Biking the American Prairie Reserve
Randy and Kristin Wimberg
We highly recommend biking through the American Prairie Reserve. As usual, better than a car for getting into the landscape and seeing the critters. Here’s a taste.
A Vastly Exposed Place of Concealment
April 21, 2012
I came to understand that the prairies are nothing but grass, as the sea is nothing but water…The prairie is not a topography that shows its all but rather a vastly exposed place of concealment…where the splendid lies within the plain cover.
(William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth)
My friend and I arrived at the Buffalo Camp on the American Prairie Reserve around mid-day on Saturday April 21, greeted by the solitude of an empty campground (but for a group of five bull bison grazing nearby).
Was it ever heartening to see such vast areas of intact prairie and sagebrush habitat. For some, the miles of continuous prairies and sagebrush might look monotonous, like a vast landscape of ‘nothing,’ but for us – knowing the treasures contained within – it was a thrilling sight.
First off, just the drive in to the American Prairie Reserve’s campground offers some prime prairie birding through large tracts of public land (BLM and state) and private ranches. With little to no traffic, it was easy to putter along with the windows down, listening for that special bird song that makes a person slam on the brakes (in our case, it was a Sprague’s pipit). Even though it was only late April and many prairie birds are not back from their wintering grounds yet, a few were in high gear and putting on quite a show on their breeding territories: long-billed curlews, western meadowlarks, horned larks, and chestnut-collared longspurs. American kestrels and Swainson’s hawks abounded. With our map of the APR and surroundings we were able to identify which tracts were public so we could jump out to get a closer look – nothing like standing on a small prairie hilltop and having dapper chestnut-collared longspurs skylarking around us, singing on the wing.
We had long wanted to visit the prairie reserve, and their new public campground offered the perfect setting, putting us right in the heart of the place. Once we set up our tent and made camp, the excitement was palpable as we set off exploring and bird-watching. Should we go to the Buffalo Jump? The Indian Rock? The Fourchette Bay Overlook? Every direction beckoned with something of interest and we were not disappointed.
In the two days we were there, a few highlights included: a sunrise mating display from more than 30 sage grouse dancing on a lek; great glimpses into life in prairie dog towns, complete with burrowing owls staking out their burrow entrances; and songbirds like sage thrashers belting out choruses across the sea of sagebrush. Our sighting of a pair of McCown’s longspurs in a prairie dog town was the first for the Reserve (though they have been seen nearby in Phillips County), but it points to the fact that this area is relatively unexplored.
The Reserve is dotted with small wetlands, both stock ponds and natural depressions, and migrating and breeding water birds had found them all. We counted 14 species of ducks. With the warm weather, reptiles and amphibians were making appearances too. We saw painted turtles, a prairie garter snake, a gophersnake, and heard chorus frogs singing from every tiny puddle of water. Mammals included bison, pronghorn, mule deer, prairie dogs, and coyotes.
Given that it was only the end of April and many birds had not arrived back from the wintering grounds, we were astounded at all there was to see. When the northern lights graced our tent in the darkness of our second and last night on the Reserve, we knew a return trip was in order as soon as possible.
Note: Help Prevent the Spread of Noxious Weeds – clean your boots and vehicles! Be sure and clean the dried mud out of your boot soles before a trip to the prairie reserve – it is still relatively weed-free area and noxious weeds are a looming threat. I routinely hike on a knapweed-covered hill near Livingston, and though I couldn’t see the tiny seeds, I knew the dried mud in my boot soles was full of them. My friend from Bozeman found Hound’s-tongue seeds (those small sticky burrs) in her boot soles when she cleaned them. We never saw either of these noxious weeds at the Reserve – let’s help keep it that way!
Visitor and Volunteer
Elinor Marboe, Volunteer
October to December 2011
The first time I saw the bison, I wanted to touch their fur. I wanted to so badly I could feel the ends of my fingertips prickle. (I had a flashback to an early museum field trip—reaching my tiny hand towards a sculpture and being scolded by the chaperone.) Rationally, I knew it was impossible and unethical to pet the animals. Subconsciously, I took a step forward and stood very still.
