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Chasing Cranes: Searching for Prairies in Alberta and Montana
December 1, 2016
As I made my way out of Calgary, Alberta, I was excited to be moving into a new ecosystem: the prairie. North America's prairie is important to the lives of sandhill cranes. This rich grassland ecosystem covers the majority of the Central Flyway and provides ample feeding stops during the cranes' migration.
Grasslands are heavy with nutrients and can support high densities of wildlife. South of Calgary, trees and shrubs thinned out as expected; however, I didn't see any of the grasslands I was excited about. Pedaling my way past field after field, I got to a point where I realized that 360 degrees around me, stretching from horizon to horizon, every single plant in view was cultivated, right up to the highway.
North America's temperate grasslands are underlaid by rich, fertile soil. What makes this ecosystem so abundant also makes it susceptible to agricultural interference. Living in Alaska, its easy to take for granted that if an area on the map isn't marked by human habitation, you can expect to find the natural ecosystem, boreal forest. This is not the case with the prairie. A map of biomes will show a wide swath of grassland down America's middle. In reality, the prairie is very hard to find.
Passing through field after endless irrigated field, I began to feel as though aliens had landed, decided earth was uninhabitable, and ripped out everything to start anew. I passed a sign advertising barley being grown for Lagunitas Brewery, which reminded me that I am one of those aliens.
In Montana, the fields of feed corn and grain gave way to ranch land. Not all ranches had been recently plowed and the landscape began to look slightly more wild. Both sides of the highway in Montana are lined with barb wire fencing to keep cattle in. Not long after passing the border, I found my first fence casualty: the remains of a coyote.
I arrived at the Missouri River in Great Falls, Montana. The town is named for the series of waterfalls Lewis and Clark encountered at this part of the river. Today, there stands a series of dams.
Large flocks of Canada geese and American coots were resting on the river.
South of Great Falls, I asked locals for recommendations on what route to take through Montana. When I asked about Highway 12, I kept hearing "there's just nothing out there." I figured "nothing" would lead me to wild places, so out to Highway 12 I went.
Traveling east on Highway 12, I saw mule deer, white tailed deer, and antelope on a daily basis. One day I counted over 70 deer. I heard coyotes nightly. Sharp tailed grouse flew away from me as I passed. The prairie certainly is an abundant place for wildlife.
While passing ranches, the cattle would often begin running alongside me as I passed on my bicycle. At one such instance, over a hundred cows ran through the tall grasses near the banks of the Musselshell River, and I could hear both the soft sounds of the grasses moving around them and the thump of their hooves on the ground. At these moments, I couldn't help but wonder what the prairie would look and sound like if the buffalo herds were still in tact.
To help conserve wild prairies, visit americanprairie.org.