National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

A Wild Life at 40 Below: Working on a Snow-Covered American Serengeti

40belowbison_lingohr
The bison herd on American Prairie Reserve moves across the landscape unfazed by winter weather. Photo: Dennis Lingohr

When you think about modern day adventurers, how many of them live and work in the continental United States? On American Prairie Reserve, our staff spend their lives submersed in the grassland ecosystem in all seasons. As winter rolls in across the plains, extreme weather teaches us a lot about what it means to survive on the prairie. Below, one of our employees, Lars, gives a firsthand account of working at this remote outpost, where severe weather dictates human life yet rarely interrupts our non-human neighbors. – Sean Gerrity

======================================================================

WRITTEN BY Lars Anderson

lars_winterAt 40 degrees below zero, the air burns the back of your throat when you breathe deeply. Your nostrils freeze up with every breath of the clear, pure air. This air is so still and dry that it amplifies the crunch of your boots on the fine crystalline snowflakes. Insulated clothes take away much of the bite, but the creeping, penetrating cold still works its way into your bones. At this temperature, things just don’t work like normal. Fingers fumble with nuts and bolts, pickups barely chug and sputter to life, water pipes freeze, and hydraulic fluid refuses to flow.

My wife, Ellen, our 6-month old dog, Husker, and I moved to Montana from Nebraska to come work for American Prairie Reserve this past summer. We knew it would get colder here than what we were accustomed to, but it was kind of hard for people to describe what 40 below really felt like. In fact, it is still hard to describe. The best I’ve come up with is really cold.

As a biologist, what still truly amazes me is that, for the wildlife, everything seems to be normal. I look out my windows that have ice on the inside, glad I don’t have to go out, and see a bald eagle floating through the quiet air in search of a meal. Sharp-tailed grouse trudge by on foot, feeding as though the cold of December is no different than the heat of July. The 8-month-old bison calves graze down through the snow that covers the dry, frozen grass. They are covered in frost but unfazed. Unlike Husker and his humans, they seem unperturbed by this arctic invasion, probably because they have experienced much worse. Not as individuals perhaps, but through the collective experiences and hardships of the hundreds of millions of bison that came before them and bred this hardiness into their DNA.

Grouse use the snow to their advantage, moving quickly atop the mixed grass prairie.
Grouse use the snow to their advantage, moving quickly atop the mixed grass prairie.

In a couple of years, they will give birth to the next generation of bison calves.  Those new calves won’t know it for a few more months, but the land they call home gets really cold, for really long periods of time.

6-month old Husker isn’t nearly as tough as the bison calves. I stand outside with him for the one occasion that can bring us both out of the house. I am surprised his urine doesn’t freeze before it hits the ground. Or maybe it does, but I don’t care to inspect that closely. He loves the snow and he loves running around, but after a minute, he starts his cold-feet dance. He bee-lines it back to the house to be let in after just a three-minute frosty adventure.

Life on the prairie in winter is a time of extremes - temperature, travel and quiet. Photo: Dennis Lingohr
Life on the prairie in winter is a time of extremes – temperature, travel and quiet. Photo: Dennis Lingohr

When it gets this cold out, even though it doesn’t snow, there is still moisture falling out of the air. Oddly, under blue-skies and sunshine, my truck’s windshield gathers a quarter inch of fine snow crystals. Late afternoon crystals hang in the air and intensify the spectacular colors on the horizon where the sun is going down.

As the wind picks up and the temperature drops to something like 50 degrees below zero with the wind chill, I take another brief moment to drink in the landscape before turning to Husker, waiting semi-patiently by the door for warmth, doing his dance – but not as patiently as the bison in their home.

 

American Prairie Reserve (APR) is assembling a world class wildlife reserve in northern Montana, with the goal of one day creating a seamless 3.5 million acre grassland ecosystem. APR’s President Sean Gerrity is a National Geographic Fellow. Learn more about the Reserve, including progress to date and citizen scientist opportunities, on the Reserve’s website.

Comments

  1. Jimmy Duval
    Dallas, Texas
    December 24, 2013, 6:17 am

    It is difficult to believe that wild animals can endure such hardships with ease. Wheather it’s a bison in negative 40 temps or a polar bear swimming in frigid water for miles, a fish living in the deepest, coldest, darkest ocean or a flock of ducks taking flight for thousands of miles. These animals have evolved well equipped to survive the harshest conditions on earth.
    I think Mr. Anderson is correct is saying that the wild animals are at ease in the extreme winter conditions. They have evolved over time to thrive in these conditions. When you take a wild animal and put it into circumstances that it was not naturally equipped to handle, the animal will quickly so signs of stress.

  2. Jim Harris
    Ohio
    December 18, 2013, 5:58 pm

    I can’t believe this writer really believes that the animals are stoic and at ease in that cold. They will look like that until they fall over, frozen in death. Just like man’s insulated clothing, the shaggy fur on the bison or heavy down on the birds may help, help is all they do.

    They really won’t come up and dance at his door–even at 60 below.

    I’m being overly sarcastic, but wildlife surviving doesn’t by any stretch suggest that it’s easy for them and only really harsh for man and his critters.

    Over the years I have so often wondered why both man and beast have settled in places where life is so hard. Why the’ve stayed there for thousands or millions of years. And more recently, why do my Purple Martins come back to Ohio way too early in the spring and leave way too early in the fall. I reckon God knows.