The herd was grazing, and the sound they made was louder than I would have guessed. A low, wet, smacking noise. I ached to touch one. The bison were not disturbed by my presence. Slowly they began to move closer to me. This is relative—they moved about 10 feet—but still, I felt absurdly lucky.
The experience was exhausting. I wanted more, but I didn’t know what ‘more’ would look like. I could not have gotten closer than I was that day without crossing a line.
The American Prairie Reserve is free and open to the public. I still live in Montana. Hypothetically I can go see those bison at any time. And isn’t that wealth? Or better yet, the kind of wealth that never grows stale? Open space and wild animals can be publically accessible and yet completely unattainable. To spend time in a wild place is to live in a permanent state of desire.
From the Board Chair: Running with the Bison
Gib Myers, APR Board Chair
Even though Susan and I’ve visited American Prairie Reserve more than a dozen times, we often serve as hosts for guests or visiting groups. On our most recent trip in September, it was refreshing to drive across the landscape on our own and note the changes and growth over the years.
This visit was special for many reasons, including a visit to the Indian Rock and watching the sun set over Telegraph Creek as the moon rose in the east. However, our interaction with the bison was probably the most exciting part. On our second day, we joined APR staff as they helped the bison back onto their summer grounds after wandering toward their winter range.
As a group of 20 bison ran by us, the sound of their hooves and the cloud of dust was enough to make us imagine we were back in the Wild West. It was a good reminder of the vision we have for the Reserve, a place where the public can continue to experience the sights and sounds of prairie, now and in the future. We hope that your next visit is as memorable as ours – whether you’re exploring the prairie for the first time or as a repeat visitor.
The Air Was Still Alive with Sound, As it Should Be
Steve Guettermann, 2011 BioBlitz Participant
August 4, 2011
Too often I go to pristine natural areas that are too quiet and almost devoid of wildlife. The Great Plains are not meant to be quiet; nor are they meant to have the quiet interrupted only by machines or cattle. They are meant to pulse with natural sound: the buzz of insects, the song of birds, the howls of coyotes and wolves, the bellows and battles of bison and elk bulls, gopher and prairie dog talk, the rustle of wind and crack of thunder.
The sound I’ve noticed disappearing the most from my early wanderings among the plains is the absence of songbirds. I remember sitting on grassy hilltops surrounded by bird song, but it had been years since I had that experience until I went to the American Prairie Reserve.
There were not only songbirds calling, but shorebirds and ducks. The air was alive with their sound, as it should be. The absolute silence at 3 a.m. was astounding, considering the noise with which we usually live with. But at 4:30 a.m., when the birds started their day, they told me that Life was still alive and well on the American Prairie Reserve. Thanks for the wake up call!
Not Just One Big Field of Grass
2011 BioBlitz Participant & College Student from Apple Valley, Minnesota
August 4, 2011
I came from a high school of environmental studies in Minnesota, so BioBlitz on American Prairie Reserve was a fun opportunity to get away and do something I’m interested in.
The time we spent on the prairie for BioBlitz was an eye-opening experience. Beforehand, I thought of the prairie as just kind of tall grass. Just grass—and that’s what I thought it was. It was really cool to go out there and actually see that there’s variation in the land and it’s not just one big field of grass. I didn’t realize there were that many animals and that many different types of shrubs and plants and even trees. I really didn’t expect to find all that wildlife. The amount of biodiversity on the prairie surprised me in general.
I really enjoyed talking to scientists at BioBlitz and hearing how they were so passionate about their research. I remember talking to the scientist who specialized in flies, and I didn’t know someone could be so passionate about flies. I could see myself someday being that person who’s super passionate about flies.
If I went back to the Reserve, I think camping there would be awesome. I also hope I can make connections with professors to possibly do field work there.
Hope that Leopold’s Dream Can Come True
Ella Rowan, 2011 BioBlitz Participant
July 12, 2011
The APR was a very peaceful and beautiful place, which will only improve over time. I was impressed with the diversity of species we saw and the devotion of the employees we met.
