Unearthing the Histories of Montana's Prairie Wildlife

By Michelle Berry
M.S. Earth Systems, 2014

Read about our summer interns on the OutWest student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

“Immense” was the word Meriwether Lewis used consistently to describe the extent of prairie wildlife during his great transcontinental expedition; “We saw immense quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up the river: consisting of herds of Buffalo, Elk and antelopes with some deer and wolves” (April 17th, 1805). Today, the plains are barely recognizable from the descriptions provided by Lewis. During the late 1800’s and early 1900s, the combined actions of homesteaders, fur trappers, and ranchers lead to a massive defaunation of the American prairie. Populations of bison, wolves, and grizzly bears went entirely extinct. Since 2001, the American Prairie Reserve (APR) has been working to restore the prairie ecosystem in northeastern Montana and create an educational nature reserve that will be open to the public. As part of their vision, the completed reserve will incorporate all the wildlife species that once inhabited the area in their natural abundances.

But how does one go about finding information on species that existed 200 years ago, but are now totally extinct in their wild and natural form? Scientists have provided their own answers based on ecological modeling, which offers reasonable guesses as to what the land could have supported. However, this data lacks authenticity without verification from real sources. This is why, as an intern at APR, I have been assigned the task of examining historical and archaeological evidence for the densities of wildlife. The journals of Lewis and Clark are the best source we have for this data, but journals from fur trappers and other explorers augment this information. As someone with a biology background, this sort of literary and historical research is different from what I’m used to, but has taught me much about the validity and value of these sources. This world of historical ecology is filled with puzzles and uncertainties, but amidst the romantic accounts of Lewis and Clark there are plenty of granules of truth. Lewis, particularly, was an astute observer and took careful notes on the wildlife he encountered.

So far, the project has led me in many interesting directions. The APR is based in Bozeman, Montana, where I will spend a majority of my time this summer. However, I just got back from a two-week long trip to the reserve, and I will likely make several other trips before the end of the summer. My recent trip was an amazing experience that not only familiarized me with the area I’m researching, but exposed me to the process of constructing a wildlife preserve. As the APR continues to buy property from willing sellers, they need to remove all traces of prior ranching operations. Some of my days on the reserve were spent tearing out old corrals and barbed wire. Others were spent fixing fences or painting the APR’s newly built structures. I also had the opportunity to interview an archaeologist who discovered a Native American buffalo jump in Havre, Montana. He provided a much-needed alternative perspective on historical wildlife populations, which is based in the archaeological record and knowledge about how plains tribes used wildlife. As I move forward with my project, one of the biggest challenges will be to discover new perspectives on my research question and figure out how to stitch them all together into a coherent narrative.

Note: A longer version of Michelle's report is available in her post for National Geographic's News Watch.

Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »