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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

How Tribes and Conservation Partners are Bringing Swift Foxes Back to Their Historic Range

Jan. 07, 2021 | Hila Shamon

In the midst of the pandemic, as the story goes, a team set out to bring swift foxes back to a land they had disappeared from more than 50 years ago. Swift fox populations declined dramatically from the late 1880s through the 1960s. Estimates show that they now occupy 44% of their former range in the U.S. and just 3% in Canada. Our team at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is collaborating with Fort Belknap Indian Community on a five-year swift fox reintroduction project. Together, and with support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Defenders of Wildlife, American Prairie Reserve, and World Wildlife Fund, we are bringing swift foxes back to Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana.

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

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.