Bison in Wonderland
A lone bison bull roams the prairie under a blue dome of sky. Before Euro-American settlement, some 30 million bison thundered across the Great Plains. By the late 1800s, they had been hunted to near-extinction. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Editor’s note: This article by Michael Forsberg was commended in the 2016 records of the Nebraska State Legislature.
It was just before sundown, and I was laying on my belly in a small homemade blind on a prairie dog town in western South Dakota. I had been sliding into and out of this slim coffin-shaped hide of garden fence and meadow hay from midday until dark for nearly a week, my telephoto lens pre-focused on a spot, resting on an old duct-taped bag of birdseed. Waiting. I was hoping to capture a moment when a burrowing owl might emerge from its underground nest and into the light of day. Then, suddenly, it happened.
There, in the cool of the evening, it was as if I was watching an actor being lifted up onto the stage. Through the viewfinder I first saw the top of its feathered head, then its eyes, then the rest of its body rose up into the frame. Once aboveground, it paused, looked left, then right, then arched its wings and, standing on one leg in a remarkable pose, leaned forward and fixed its intense gaze directly at me.
In an instant, the moment was gone, yet I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. That fierce look from that tiny little owl pierced my soul like nothing else ever has or maybe ever will. It also proved to me that there was a lingering wildness that still survives on the prairie and that it’s worth protecting.
I was born and raised in Nebraska in the heart of the Great Plains, a place where grass rules over trees, where the land seems just an anchor for the sky. To most people, this heartland is simply “flyover country,” one big flat cornfield you drive through at 75 miles per hour or fly over at 30,000 feet.
A sandhill crane dances for joy in a wet meadow grassland near the Platte River. With a clarion call and an elaborate courtship dance, cranes are perhaps the oldest surviving bird species on earth and are revered in cultures around the world. Today, 13 of the world’s 15 crane species are endangered. The sandhill crane is the most numerous, the whooping crane, the most rare, and they both migrate through North America’s Great Plains. Platte River Valley, Nebraska
To be fair, it’s hard to appreciate the Great Plains from a roadside pullout in five minutes. It doesn’t knock your socks off at a glance like the Rockies or the Grand Canyon. If you linger, though, the more time you spend, the more beauty you see, and it’s remarkable—like tens of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes falling like autumn leaves against a prairie sunset on the Platte River during spring migration, or a thundering herd of bison running as fast as the wind, racing each other across the South Dakota Badlands, kicking up snow on a -10º day, or the colorful surprise of schools of tiny native minnows the size of your pinkie living in clear, groundwater-fed streams in the Flint Hills of Kansas, as colorful as fish on a coral reef.
Less than 200 years ago, this immense region called the Great Plains was one of the greatest grassland ecosystems on earth, a million-square-mile kingdom of grass with 30 million or more bison, millions of elk, pronghorn and deer, billions of prairie dogs, top predators like Plains grizzlies and wolves, and indigenous cultures shaping and re-shaping the land. It was a nexus of life ever in motion and in sync with the harsh cycle of the seasons. The native wildlife that evolved here had two key survival strategies: the ability to move long distances quickly to find shelter or food; or to go underground, hunker down and wait.
A monarch butterfly gathers nectar from Indian blanket flowers. Each spring, succeeding generations of short-lived monarchs move up the Great Plains as far north as Canada, following the prairie bloom. In fall, they make an astonishing long-distance migration to the forests of central Mexico. South-central Nebraska
Then, in the blink of an eye, Euro-American settlement moved West, the prairies were plowed up, the rivers dammed and diverted, and the land otherwise tamed, and much of that wildness was gone. Today, the Great Plains is a vitally important working landscape and one of the great breadbaskets of the world, but it’s also one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems, and its conservation challenges are complex.
Grassland birds are declining at a faster rate than any other group of birds in North America. Prairie dog towns, once the center of the wheel of biodiversity in the region, are continually losing ground to an invasive species: plague. Agricultural conversion and booming energy development, with its dense matrix of roads, fences and power lines, destroys or fragments habitats, and compromises or stymies animal movements and migrations, from pronghorns to bats to monarch butterflies.
A burrowing owl stretches outside its underground nest burrow in the cool of a summer evening above a prairie dog town in Conata Basin, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota.
This is exactly where the power of photography can come into play. I’ve dedicated most of my career trying to shine a light on this often-overlooked landscape and its creatures. I’ve tried to use my camera to build appreciation for wildlife and native landscapes that remain, and to take an honest look and see what sort of shape the ecosystem is in.
What I’ve learned all these years is that photographing here is rarely easy. Most wildlife has evolved on the prairie to run fast, has great eyesight, lives in holes in the ground, and some are hunted. If you can see wildlife off in the distance, it’s a good bet they have already seen you. Photographing here takes time, failure rate is high, and the land and its climate don’t suffer fools lightly. Blinds can be blown away or flooded out, and sometimes defiled by cattle or bison. It seems to be always too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, and sometimes all in the same day. You learn that if the wind isn’t blowing for very long, get nervous, because that usually means a storm is coming. And, if the rancher says it’s “just over the hill,” you’d better pack a lunch.
Nomads of the High Plains
A herd of migrating pronghorn marches through its winter range in the Milk River Breaks. In severe winters, pronghorn survive by staying on the move. Impervious to national boundaries, these animals sometimes travel 500 miles round-trip between their summer range in Canada’s Prairie provinces and their winter range in northeastern Montana.
Most of the land here is in private ownership, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not managed for conservation. Many ranchers and farmers make a life with the land, not simply something from which to extract for profit. They view the land as a part of their family, their stewardship of wildlife as their heritage and legacy, and will protect species and habitats fiercely.
So many of the important issues of the day regarding the land are playing themselves out in the Great Plains, from food systems to energy development, water quality and water scarcity, soil health and pollination. All the while, the wildlife that lives here is simply trying to thread the needle to survive. Wildlife photography is a critically important tool to build appreciation for, and remind us of, our rich natural heritage, but just as importantly, we can leverage its power and beauty to take action to protect these creatures that have no voice and for their own sake.
A Hunter’s Prize
A swift fox carries the front half of a prairie dog back to its den to feed its pups in the shortgrass prairie. Swift foxes are only the size of small house cats, yet can reach speeds of over 30 mph. Shy, yet highly social, their numbers and range have declined precipitously over the last century, victims of incidental poisoning to control coyote and prairie dog populations, and loss of habitat to agriculture and energy development.
The Great Plains will never be the vast wilderness it once was, but the more important questions are what do we want its future to be, and will its wildlife and their native habitats that sustain all of us have a place in it?
Michael Forsberg is a conservation photographer, author and speaker. His book “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild” was published by the University of Chicago Press and its documentary film under the same title was produced by NET Television for PBS. He currently serves on the faculty of the University of Nebraska, where he’s co-founder of the Platte Basin Timelapse Project. See more of his work at michaelforsberg.com and on Instagram @mforsbergphoto.