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Partnering to Benefit Ecosystem Restoration

American Prairie Reserve’s bison conservation work encompasses many facets, from ensuring proper herd sizes and effective range management, to disease testing, state and federal compliance, and continuous research to better understand this species’ crucial role in a grassland ecosystem.

As part of the latest bison handling in January, American Prairie collaborated with partners at the National Geographic Society (NGS) and Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) to deploy new technology developed for wildlife management and research. The technologies — National Geographic CRITTERCAM and National Geographic Society funded GPS ear tags on a LoRa (Long Range) network — are being used to study bison on the Reserve, and are already gathering valuable data that can advance bison conservation and benefit ecosystem restoration.

National Geographic CRITTERCAMS are used to study wildlife all over the world, from giraffe to giant squid. National Geographic Labs designed five CRITTERCAMS specifically for bison at American Prairie Reserve, complete with lengthy collars to accommodate for the neck of an adult bison, which can be up to 46 inches around on cows and 65 inches around on bulls.

American Prairie Wildlife Restoration Manager Daniel Kinka prepares a National Geographic CRITTERCAM for deployment on a bison at American Prairie Reserve's Sun Prairie property.

The collars were deployed on five adult females, and the cameras recorded video for 10 minutes at the top of every hour during daylight hours. They are programmed to automatically fall off the animal so they can be recovered to download and analyze the video data.

Daniel Kinka, American Prairie Reserve Wildlife Restoration Manager, says the collars give researchers an intimate look into the world of bison to study their behavior in innovative ways previously unavailable to biologists.

American Prairie Wildlife Restoration Manager Daniel Kinka deploys a National Geographic CRITTERCAM on an adult female bison.Kinka deploys a National Geographic CRITTERCAM on an adult female bison.

“CRITTERCAMS give us a unique window into animal behavior and allow us to see the world from a bison’s-eye-view,” Kinka explains. “Ultimately, we hope data collected from the CRITTERCAMS will allow us to develop a kind of FitBit for bison so that we can extrapolate what bison are doing from their movement patterns alone, without the need for a camera.”

The LoRa GPS ear tags are another innovative way to gain new insight into bison behavior and management. These tags, which were also funded by a National Geographic Society grant, use a low-power wide-area network to transmit coordinates on the hour, 24 hours each day using a series of modest network gateways across the Reserve. Because they operate on solar power instead of a battery, they do not need to be replaced and can operate for up to five years.

Jared Stabach, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Inistute's Conservation Ecology Center, secures a LoRa solar ear tag before releasing a bison back onto American Prairie Reserve.Jared Stabach, a Research Ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Conservation Ecology Center, secures a LoRa GPS ear tag before releasing a bison back onto American Prairie Reserve.

Hila Shamon, a research ecologist at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Conservation Ecology Center, studies mammals’ movement ecology. As she explains it, “It’s the study of where we find mammals and why.” She is conducting extensive research at American Prairie Reserve that is focused on bison ecology, and says the new ear tags help to shed light on how bison herds collectively graze and move across a landscape.

“I am very excited about the project,” Shamon says. “Traditionally, we use GPS collars to track animals. However, these devices are costly, and that means we can only tag a few individuals. Bison are herd species and they collectively transform landscapes. If we really want to understand bison’s role in this ecosystem, we need to understand their collective movements and the social structure of the herd. With this emerging technology, we can now track many individuals for reasonable costs. This is cutting-edge science.”

A female bison is set for release onto the Reserve after being fitted with a National Geographic CRITTERCAM and LoRa ear tag.A female bison is set for release onto the Reserve after being fitted with a National Geographic CRITTERCAM and LoRa GPS ear tag.

This new research will continue to inform our understanding of bison in the months and years to come, and all of it is a result of the work accomplished at the bison handling.

“Our goal is to restore bison on this landscape,” APR Senior Bison Restoration Manager Scott Heidebrink adds. “The data we’re able to collect and study as a result of the handling is another huge component in helping us to better understand bison and guide our management for both bison and the health of the prairie.”

Kinka observes the coordinates of bison that were released onto American Prairie Reserve with LoRa solar ear tags.Kinka observes the coordinates of bison that were released onto American Prairie Reserve with LoRa solar ear tags.