By Damien Austin
Freezing rain has left inches of ice across a snow-crusted prairie. A few days from now the creeks will be running high as warm weather moves in to unravel the layers of winter. It’s also the time of year when my two young daughters stand at the kitchen windows with their faces pressed up against the glass. “Outside!” they cry, looking at me to hurry up the seasons.
By now, we’re all awaiting the end of a long winter and the arrival of spring on the Reserve. I also find myself looking out the window for glimpses of blue sky, closing the laptop that’s been my primary land management tool the past few months. We’re all ready to be outside and get muddy.
Around here, mud takes on a whole new meaning. It even has a completely different name – gumbo. Gumbo is a notorious substance that makes travel on roads around the Reserve impossible at times. Vehicles slide off the road or develop such thick layers of mud caked in the wheel wells that they just stop – unless they are on a really steep hill, and then they might start sliding down despite locked wheels.
Made up of extremely absorbent bentonite clay, gumbo is part of the Reserve’s long natural history. Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the Western Interior Seaway sprawled across the interior of the North American continent, violent volcanic eruptions spewed ash into the air that fell into the sea and, eventually, turned into bentonite clay. Geologic time wore on and now here I stand today, dealing with gumbo that originated from events tens of millions of years in the past.
Despite the challenges of gumbo when it comes to travel, gumbo only forms when water is present— and when water is present we know that spring is on the way. Along with the mud, we’ve started to notice other subtle signs of changing seasons as me and the girls venture out from our home in the northwest part of American Prairie Reserve.
Sharp-tailed grouse have begun congregating in anticipation of their annual mating rituals, which typically commence in early April. I spotted more than two dozen males gathered on a known lek site, although only a few were practicing their feet-stomping, wing-flapping dance that will (hopefully) attract a female counterpart this year.
North of my house, we’ve been watching a herd of around 200 pronghorn graze throughout the winter. A few years ago, a harsh winter decimated the regional population and large groups are still surprising to see. This group is slowly disbanding now in anticipation of snow-free travel north to their fawning grounds in southern Canada. By next week, nearly half of this group will be moving on. While we’re always sad to see them go, it also reaffirms how important it is to continue our fence removal efforts and connect large swaths of land for these animals to move freely.
Just as one creature departs for more northern climes, other migratory animals will soon arrive on the Reserve from their wintering grounds on the west coast, American southwest, and as far away as South America. We’ll watch as snow melt fills seasonal ponds across the prairie, soon to be filled with ducks, geese, swans, and grebes come April.
As much as my household is ready for the next phase of life on the Reserve, we appreciate that winter is a crucial part of the prairie. There is perhaps no better time to witness the interdependence of the ecosystem’s critters, plants and processes than this time of year, when ice gives way to green shoots and red-colored bison calves feast on new growth. We’re all slipping and sliding into spring.
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, and Damien Austin serves as Reserve Supervisor. Learn more about the Reserve, including how to visit and current progress, on the Reserve’s website.