I have agreed to serve on this project until the first of March. The commitment seems daunting at certain moments of the day. The climate of this country is harsh year round, and the winter is not altogether inviting. I drove out here with my brother through the plains of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, and we were lucky to have temperatures hovering near the freezing point. The ten day forecast that I read today calls for daily highs not exceeding the single digits Fahrenheit and unceasing subzero windchills. Our responsibility as volunteers is to hike out onto the grassland, deploying motion-triggered video cameras to capture wildlife activity and to record observations of animals as we walk. My standard ensemble for this task includes insulated pants, down jacket, heavy gloves, and ski goggles.
Considering the severity of the climate, and the limited social opportunities, I ask myself why I chose to come out and work on this project. Partly it was to get out of my parents' house for a while. I have a brief layoff from my job in landscape construction north of Chicago, and I wanted to use the time for a travel opportunity. The original vision was that I would go down to the west coast of Mexico and volunteer at a permaculture homestead. Practicing Spanish, hiking the subtropical forest, and eating mangoes picked off the tree were the activities that I had in mind. But when opportunities and companions for that trip were not immediately forthcoming, I made a phone call to my friend Gregg, who I know from work in Alaska, and who directs citizen science efforts worldwide, to ask if he had anything that I could get on board with. "Short answer is yes, dude," he replied. "We could probably use you for this thing on the prairie."
So here I am, trying to be at home on the range. The buffalo really do roam here. Not like they did when the Corps of Discovery estimated that they could walk from horizon to horizon on the backs of bison, and up to 30 million of them lived on this continent. But the Reserve staff is striving to put a healthy population on its deeded and leased acres. One of the pleasures of being here is immersing myself in the natural history of the bison, which have lived an existence in my mind as cartoonish behemoths printed on wooden nickels and various trinkets of Americana. In fact these impressive animals have lived through an epic journey of evolution from swift forest runners of Eurasia to herds of large mammals wandering Siberia, and across the Bering land bridge to join the megafauna of North America. This suite of animal included lions, cheetahs, the fearsome shortfaced bear, and a variety of grazers. As those other large beasts went extinct some 10 millenia ago, only bison, grey wolves, and the fleet pronghorn were left on the plains.
But this is not strictly a bison refuge, nor is it a prairie dog reserve or a sagebrush botanical garden. It's a Great Plains reserve, and the goal is broadly to make room for all variety of specimens that are a part of a healthy community in this biome. A healthy human social component is of paramount importance if this effort is to be successful. Conservationists, ranchers, and the native community are the stakeholders who must coalesce and find a way into the future to heal this land. The prairie landscape and livelihood are mythologized in our national lore. Real people living here are motivated by desire to build the good and noble things in life that this rich but demanding country has to offer.
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