We wanted to share a few photos from the wonderful opening reception and gallery talk we attended for the Rediscovering the Prairie Exhibition last October, held in Colorado College’s Coburn Gallery. We had a great time and really enjoyed the live music provided by the students. We couldn’t have been happier with the way the multimedia exhibition came together in the space, or with the turnout for the reception. Engaging people through these exhibitions has been a wonderful way to start conversations and open people’s eyes to the wider issues in grassland conservation and rangeland management. We hope you enjoy show, and as always, thank you CC!
All You See Is Grass
The discovery, of course,
the milkweed, the current, the glint
of red in grass
when light lengthens
and then, with a shudder,
Here, the birdsong, There the bones—
The plow with all the rest of the rust.
Old hands finger threads
in the grass:
This dugout, That homestead,
But all you see
blanketed in snow.
Unbidden, I wake to see
small clouds of breath
erupt from the nose
of a deer— I assume
are coated in ice.
We take these victories
move our feet
through the snow,
marvel at the bulkiness
of our tracks
compared to the sharp perfect
punctures of the deer’s
in the new snow—
Pour the coffee,
Be sure to check out Rediscover the Prairie’s latest in
“Equally thrilled and terrified, we began to organize 300 pounds of gear into the four pack boxes we would live out of for the next 82 days. Armed with a tent, iodine, maps, fencing pliers, an inordinate amount of mac and cheese, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, we set out across the Northern Great Plains.”
Continue reading here.
“So have you had success with your guard dogs?” I asked Leo Barthelmess. Robin and I stood in the fading light of a too-long, too-hot day, happy to see the evening come, next to the old one-room schoolhouse where we would be spending the night. Our horses grazed amid the playground equipment, eagerly seeking out the overgrown clumps of alfalfa scattered throughout the former lawn. Too curious to hold back my questions until the morning, I was pestering him about the dynamics of his 18 to 20 Livestock Guardian Dogs that watch over the sheep on his place. They work in teams of up to 8 dogs, each team protecting hundreds of sheep out on open range. “Well, without the dogs we couldn’t run sheep, and with them we can, so I’d say they’ve worked pretty well for us,” he told me. We looked out over the vast grasslands where Leo, his wife, and brother have run sheep and cattle for decades. Essentially, he explained, keeping the dogs has successfully reduced predation, at least to the point where it is possible to run sheep again. There is still some loss every year, particularly around lambing, and some years depredation is still significant, but now it is manageable. Before they brought in guard dogs, losses from predation made running sheep economically impossible.
Sheep once grazed most of the country we rode through. Now nearly every ranch only runs cattle. Everyone we talked to suggested the same reason for this shift – just too many predators to run sheep now, they said. While eagles and mountain lions take their share, the biggest problem is usually attributed to coyotes. The coyote numbers in much of the Northern Great Plains have climbed steadily over everyone’s living memory. We heard their calls often, though we only saw two coyotes over the three months we were on the road.
There are a few reasons why cattle ranchers might want to run sheep. By running both cattle and sheep, ranchers can diversify their business and reduce their exposure to fluctuations in the beef, lamb, and wool markets. They can also more efficiently utilize the forage on their land because sheep tend to prefer leafy shrubs and forbs and cattle tend to prefer grasses. Sheep can also be a huge help when dealing with certain invasive noxious weeds. For a month Robin and I rode our horses along the Powder River, where the bottomlands are heavily infested with leafy spurge, a plant poisonous to cattle and horses but tolerated by sheep. Some ranchers are finding sheep to be helpful in utilizing the otherwise ruined pastures, and that by grazing the aggressive weed, the sheep help give native plants a chance to compete. Running sheep can help ranchers stay in business, which is good for grasslands threatened by development and plow-up. Ranchers cannot run sheep profitably, however, if predation losses are too high.
