This past June I was treated with five incredible days of photography and exploration at the American Prairie Reserve and nearby in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The last time I visited the region was in the fall of 2002 while photographing areas along the Lewis and Clark Trail before the bicentennial of that expedition. In researching the journals of the Lewis & Clark voyage, it mind-boggling how much wildlife the grasslands of the Great Plains supported.
On the last day in the CM Russell, after leaving the UL Bend Wilderness, I drove out through what is now part of the APR and headed north to Malta. In my research before the trip, I had come across an article about the idea a wildlife reserve north of the Missouri River. While driving through the prairie that evening, I recall thinking what a sight it would be to see bison roaming the Great Plains once again — yet I was skeptical that such a grand vision could be carried out.
I have chosen to work and live locally here in the Yaak Valley of northwest Montana, but in reading about the progress that APR has had in creating a grassland reserve for wildlife I have been intrigued by the idea of returning to the prairies and breaks. Living in a forested valley surrounded by mountains, I also missed the wide-open expansive views stretching from earth to horizon to sky in the Great Plains.
There was one night in the UL Bend that inspired me to come back here. Around 4:00 AM, after crawling out of my tent, the night sky stretched from horizon to horizon. To the north, colors of light danced from an aurora above the earth, and above the galaxy of stars twinkled so clear and bright it seemed like I had binocular vision. While standing in the dark taking in a scene that few people get the opportunity to witness, a flock of geese appeared overhead not one hundred feet above me. They had flown in stealthily without a single honk, but as I looked up at their silhouettes outlined against the backdrop of countless stars I could hear the steady rhythmic creak of tendons moving wings in the still night. It's a photographic memory only in my head, but a memory that drew me back to the prairie.
Looking back at the week I spent in the prairie and breaks country last June, so much happened in such a short time that it seems like I spent a whole season there. I had never been there in springtime and was quite simply shocked at the diversity of plant life and wildlife, particularly wildflowers and songbirds. After spending the first night in the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, I was up early and serenaded by the raucous calls of marbled godwits. I'd like to think it was a wild welcoming song, but more likely I had inadvertently camped near their nesting site and they were not pleased.
The following two days were spent at Buffalo Camp on the American Prairie Reserve. This is an ideal location in the Sun Prairie to use as a base for further exploration of the region. For one thing, as I found out on the second day after thunderstorms rolled through the prairie, it's a great spot to ride out rainstorms without getting stranded in the mucky wet gumbo that can make it almost impossible to drive or walk through the countryside.
On my first morning at Buffalo Camp, I decided to hike the trail that begins near the Prairie Union Schoolhouse and climbs gradually through sagebrush and prairie dog towns. As I walked up the hillside in the early pre-dawn light, the prairie appeared empty of life, yet as I found my walking rhythm I gradually became aware of the soft surround sound of songbirds greeting a new day. I stopped to look and amazingly couldn't see a single bird--but tucked away in the sagebrush, grasses and greasewood were an incredible mix of many different voices. Some like western meadowlarks and song sparrows were familiar but other calls were foreign to my ears. It was like listening to a soft symphony orchestra with each bird playing its own little score.
The trail climbs to an overlook of Sun Prairie, and it was there I had my first glimpse of bison out on the Great Plains. The herd was spread out across a little valley below that was alive with the colors of springtime. After photographing for several minutes I watched as the bison seemed to glide up the far hills with amazing grace. The sun was shining through a bright hazy film of clouds, casting the huge bison in soft shadows that made them look amazingly tiny in the rolling grassland. It was an awe inspiring sight to watch considering bison had been returned to the landscape after an absence of over 100 years. What a perfect fit.
After watching the bison crest the hill and vanish, I took a leisurely walk back. Some of my favorite times photographing are when I'm not focused on anything in particular but rather just walking slow and looking close. What seemed obvious to me was that this stretch of the Sun Prairie has been well taken care of by both APR and the ranchers who previously owned the land. The color of the prairie in late spring is striking--multiple shades of green in the grasses and greasewood, box elder and cottonwood. Intermixed in this sea of green are the wildflower hues of wild rose, beardtongue, evening primrose and yellow salsify. Fields of yellow golden pea waved in the wind, and I was excited to see as well the intense yellow of prickly pear cactus in bloom. The whole scene was perfectly lit with hazy light clouds diffusing the light of the sun. What a beautiful morning to be out on the prairie.
