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Smithsonian to help research, restore iconic Montana prairie


Big Sky Connection

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Eric Tegethoff

BOZEMAN, Mont. - The Smithsonian is partnering with American Prairie Reserve to research and restore one of the country's most treasured landscapes. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute does science and conservation work around the world and is bringing that expertise to APR's reserve in northeastern Montana. 

Before European settlement, more than 40 percent of North America was prairie and home to about 60 million bison. Only a fraction of that terrain and species remain. 

Bill McShea, a wildlife ecologist with the Smithsonian who studies grasslands around the world, says he's excited to look at this landscape in North America for the first time.

"It has a unique suite of species and it's something that is being restored, and we're always interested in places that are being restored to some historical condition," says McShea.

Over the next three years, McShea says his organization will be getting its bearings. After that, the hope is to partner with APR and other organizations to restore some species that roamed the northern great plains, such as bison and the black-footed ferret - the most endangered mammal in North America.

The Smithsonian will start with two research projects. The first will look at how grazing cattle and bison affect biodiversity on the prairie. The second will look at the biodiversity of prairie dogs, a species integral to this ecosystem, and design a restoration program for black-footed ferrets. 

Kyran Kunkel, director of wildlife restoration and science at APR, says the researchers have a lot to learn about this place.

"A great place for them to do science in North America on a system that has been little studied," says Kunkel. "So they're very excited about some of the questions that they can address that have not been looked at before in any detail, especially in the northern great plains."

APR manages 400,000 acres of purchased, leased and partnered lands, with the goal of reconnecting three million acres of public and private prairie lands to help native plant and animal species.



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