We encountered a thunderstorm the first evening, which gave a spectacular light show! The long spring rains provided us with tall lush grass and numerous bodies of water to look for aquatic life.
I enjoyed waking up to sound of birds, smelling the fresh air and having the chance to learn about many new species from the experts. Everyone was in a good mood…nature makes us happy.
Knowing that this property has the chance to become a prairie landscape once again gives me hope that Leopold’s dream can come true…for the prairies to once again tickle the bellies of the bison.
Finding the Big Sky of the Big Sky Country
Lauren Koshere, Marketing Intern
June 23, 2011
I imagine I have something in common with many people when I reveal that my first visit to Montana was a mission to mountains. On a road trip one summer during high school, my dad and I drove from Wisconsin to Glacier National Park, and I saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time.
I remember one prevailing surprise about my time in Glacier that year—the proximity of mountains to many roads and hiking trails in the Park made me feel enclosed. In those spots, the mountains were like walls around me. Between mountain slopes, the sky was a limited stretch of blue that I often had to crane my neck to see.
I felt a little like the character Harry Dunne, who wakes up in a car in the movie Dumb & Dumber after his friend’s inadvertent wrong turn on a road trip to Colorado lands them in the middle of Nebraska: “Huh,” he says, “I expected the Rocky Mountains to be a little Rockier than this.”
On my first day in Glacier, I thought, “Huh, I expected the Big Sky Country to have a little Bigger Sky than this.“
It must be an honest mistake—to come to see Montana’s mountains and wonder where they keep the Big Sky of Big Sky Country. For the rest of my Glacier trip, I looked for the Big Sky. I realized that the incredible scale of Glacier National Park did, indeed, afford grand scenes and broad vistas, but I still wasn’t sold that the sky itself was technically any “bigger” there than anywhere else.
Although it’s been nine years since my first trip to Montana, and I’ve lived in this state now for nearly two years, I recently found the Big Sky I had been seeking on that first trip to Glacier.
It’s on the prairie.
I pass my first hour on American Prairie Reserve walking on a two-track road along a reservoir on Beaver Creek. It’s the middle of June. Within the first five minutes of walking, my experience is consumed by my senses. What appears as a still landscape at initial glance, from a vehicle passing at 70 miles per hour or airplane at 500 miles per hour, is anything but. There is no ignoring the bright hum of insects and birds near the water, the spicy wafts of vegetation and wildflowers in the warm air, the pressing heat of late afternoon sunlight on my dark hair.
This afternoon, though, of all senses, it is sight that upstages. Spending time in the Rockies has oriented my eyes and mind to the grand views of mountain-scapes—vistas that stretch from the ground up. But the prairie is different. On the prairie, what commands my attention is what stretches from the heavens down: light and sky. Big Sky. Here it is.
Thick gray clouds pile on the southeast horizon as a cool breeze rises, cutting the warm afternoon sun and tussling the shiny leaves of cottonwoods. I can’t keep my eyes or camera off the drama playing out above me. The shifting clouds and light make a new sky every time I look up. At one point, I take a photo of a wetland with angles of sun and blue sky glistening across its waters. Five minutes later, my photo of the same wetland captures a different scene: the sun-glisten has been blunted by silver-gray reflections of rolling storm clouds. The sky is different now, which means the colors are different. The light is different.
This walk reveals that, on the prairie, drama plays out above. Each day, each hour, each minute is marked by a unique fingerprint—that ever-dynamic arrangement of clouds and light at a given moment. Here, the Big Sky is always a new sky. I’m glad I’ve finally found it.
Do You Have a Story To Share?
We would love to hear about your time on the Reserve. You are welcome to consider the following prompts as starting points, but please feel free to share as much or as little as you’d like, on any aspect of your experience that you’d like to write about.
- What stories about the Reserve did you find yourself telling others?
- What discoveries did you make in your time on the Reserve? (Consider defining “discoveries” as broadly as you wish.)
- What surprised you about the Reserve?
- How is the Reserve special in contrast/comparison to other natural areas you have visited?
- What aspects of the prairie would draw you back to the Reserve?