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A Wild Life at 40 Below: Working on a Snow-Covered American Serengeti

At 40 degrees below zero, the air burns the back of your throat when you breathe deeply. Your nostrils freeze up with every breath of the clear, pure air. This air is so still and dry that it amplifies the crunch of your boots on the fine crystalline snowflakes. Insulated clothes take away much of the bite, but the creeping, penetrating cold still works its way into your bones. At this temperature, things just don’t work like normal. Fingers fumble with nuts and bolts, pickups barely chug and sputter to life, water pipes freeze, and hydraulic fluid refuses to flow.

My wife, Ellen, our 6-month old dog, Husker, and I moved to Montana from Nebraska to come work for American Prairie Reserve this past summer. We knew it would get colder here than what we were accustomed to, but it was kind of hard for people to describe what 40 below really felt like. In fact, it is still hard to describe. The best I’ve come up with is really cold.

As a biologist, what still truly amazes me is that, for the wildlife, everything seems to be normal. I look out my windows that have ice on the inside, glad I don’t have to go out, and see a bald eagle floating through the quiet air in search of a meal. Sharp-tailed grouse trudge by on foot, feeding as though the cold of December is no different than the heat of July. The 8-month-old bison calves graze down through the snow that covers the dry, frozen grass. They are covered in frost but unfazed. Unlike Husker and his humans, they seem unperturbed by this arctic invasion, probably because they have experienced much worse. Not as individuals perhaps, but through the collective experiences and hardships of the hundreds of millions of bison that came before them and bred this hardiness into their DNA.

In a couple of years, they will give birth to the next generation of bison calves.  Those new calves won’t know it for a few more months, but the land they call home gets really cold, for really long periods of time.

6-month old Husker isn’t nearly as tough as the bison calves. I stand outside with him for the one occasion that can bring us both out of the house. I am surprised his urine doesn’t freeze before it hits the ground. Or maybe it does, but I don’t care to inspect that closely. He loves the snow and he loves running around, but after a minute, he starts his cold-feet dance. He bee-lines it back to the house to be let in after just a three-minute frosty adventure.

When it gets this cold out, even though it doesn’t snow, there is still moisture falling out of the air. Oddly, under blue-skies and sunshine, my truck’s windshield gathers a quarter inch of fine snow crystals. Late afternoon crystals hang in the air and intensify the spectacular colors on the horizon where the sun is going down.

As the wind picks up and the temperature drops to something like 50 degrees below zero with the wind chill, I take another brief moment to drink in the landscape before turning to Husker, waiting semi-patiently by the door for warmth, doing his dance – but not as patiently as the bison in their home.