September 2016- It’s cold. A thick layer of sparkly white frosting coats the tent like a muffin. I’d say the temperature is somewhere in the 20’s. It’s fall, so I expected this. I’m swaddled in synthetic puffy fabric and fleece, with rain jacket and pants to keep the slightest breeze from stealing heat. I brush most of the frost off the tent and then make coffee and read maps.
I’m at the Sun Prairie unit of the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded island in an ocean of ranchland. A place where people are working to put back on the land what we took away over a hundred years ago.
The bison, a keystone species and our new national mammal was almost exterminated forever by the early 1900’s. Mass kills were followed by mass efforts to pick the prairies clean of bones for fertilizer.
Everything changed with the death of bison and arrival of people determined to completely alter the landscape. Wolves and bears feasted on bison carcasses, then were themselves shot, trapped, and poisoned. We eradicated prairie dogs, hawks, snakes, anything that got in the way of our cattle, sheep, and chickens. Where there was water for cultivation, native flora gave way to the plow.
Now temperate grasslands are considered the most threatened communities of plants and animals on earth. Internationally, we’re recognizing that grasslands have been “cradling the needs of humans for millenia“. We’re working to correct the past with more than a national designation for an animal.
Northeastern Montana is an area where large scale grassland preservation can be meaningful. Although the land has been changed at the surface, it hasn’t been plowed extensively. Public lands can be bridged to provide large scale habitat. The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans 1.1 million acres of land along 125 air miles of the Missouri River. Enter APR, first a foundation, now a place, buying ranches from willing sellers, building fence, and trying to restore the prairie landscape.
It won’t be easy, mostly because of people, past as well as present. I pass signs on the road protesting the Reserve. Ranchers worry about their way of life, though farm radio news indicates the economy and ranch debt is more threatening than conservation. People have introduced diseases like sylvatic plague that kills prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets alike. And we all know what weeds are like: psychotically clingy stalkers that reappear at every turn no matter how you try to ditch them.
But there is hope.
The BLM has introduced the Undaunted Stewardship program to help ranchers protect natural and historic resources; the video below shows how people are working to make ranching more friendly. APR is also promoting ranches that protect wildlife with the Wild Sky beef program.
Promoting responsible ranches is commendable, but cows are not bison. Using private funds, APR is piecing together land, and retiring grazing rights to Russell NWR where it can. They are restoring grasslands and streambanks. They’re growing a bison herd that can help restore the natural grassland processes. As a privately funded organization, APR can be creative because they’re not beholden to politically-influenced federal land management practices. And very creative people are at work even in the government: the USFWS has plans to use drones and candy to vaccinate ferrets against the plague.
As I sit and drink my coffee, waiting for the sun to dry my tent, I try to get into the minds of settlers. Why did we needlessly slaughter 65 million animals that took care of themselves and provided healthier meat than we can raise even with intensive management? Why did we start this endless effort to manage the land for animals that can’t thrive here without protection and help? Why did we make it so hard for ourselves?
I imagine the mass migrations of bison Lewis and Clark saw: the grasslands teeming with bison, deer, pronghorn antelopes, birds, punctuated with the warning yips and yelps of prairie dogs. I’ve heard the low, rumbling sound of a bison herd moving through Slough Creek Valley below my camp, grunting and murmuring drifting up the hill. But that herd was over a hundred, not tens of thousands. I wonder which future generation will hear those sounds again; when we’ll again see the abundance we’ve lost.