With the nice lighting I was able to continue photographing late into the morning and spent a good hour sitting quietly by a prairie dog town trying without luck to catch a black-tailed prairie dog in that moment when they throw their heads back and toss out a good bark. With aching knees, I finally stood up to stretch and head back to Buffalo Camp. As prairie dogs went scrambling into their holes, I looked around to the wetland pond I'd had my back to and was shocked to see the herd of bison I thought was long gone cruising up to the pond for a drink. While earlier in the morning I had spooked some of the bison when walking up to a bluff overlooking the valley, they were several hundred yards away this time with me just sitting there. They showed no stress at my presence across the pond.
The best times for wildlife photography are when you can be like a fly on the wall and photograph behavior instead of poses, and I spent an ecstatic 15 minutes or so watching and photographing bison drink and forage — and even the little new born calves nursing. I'm finding out bison move across the landscape with amazing quickness, and as I watched them head off to the distant rolling hills, I decided this one morning had made the trip worthwhile regardless of what the next few days brought.
I didn't know it at the time, but the next few days were non-stop excitement with the ever changing weather, lighting and wildlife on the landscape. I watched thunderheads roll in from miles away, sometimes taking cover only to have a fierce storm seemingly dissolve before my eyes, while other times I was caught out in those thunderstorms with deluges of rain coming down. I took many blurry photos overlooking Fort Peck Reservoir while trying to photograph a lighting strike as my pickup rocked and shuddered with the force of the wind. There was an evening at Buffalo Camp where I had taken refuge from the storms only to watch as a beautiful double rainbow graced the skies for at least 45 minutes. The following morning I watched a herd of bison right off the road by the Prairie Union School looking like ghosts of the past moving through the fog.
One of the most memorable times was sitting in my pickup for a couple hours, using it as a blind to photograph western meadowlarks. I'm not sure if they had a nest nearby with little ones to feed or if it was a mating ritual — but one meadowlark had a continuous routine of flying from the same sagebrush bushes with a cricket in its mouth while another meadowlark would do a fly by close to the ground with its white tail feathers spread out as if to say "look at me."
I also spent a couple days exploring the breaks country north of Fort Peck Reservoir, including one long day hike getting lost among the little draws and coulees, a sunny and quiet day wandering among ponderosa pines and junipers. In the two days there I saw not another person, footprint or even tire tracks along the two-track road I was on. I was lucky to see a young bull elk, but the animal that outnumbered the bison out on the prairie was also the smallest I saw — field crickets!
Where I camped amongst the ponderosa pines, nearly every old pinecone on the forest floor I turned over had a cricket nesting underneath it. Walking through the forest and sagebrush draws, crickets flew off the ground from my approaching footsteps, and in the early morning light spider webs glistening with dew covered the greasewood and sagebrush, all set for crickets to land in. Not being familiar with the landscape I don't know if this was the norm for late spring or whether it was an exceptional year for crickets, but what I do know is that they help support the huge songbird population, having photographed many sparrows and meadowlarks with freshly caught crickets in their mouths.
After several days of continuous photography I was setting up camp at dark on my last night, ready to eat and sleep off my exhaustion when the clouds parted for a few minutes to reveal the moon casting an eerily beautiful glow on the fields of golden pea and Fort Peck Reservoir far below. So once again out came camera and tripod. There seemed to be no end to the beauty of this land.
This was my first trip to the American Prairie Reserve region but it certainly won't be my last. I don't expect to always have the incredible good fortune I did this past June but just to be out there looking and learning new things about this wild landscape will be enough. I like the thought of looking back twenty years from now to view what I have discovered and photographed as the prairies and breaks and the wildlife that live here evolve with American Prairie Reserve's ongoing work.