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Not Yet Yellowstone: Restoring Animals on the Brink

American Prairie Reserve is a conservation project, but to a large extent it’s also about restoration – a small but important distinction to someone like Lead Scientist Kyran Kunkel, who is working on wildlife. It comes down to a simple question:

How can you conserve something that isn’t here in big enough numbers?

By becoming a member of the Reserve, you’ve shown that you value the idea of setting aside land so that animals can roam and rebound in number. And at 353,000 acres and growing, the Reserve has spent more than a decade assembling habitat thanks to supporters like you. For Kyran, this means we’re entering a new era in the project’s history: time to start building wildlife.

“We’ll be buying land for many years to come, but wildlife restoration is critical. The more time that I spend out here, it’s obvious what’s missing and how much potential there is for change.”

Predator control programs and over-hunting by rapidly expanding western settlements are largely to blame for the decimation of large mammals in the American Prairie Reserve region and across the northern plains.

Wolves, bears, cougars, bison, elk, and pronghorn faded away over a few decades. Smaller mammals like swift fox followed suit as collateral damage. Prairie dog towns were wiped off the landscape with government-sponsored poisoning programs, and associated species like the Mountain plover suffered the consequences.

“The Reserve isn’t just saving what’s here now. This isn’t like the rich wildlife experience of Yellowstone National Park. We have to return animals to the landscape in great numbers, and much of that isn’t within our control.”

Fortunately, the region’s wildlife has had a partner in Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). The agency has worked to bring back native species in small numbers, as documented in a 2006 film titled Back from the Brink – Montana’s Wildlife Legacy. But the work is not done, and American Prairie Reserve has a collaborative role to play.

Other than bison, there are few other species that a private organization like the Reserve can reintroduce or relocate on its own. FWP makes most decisions about wildlife in the state, and the agency sets population targets for animals based largely on social tolerance, not on how much wildlife the land can support. When wildlife populations grow and people call to complain about negative impacts, such as mangled fences or elk feeding in haystacks, additional hunting tags are released to bring wildlife levels back down.

This is why restoration must prioritize the biggest limiting factor: low social tolerance for living with a large amount wildlife.

“When it comes to wildlife, the public has the power to control supply and demand,” Kyran explains. “For supply, we need more animals to survive each year and in key corridors. That means ranchers getting the extra help and tools they need to live with wildlife.” At the same time, we need people across the country asking for more animals. Some species are threatened with extinction or are no longer present at all. “Public support for increasing populations of wildlife, combined with a growing supply of animals, is going to be the way we see measurable results.”

NEXT STEPS

Optimism and innovation are not in short supply for Kyran, who remarks that “Growing wildlife is do-able. It comes down to finding the real limiting factors and figuring out the right formula.” One such formula is the Reserve’s people-centric Wild Sky ranching program. For species like swift fox and prairie dogs, the hurdles are less about today’s social tolerance and more about biology, education, and data. And then there are large mammals like elk, which require new and different tools that are still evolving.

“We’re entering a phase that I’ve been dreaming about and that our supporters are yearning for: the building of a functioning prairie ecosystem for wildlife. It’s the right time, and it’s for all Americans and our heritage.” 

 

OVERCOMING BARRIERS: Status Updates
 

Building Up – Elk

After becoming locally extinct, elk were reintroduced to the C. M. R. National Wildlife Refuge in 1951. Historical research estimates that this region once held 30-50,000 elk. Current population targets set by the State allow for less than 2,000 animals in the region north of the Missouri River, where most of the Reserve’s landholdings are located. To help grow elk numbers, the Reserve hopes to work with neighbors through Wild Sky to reduce conflicts. This is in addition to continued efforts to purchase high-quality habitat as well as the decision to reduce elk hunting on our private lands in the short term. There’s also an education piece that’s important. “People no longer remember the time when these animals roamed in large numbers across the prairie, shaping it along with bison and providing food for predators and scavengers. The Reserve can help share that story again,” says Kyran.

Spreading Out – Prairie Dogs

The Reserve is proactive when it comes to growing prairie dog towns. Nearly eradicated due to social intolerance, prairie dogs are now threatened by plague and limited by small and scattered populations. Your support means that Kyran is working with collaborators like the C. M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Humane Society’s Prairie Dog Coalition to reduce risk of disease and expand prairie dog habitat through activities like the installation of artificial burrows in new areas. Restoring prairie dogs is also good news for the dozens of other prairie animals that rely on them and their towns, including the endangered black-footed ferrets right next door at the refuge.

Swift fox photo by Diane Hargreaves

Welcoming Back – Swift Fox

Like elk, the swift fox is an example of a species that was eradicated from the region and was returned thanks to multiple efforts. The animals have been reintroduced to Canada and the nearby Fort Peck Reservation, but natural barriers like the Milk River north of the Reserve are likely keeping them from expanding back into their historic range. Landmark adventure scientists have been helping assess the opportunity for reintroduction by gathering habitat suitability data, and we hope to work with Fish, Wildlife and Parks on swift fox reintroduction in the future.

 

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