Restoring the great American prairie

Imagine if you could go back in time and roam the pristine American prairies, see how they were a few hundred years back when Louis and Clark first passed through, teeming with thousands of bison and elk, packs of wolves, colonies of prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and cougars and grizzlies galore.

Well someday soon you could get this chance—in ecological terms of course—compliments of the American Prairie Reserve, an anticipated 3.5 million acre stretch of the Montana wild.

Hillary Parker, APR’s communications and outreach manager, says that the reserve is in many ways an accident of history—one that turned out to be a blessing.

‘Back in the 1990s, conservationists realised we had somehow almost entirely failed to protect our great grasslands,’ says Parker. ‘Our iconic national parks skipped one of the biggest ecosystems we have in North America for plants and animals, and one whose vastness’ reminds us of something deep in our blood—inspiring a true sense of being home.’

When the mistake was recognised, people were keen to step up and protect the grasslands, explains Parker. Big conservation groups, particularly the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, decided it was time to step up and take action on their own. They looked all over the world for the best potential conservation chunks that could promote a healthy grassland habitat—a pretty tall order—requiring some 3.2 to 3.5 million acres.

‘They found four candidates, and one of them was here in Northeast Montana,’ says Parker.

In a bizarre twist of fate, the great Dust Bowl had prevented the mass cultivation of the land. As Parker says, the unbelievably harsh conditions made it so ‘the stickers survived, but most others fled.’ A lot of land fell into public hands, later leased to cattle ranchers.

‘The land was 95 percent intact, meaning it has not been heavily tilled,’ says Parker. ‘Once you till you’re talking around 100 years before you can rebuild the ecosystem.’

And the land parcel in question in the northeast of Montana was ripe for purchase or lease—already a mixture of public land, private ranches, nature reserves, wildlife refuges and national monuments. For starters, the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, a 1.1 million acre stretch a 1999 Nature Conservancy report identified as a top priority for restoration, sits next to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, a 375,000 acre chunk.

‘Was it going to be expensive, require unusual and countless collaborations, new research, and be almost impossible to achieve?’ says Parker. ‘Yes—but not quite.’

Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

The Reserve’s early days

WWF decided to set up conservation camp in the Northeastern region of the state—the Montana Glaciated Plains—recognising an independent entity would be needed to handle the huge task of  establishing the restored grassland.  

In June 2001, the Prairie Foundation was founded, later renamed the American Prairie Foundation, and later again switching foundation for reserve. The next step was figuring out how to go about ringing together land, then determining how to actually manage the Reserve.

Dr. Kyran Kunkel, APR’s lead scientist, says that their endeavour is one not attempted by many, so there were, and continue to be, a lot of basic questions to resolve. Luckily, APR has a world class team of researchers like E.O. Wilson, Gretchen Daily and Thomas LoveJoy on their scientific advisory council.

Kunkel says even now very little of North America grassland habitat have protected status, and the biome’s already lost huge portions of their wild populations, even more today imperilled.

‘Development, oil, gas and wildlife unfriendly livestock practices have taken their toll,’ says Kunkel. ‘Now we want to return the land to a state where it thrives on its own.’

In this pursuit, Kunkel explains that bison were the first species they brought into the reserve, back in 2005, because they are fundamental to the structure and maintenance of the habitat.

‘In conservation we reference bison as a foundation or keystone species. The animals historically roamed the plains in such abundance that their impact on the landscape and other species was big,’ says Kunkel.

Though 200 or so years ago there were an estimated 20 to 30 million bison roamed the continent, but by 1889 that number had fallen to just over 1,000. Bison grazed in the millions, creating a pattern that effected that landscape in ways today’s cattle herds don’t.

‘They created a mosaic of habitat that no longer exists, a diverse mixture of short and tall grasses,’ says Kunkel. Bison were also major meals for larger predators, and their carcasses good scavenging.

Today the herd has grown to just under 700 members, representing one of the largest grouping of non-cattle mixed bison anywhere. By 2018 the Reserve aims to have their herd over the 1,000 benchmark, well on the way to their end goal of 10,000.

But the herd’s still pretty young, having arrived as calves, and still working out their social structure and the kinks of mating, explains reserve supervisor Damien Austin. And it’s people like him who get up close and personal with the big grazers.

Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve
Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

A day on the Reserve

Austin, along with his wife and two children, actually live on a part of the reserve called Dry Fork, a plot that Parker enviously describes as having a view for miles. Austin first came to the reserve in 2007 with the Montana Zoo, aiding a veterinarian who had come to do some genetic testing on the reserve’s bison herd.

‘That was just two years after the first herd of sixteen was brought in from Wind Cave, South Dakota,’ says Austin. ‘At the time there was three or so major groups within the larger herd, about 40 animals in all. There hadn’t been any births yet on the reserve, so we were keeping a close eye on their genetics.’

Austin fell in love with the project over the course of the next few years, and in 2010 hired him. ‘Just to be here, to be part of this all, is fantastic,’ he says.

There’s no set routine in the reserve, explains Austin. ‘It all comes down to two influencing factors—weather and season.’

In winter they do the most bison work, like tagging them with a variety of differently tasked radio collars, most of which send back GPS data every two hours or so to provide info on the animals’ distribution, movement patterns and resource use. Winter is also the time for federal and state required disease screening, the bison being technically designated as livestock.

This winter will also mark a big event for the reserve, as Austin and his team relocate some of today’s bison herd to a more northernly portion of the 31,000 acre Sun Prairie, one of the ten big parcels of mixed APR deeded/leased land.

In spring and fall when it gets nice, that’s the time for outdoor work, says Austin, like cleanup, habitat restoration and taking visitors to see the project at work. Though the bison will calve in April, the reserve staff will have little to nothing to do with the event.

‘We try to let the bison be as wild as possible while still following all the rules,’ says Austin.

Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve
Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

The species to come

Aside from bison, the Reserve will also be working to re-establish prairie dog colonies, the fodder of the endangered and long-championed black-footed ferret and just about everything else that eats meat on the plains. Swift fox talks are underway too, but their reintroduction is likely still a few years off.

Many species already on site will be—or are being—monitored, like the burrowing owl, long-billed curlews and controversial sage grouse. Grizzlies, cougars, and wolves are all possibilities. There’s also between 400 and 500 species of prairie plants that stand to return to the lands in historic abundance.

To monitor their ecological headway and make the impact of land management decisions more clear—Kunkel, alongside Curtis Freese and Sam Fuhlendorf of Oklahoma State University developed a unique tool to measure prairie restoration progress called the Freese Scale. The Scale scores ten ecological conditions that are the most affected by actions like farming and cattle ranching on a continuum of one to seven—entirely commodity centred management to entirely biodiversity centred management. For example, is the land filled with livestock grazing animals (one), or filled with the full complement of native wildlife (seven).

Last December the team published a review article in Ecological Restoration to much conservation praise, and APR has incorporated the Scale into their scorecard, volunteers, staff and land owners conducting the survey annually on foot or horse back.

Kunkel says they’ve come a long way, but adds there’s still the societal side of the issue to grapple with.

‘The biggest challenge for us is building the habitat, but also raising tolerance,’ says Kunkel. ‘That’s the great problem in the country but also the world, trying to make conversation changes less costly and controversial at the same time.’

Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve
Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

Working with ranchers

Kunkel says because they recognise the reserve will likely always be in proximity to livestock, fostering rancher relations are crucial. The greater connectivity of the habitat is, and likely for sometime will, also be dependent on the cooperation of ranchers and some grain farmers yet unwilling to sell.

That’s why they’ve launched programs like Wild Sky Beef, with incentives for ranchers to be considerate of wildlife. The premium prices their meat can fetch for being wildlife friendly is passed onto ranchers for biodiversity accommodations or modifications to their operations. Wild Sky uses the Freese Scale to assess participating rancher’s efforts.

‘We need to entice ranchers to be tolerant of wildlife so the Reserve doesn’t have hard boundaries,’ says Kunkel. ‘We don’t want it to be a source to sink for arriving animals, so we need corridors and conduits.’

Photo courtesy of
Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

15 years down, 10 or more to go

Over 70 million in raised capital, thousands of donors, volunteers, and a surreal amount of carefully planned conservation work later, the park just wrapped up their 20th land acquisition. APR now leases or owns some 307,000 acres, and has historic grazing rights to 63,000 acres on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge.

This new parcel is 1,408 of deeded land in Antelope Creek, excellent habitat for mule and white-tailed deer, and a critter you might not know—the pronghorn antelope. In the spring, male sharp-tailed grouse are known to perform their mating dance on mass, a strange and colourful twirling routine.

There also parts of the park opening up for visitors, beyond the uber-luxurious USD 1,200 per night Kestrel camp aimed for key donors and upscale travellers. Buffalo camp, offering tenters a USD 10 per night experience sleeping under the stars, which sometimes includes Northern light shows. And the Enrico Education and Science Centre, the APR’s informal headquarters.

But there’s a never ending list of things to do when you’re trying to deal with a landscape project on this scale, and the APR’s fundraising goal is lofty—$500 million USD. It will likely take a total of 25 years to restore and establish the entire Reserve.

Yet clearly none of those numbers really intimidate APR staff, or discouraged the Reserve’s early founders. Parker is clear the Reserve hasn’t had state or federal funding, and she believes its precisely this mix of private and public collaboration that has allowed them to get this far.

‘I think a part of us all miss when America was a little less polarised, and we could come together in that great empire spirt to do something truly big like this,’ says Parker. ‘If we pull this off APR will be the largest park in the lower 48 states.’


More conservation features on Love Nature:

Death on the Steppes: The saga of the saiga antelope

Jane Goodall on life, legacy and why dirt-lovin’ youngsters are our best chance to save the world

Whatever you do, please don’t feed the wildlife