Back to top
Exploring Historic Wildlife Populations

Over the course of ten weeks, American Prairie intern Michelle Berry dug deep into the natural history of the Northern Plains to research historic animal populations. Funded by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Michelle utilized written accounts from the region’s inhabitants, artists and explorers as well as books, academic articles and interviews with biologists and other experts to piece together a picture of what our prairie region might have looked like long ago.

Michelle, a graduate student in Environmental Studies at Stanford, explains the goal of the project in the first of four blog posts for National Geographic’s News Watch site:

For any wildlife restoration project, it is necessary to understand what species abundance and distribution looked like historically. This provides us with information about how the ecological community once interacted and establishes a baseline for what the ecosystem could support. The task is surprisingly difficult for the mixed-grass prairie in northeastern Montana: many of the species disappeared in the span of two or three decades, and records of their populations prior to the extirpation are very limited.

Throughout her internship, and as described in her News Watch blog posts, Michelle encountered many obstacles related to working with historic documents and primary sources like trip journals. Inaccurate descriptions, personal biases and even creative spelling meant that information had to be carefully interpreted. Questions about human influence on the prairie ecosystem unearthed interesting debates about what is “natural” and how conservationists should approach restoration projects.

Michelle has been working hard to consolidate her findings, and we look forward to growing the project and sharing this fascinating research in more detail. Overall, the experience has proven to be rewarding for both American Prairie and Michelle, as seen in her article on the Bill Lane Center website:

At Stanford I take classes in ecology theory and population dynamics, but this internship was truly an invaluable experience in real-life conservation. I got to experience the science, the politics, the labor, and the organizational work, which are all involved in a project of this size. The tasks and obstacles are often daunting, but this internship has renewed my passion for wildlife conservation and I'm excited to return to Stanford with this broader outlook on my field of study.

Read all of Michelle’s blog posts on National Geographic: