Landmark is ASC's groundbreaking project to provide "boots on the ground" support for the American Prairie Reserve management team. Wildlife survey crews consist of skilled outdoors men and women who live and work on Montana's northern Great Plains, collecting data that informs APR's conservation management decisions.
Story and photos by Laura Hitt
The prairie awes me. Every day I run into something unexpected and raw. A few days ago during a sunrise birding session, we found the remains of a huge bird, its feathers impossibly large. We later identified it as a golden eagle.
A few days before that, Allie and I ran into more than 200 bison while hiking Transect 3. We watched as they streamed over the hills, running single file across ridges.
On the way back from a scoping session, a great horned owl kept pace with the car at sunset, silhouetted against the orange horizon. Perching on a tree by the road it shrieked, a call-and-response with the lowing cattle nearby.
Prairie nights hold equal excitement: We’ve spot-lighted for black-footed ferrets, northern lights streak across the sky and a total lunar eclipse. The night of the eclipse, we all rose at 4:30 a.m. to watch the Earth’s rusty shadow blot out the last of the moon’s white, a bloody watercolor wash over the pale orb.
The depth of the human dimension on this landscape also fascinates me—from the homesteaders to the natives who lived here before them. We see and feel evidence of both.
I found an arrowhead while walking Transect 6, a small, glassy triangle with worked edges, dull now. We’ve visited Medicine Rock, a huge pinkish stone covered in ancient petroglyphs and lichen where people still come to leave their prayers.
Some of the things we find are saddening. In one day, Kim and I found a female coyote that was hit by a car on Regina Road, as well as a badger and a ring-necked pheasant. Fall is a time of increased roadkill, with many animals migrating, looking for mates, or escaping hunters.
We brought the coyote home with us and spent about two hours skinning her. Peeling away skin to reveal the hidden body beneath was surreal—the skin, blue and a bit tacky, pulls away from the muscle with a bit of tugging, a bit of cutting.
Without fur, she was tiny and lean, nothing more than muscle and small brown eyes, a shattered shoulder and leg. I’ve seen nothing more beautiful that her wiry black-tipped tail, the reddish flanks. And the face: ears so soft, eyelashes and whiskers still intact.
Each of the Landmark crewmembers has applied a similar process to the prairie itself: We are peeling away its layers, respectfully, attentively, in wonder. It cannot be understood at first glance or from afar, and we want to know what is beneath the surface.
Originally from the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Laura Hitt studied creative writing and environmental studies. She has traveled in Australia, Norway, Indonesia and South America, and her passions include natural history, yoga, cooking (and eating) and spending time outside.
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