Return to the winter prairie

“This is the place you were looking for as a kid when you went outside to explore; 
there is so much space, so much to observe.”
– Julia Johannesen, ASC 
Posted by Mike Kautz, ASC Program Director

Just before the Christmas holiday ASC intern Julia Johannesen and I travelled to the American Prairie Reserve to continue groundwork for the Landmark survey.  A native of Arkansas, this was Julia’s first trip to the Northern Great Plains.  Halfway through our first day of field work, as we walked a 10-mile transect, she described the experience with the quote above.  Her description captures an essential feeling of traversing this vast landscape on foot.  Humans have been walking these plains for over 10,000 years, yet you often feel as if you could be the first person to cross a particular coulee or climb a sage-covered hill.  I too remember exploring my backyard as a child and wishing to push out the back lot and discover an expansive landscape like the Great Plains. 

From inside a car traveling at highway speeds the plains can look uniform.  On foot you discover that they are intricate and filled with topography.  On our transect Julia and I followed a coulee not far from a county road and found it packed with bison, mule deer and pronghorn tracks.  From the road the coulee is invisible.  In this watercourse we found the bones and skull of a bison.  The carcass was nearly picked clean.  Through the fall it had been a buffet to everything from coyotes to beetles.  

Each morning and evening the sky was a kaleidoscopic cloudscape, warm colors against the horizon and deeply shadowed overhead.  After long days in the field we visited with the Reserve staff for dinner in Malta, Montana.  Over steak from local ranches we listened to stories of bison, rodeos, -40 weather, and living 50 miles from town.

Each time I visit I wish I had more time to spend on the prairie.  It is a place that lodges in your memory; the silence as a full moon sets at dawn, the silhouettes of grass against the winter sky, the hundred miles of space between horizons.  The first Landmark crew begins work on the prairie in February.  I’m looking forward to introducing them to this landscape and setting them to work studying its wildlife and terrain.  

For more information on the Landmark survey visit the project page here.