The prairie is a land of contrasts, and autumn accentuates changes — both subtle and drastic — to the land and wildlife.
As August turns to September, reliably hot temperatures turn to crisp nights and mornings. September can also be some of our best weather of the year with consistently sunny, warm days. And, like most months in Montana, it can also snow.
In the plant world, vegetation across the prairie uses fall as a time of rest after a long period of growth. More energy is focused on the buds, rhizomes, and root systems, laying a foundation for the next year's growth. Ripened berries and foliage can provide food and shelter for birds and small mammals, as well as wintering sites for insects.
Color changes are gradual, with smaller plants beginning to turn hues of yellow, orange, and red. As night temperatures continue to cool and the first frost arrives, the cottonwood leaves turn. Riparian areas along the rivers, creeks, and coulees soon glow with strings of brilliant yellow cottonwood stands.
The first signs of fall appear on cottonwood trees along the Missouri River. Photo by Gib Myers.
Important changes occur in the animal world too. As the bison rut winds down, two of the prairie's other ungulate species — elk and pronghorn — begin their annual mating cycles.
Like clockwork, September ushers in the annual elk rut as bulls posture and battle with each other for the opportunity to breed cows. Elk can be seen across the Reserve, but the best place to view the rut is at the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
A bull elk keeps a watchful eye over his cows at the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Dennis Lingohr.
Pronghorn also rut in the fall, usually from September through the first week of October. Pronghorn live across the Reserve, but Dry Fork and White Rock are great places to catch a glimpse.
Bison return to their regular patterns with the rut finished in late August and early September. Bulls disperse and can be found being solitary or in small bachelor groups while the cows and calves continue to move around in large herds. Bison are present on our Sun Prairie, Dry Fork, and White Rock properties. Learn more about bison viewing on the Reserve here.
Fall is also a great time to bird watch on the prairie. Many of our summer avian visitors are still present in September and October, and migratory birds making their way south to escape colder conditions in Canada begin to appear in November, depending on the weather.
The prairie also receives more precipitation with the onset of fall. Many roads become completely impassible when wet, even in a four-wheel drive vehicle, due to a substance referred to as gumbo. Gumbo creates an extremely slippery driving surface when wet and hardens almost like concrete as it dries. Always watch the weather before embarking on a trip, and if rain or snow is in the forecast, leave extra time for travel or consider postponing your trip. Learn more on our Road and Weather Conditions page.
We hope you can experience an autumn on the prairie soon, and if you need more inspiration, check out the photos below!
From green to burnt orange and yellow, the cottonwoods along the Judith River usher in autumn on the Reserve's PN property. Photo by Gib Myers.
Photo by Dennis Lingohr.
A small herd of elk gathers to feed along the Missouri River at the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Dennis Lingohr.
Cottonwoods along the Missouri River at peak fall foliage. Photo by Dennis Lingohr.
Woods' rose beginning to show signs of autumn. Elk, pronghorn, deer, small mammals, and birds all browse heavily on this native species. Native Americans used Woods' rose for many ailments and as a food source. Photo by Gib Myers.
A bison herd moves across Telegraph Creek on Sun Prairie. Photo by Dennis Lingohr.
Pronghorn also mate in the fall. Their annual rut begins in September and lasts well into October. Photo by Dennis Lingohr.
Big Sky Country is particularly beautiful in autumn. As days become shorter, the sunlight becomes more lateral and seems to take on a more golden hue. Photo by Dennis Lingohr.
Canadian geese swim across the reflection of cottonwood trees. Photo by Dennis Lingohr.
Whitetail deer cross a small prairie lake under a brilliant orange October sunset. Photo by Dennis Lingohr.