traps

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.