Photos: 10 Years After Reintroduction, Bison Counters Take to the Skies

A creek canyon divides a group of bison that are busy enjoying the green grasses of spring. Photo by Kestrel Aerial
A creek canyon divides a group of bison that are busy enjoying the green grasses of spring. (Photo by Kestrel Aerial)

There isn’t a road map for building a vast conserved landscape in today’s world—and there definitely isn’t a path for growing the nation’s largest conservation herd of bison. This year marks 10 years of bison restoration on American Prairie Reserve. We brought them back to the region after a 120-year absence, starting with just 16 animals from Wind Cave National Park in 2005.

Over the years, we’ve also opened up more and more land for the herd to roam on Montana’s plains, and the bison now graze across 31,000 acres in an area of the reserve called Sun Prairie. In a place this big, keeping count of the herd, especially since we have a hands-off approach, means that the team has taken management to the skies.

By Damien Austin

Twice a year, the pilot of a small Super Cub airplane picks me up for aerial surveys over the Sun Prairie region. There, a herd of bison has hit a point in their growth curve that makes me sweat. The 16 animals that arrived on American Prairie Reserve on a rainy night a decade ago have transformed into a herd of hundreds thanks to additional imports from Canada’s Elk Island National Park and an incredible reproduction rate.

From the air, I get a better view of the animals as they spread out across an undulating and surprisingly tricky prairie landscape. (We also track their movements thanks to radio collars on lead females.) Wintertime surveys should be the easiest since the contrast of 2,000-pound animals against white snow gives me a head start. Last year, however, the herd was amassed in two large groups and the red-headed calves sneakily hid —> Read More