burrowing owl hunts for prairie dogs in the heart of
the American Prairie Reserve. Unlike other owls that
typically fly while hunting, the burrowing owlís
long legs allow it to spring along the ground after
run faster than humans, I thought on my morning jog, as I
panted down the slope.
weigh more too — around 1,400 pounds. One of those
beasts could crush me flat and not even notice.
ran a little distance before looking back at the low
ridge, where 50 or 60 bison posed like breathing statues,
the morning sun lighting up the smoky exhale of their
nostrils. The massive animals showed less interest in me
than in the dewy grass around them, but they had surely
seen me running, just a few hundred yards away, with
nothing between us but the wild, uninterrupted prairie.
was no shortcut back to camp — no easy way around the
herd of buffalo. I would have to wait for them to finish
grazing and move onward. I continued my run, leaving the
faded trail and plodding across the undefined landscape of
dirt, sage and scrub. My eyes watched the busy ground,
flexing with ant highways and beetles, jumpy locusts and
white butterflies. As I ran, I could only hear my shoes
slapping the earth and the squeaky whistle of an unseen
western meadowlark. In every direction, the horizon was
not easy reaching the middle of nowhere. We flew from
Chicago to Bozeman, Mont., and drove six hours into the
infinite grasslands of north-central Montana. Phillips
County is one of the least densely populated counties in
the U.S., with less than one human per square mile. Our
paved road ended in the gold-mining outpost of Zortman,
where we turned westward, into the glowing green heart of
the reserve. Like so much of Montana, the unbound sky was
bold and giant, rolling with storms, then cast with
sunbeams and blue. Flippant Americans call this flyover
country, but it looks more like America than anywhere else
I know — the America of the Sioux and Assiniboine, of
Lewis and Clark and Norwegian homesteaders, and the
America of virgin prairie and healthy wildlife.
places remain where you can witness American bison roaming
fenceless in their native habitat. Yellowstone National
Park is such a destination, with over 4 million visitors a
year and bumper-to-bison traffic through summer. The
American Prairie Reserve is a lesser-known site, a bit
more off-the-beaten path, but utterly immense in its scope
a pioneer patchwork quilt, this nature reserve-in-progress
is stitched together from public and private lands,
linking the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and
expanding their reach with Bureau of Land Management
claims and purchased ranches that culminate in the largest
protected fence-free prairie in the world.
cultivated land to wilderness is a labor of love that is
more often legal and financial than physical. Pulling down
rusty barbed-wire fences is the easy part — the less
glamorous side of prairie conservation involves raising
lots of money, purchasing strategic properties, retiring
cattle leases, getting local buy-in and navigating the
multilayered bureaucracy around land use in the no-longer
had come late to the party — more than a decade after
the first land purchase for the American Prairie Reserve.
I had arrived in Montana well after the bison herds were
re-established, representing the closest living gene pool
to those bison that once swarmed the plains before
westward expansion. On that first morning, I had
encountered them on my run. The bisons’ disregard of me
is a sign of conservation success. The half-dozen
caramel-colored calves hovering behind their mothers would
never know a fence in their lifetime, I hoped.
waited for the herd to move on before running back to
camp, thrilled by my spontaneous interlude with America’s
iconic land mammal. After a breakfast of iron skillet
pancakes and campfire bacon, we ventured out in search of
another animal herd, albeit smaller and subterranean. Most
ranchers and farmers view prairie dogs as pests that dig
holes where cattle can fall and break legs, yet these
remarkable rodents are essential to the ecosystem.
Convincing cattlemen not to shoot or flood or poison a
prairie dog colony is part of the long conservation battle
and fundamental mission of the American Prairie Reserve.
quietly observe a wild prairie dog colony is extraordinary
— a few slow minutes pass until a tiny furry head pops
up from the ground, cautious and alert. Suddenly, I was
surrounded on every side by high-pitched chirping.
is not a zoo or some special-access zone of nature — it
is simply the American prairie as it was meant to be:
unfettered, unbothered, open, free and flourishing. I
watched the real-life nature show of prairie dogs minus
any cutesy voiceover or jarring commercial breaks. The
fact that more Americans know the prairie from the TV than
from this beautiful moment is precisely why we need the
American Prairie Reserve.
travels have taken me to Botswana to track lions and
central India in search of tigers. I’ve witnessed the
safari industry in full swing, as Americans suit up in
khaki and fly to Africa in search of true wilderness.
we have all that right here. The American prairie is our
Serengeti — our own savannah coming back to life. Why
chase the exotic ideal of an African safari when you can
drive or walk right into America’s own true wilderness?
so much springs from so little is the miracle of this
windswept place, where the symphony of living creatures
never stops. There were lone coyotes and leaping pronghorn
that flew across the land as the plains became sandstone
bluffs that dropped into deep gorges of the curvy Missouri
River. At night, there were stars — unbelievable stars
and the brilliant Milky Way.
stayed three nights out there. I quickly lost count of the
buffalo and stopped checking my phone for reception. I
began listening to the wind in the grass. And I finally
let go, running on the plain, dipping my toes in the
summer river, closing my eyes against the sun, and
touching the strong and infinite nature of my own country.