There was a time when predator numbers throughout the Northern Great Plains were extremely low. Between the huge numbers of homesteaders that once filled the prairie like exurban-ranchettes, a thriving fur trade, government sponsored bounties and predator control officers lacing animal carcasses with poisons, even coyote numbers were decimated. The sheep industry flourished at one time with Irish and Basque shepherds building huge flocks on the open range. Where grizzlies and wolves had been killed off, shepherds and homesteaders waged war on the coyotes and “chicken hawks” that took their lambs. The ranchers’ only defenses against the predators were poison, traps, and guns that they used liberally to defend their sheep. Since the rural population has readjusted to the realities of the climate, certain poisons were banned, and the Endangered Species Act was created, many predators have rebounded dramatically.
The return of some predators to the prairie is cause for celebration. All eagles, hawks and falcons are now protected under federal law, and many cherish their flight above the prairie. The grasslands soundscape would be deeply impoverished without the wild yipping and bizarre cackling of coyotes. Ecologically, by keeping the rodent and rabbit populations in check, a moderate predator population helps stabilize population explosions of those tiny but voracious grazers. On the other hand, an overpopulation of predators, just like an overpopulation of herbivores or an overpopulation of noxious weeds, can be unhealthy for the ecosystem. If there were a way to make ranching profitable and ecosystems balanced without once again totally annihilating these predators, it would be a huge win for grasslands, keeping the land undeveloped, unplowed, and ecologically healthy.
There was one tool that the immigrant shepherds left behind in the old world: Their guard dogs. From the late 1800s to the late 1900’s, Livestock Guardian Dogs were not a part of the American rancher’s predator control repertoire. Slowly, over the last several decades, more and more people have been importing the dogs, breeding them locally, and experimenting with the their use. They are gaining popularity, and that’s good for both the sheep and the predators, and by extension the ranchers and the environment.
Riding past flocks of sheep huddled under the shade of a few trees or an old piece of farm equipment, there was often a guard dog tucked in amongst them, panting with the lambs in the heat of the day. It was hard to tell them apart from a distance, fighting for the shade, but if we rode close enough the dog would walk out in front, sizing us up and staring us down, barking a great deep bark if we drew any closer.
Livestock Guardian Dogs have been bred over generations to instinctively protect the livestock they bond with from wild predators, stray dogs, and thieves. Unlike herding dogs, they are not trained to help move the livestock. They are imprinted on the livestock from a young age, and live with the livestock at all times, working independently from human commands and directions. They are trained to be respectful and submissive to their handlers, but not to perform tasks the way a herding dog is. There are many breeds of livestock guardian dogs, from the huge white Great Pyrenees, Akbash, and Komondor, to the Anatolian Shepherd Dogs, the Spanish Mastiff, Kangal Dog, Maremma Sheepdog and Sarplaninac. The breeds have different traits, but largely work in the same manner. They live independently from humans with the livestock, eat at feeding stations near the flock, and patrol the area for predators. Some breeds and individuals tend to stay close to the livestock, barking as a warning to any predators and only engaging a predator if it actively attacks one of its flock. Others have been bred to more actively chase away or kill predators that come too close to their flock.
While their ancestors were bred to protect flocks from marauding thieves and unscrupulous neighbors, they generally pose no threat to passersby, and so I wasn’t too worried for our safety when we passed guard dogs. If we left their sheep alone, I was confident the guard dogs would leave us alone, only barking to warn us of their presence. On the other hand, I was a little nervous about our dog Winnie.
People we met on the trail warned us to keep our dog close by because their guard dogs might kill her if she was alone. “It’s happened before” they told us regretfully. Livestock Guardian Dogs instinctively protect their flocks from stray dogs. That is usually a good thing. Behind wild predators, stray dogs are the second leading cause of livestock loss in the United States. As it was, we kept a close watch on Winnie, our black German Shepard cross that looks a little more wolfish than might be good for her, and learned to heighten our vigilance whenever we saw a flock of sheep down the road. Luckily, the only guard dogs we came across unaccompanied by their owners were young and too submissive and playful to pose a real threat to Winnie. It turned out that the biggest injury we sustained from a guard dog was the theft of a freshly baked slice of banana bread stolen from our camp by a friendly dog named Liam. Seeing as we were sleeping in his tractor shed and charging our camera batteries in his sheep’s manger, we really couldn’t blame him.
As consumers, one of the steps we can take to help with the stewardship of our country’s prairies is to buy products that help support the healthy management of grasslands. We can buy grass-raised meat from animals finished on pasture and range, cutting out dependence on feedlots and monocultures of corn that replace diverse native prairie. Buying Organic and All Natural certified products can also reduce certain negative impacts of conventional agricultural systems on native prairie ecosystems. Another option is just beginning to make its way onto grocery store shelves in the form of products labeled “Predator Friendly” or “Certified Wildlife Friendly.” These new certifications encourage and acknowledge ranchers for their use of non-lethal predator control methods, which often include the use of livestock guardian dogs. Dogs are usually used in conjunction with other practices, such as corralling livestock at night, use of electric fences, moving livestock away from high-conflict areas at certain times of year (such as a pasture near a wolf den), or having herders with the livestock. Of course, many ranchers will choose to use wildlife friendly practice such as guard dogs and not seek certification, but seeking out certification may be of interest to others.
Take a look at Louise Liebenberg’s blog, which helps illuminate some of the challenges and rewards of working with Livestock Guradian dogs and operating as a certified Predator Friendly ranch.
While certification does not currently command high premiums, if demand for “wildlife friendly” products grows with consumer awareness of the label, the opportunity for producers to capitalize on the certification could be significant. More producers might also be willing to join the label if there was more flexibility allowing for responsible predator population reduction when deemed appropriate, as part of an integrated predator management program. As producers, even if certification does not make sense for your operation, integrating livestock guardian dogs into your management strategy might.
A few days after we turned the horses out in the pasture for a long winter’s rest, I drove to Colorado Springs to visit my family. To go entirely across a state and into another in a matter of 8 hours is a peculiar thing once you’ve taken about 3 months, or 2,016 hours, to do just that. Already it felt absolutely odd to be behind the wheel instead of in a saddle, to careen through a landscape in an enclosed vessel, cut off from the birdsong and wind. It struck me how easy it is to zone out while in a car and to count down the miles until you can get out of the car. You don’t hear one songbird. You don’t meet one rancher. You hardly notice where the sun is in relation to the horizon. Needless to say, by the time I hit Denver, I was in a strange mood.
As I made my way into the outskirts of Denver, through the suburbs and strip malls, that is to say, decidedly out of the native prairie that blankets so much of the country we had just become so intimately connected with, I had to pull over. Though it is, of course, easy to zone out in the car, to not notice anything that surrounds you except for traffic signs, I couldn’t help but notice the red glint of little bluestem in small tufts in the right of way alongside C-470.
Lest we forget, the land along Colorado’s Front Range is part of the prairie. The soil, much of it now covered by cement, was once likely covered in little bluestem, prairie june grass, and hundreds of other species of native plants. You would hardly make the connection, except for the small reminders, the remnants of prairie, that litter the landscape; the scattered stands of little bluestem in the right of way, for example. I don’t really need to paint the picture of my drive for you; you’re familiar with the urban sprawl, the strip malls, the factories, the condominiums, the apartment buildings, the sidewalks and parking lots that dominate the landscape alongside any given highway near an urban center. Depending on where you are, you’ll often see fields of wheat or corn or soy or sugar beets or alfalfa… And then sometimes you’ll see open lots. Most of them have big signs with red letters that spell out “LAND FOR SALE.” What a lot of people might miss, while driving by at 80, are the small stands of little bluestem right under these signs.
After spending what felt like an eternity, but what was really 3 months, marveling every day at the exact way little bluestem lights up when the evening light lengthens across it, I couldn’t help but notice every single stand of little bluestem in the right-of-ways and in the vacant but soon to be developed lots alongside the highway. What seemed like every day on the trail I would be filled up, awestruck, mesmerized by the delicacy of little bluestem seed heads in the wind during the half hour before the sun leaned into the horizon. During that half hour Sebastian would often get annoyed at me because I would jump off my horse and put myself belly down on the earth to try and capture the precise glean and glint of the grasses with my camera. I loved watching the horses bury their noses in big patches of it. I never was able to catch just how magical little bluestem can be, but here are a few tries:
Speeding away from a part of the country blanketed by native grasses, and into country blanketed by cement, and at such a furious speed, I headed into a breakdown alongside the highway. I pulled over and began to cry. When Sebastian asked me what was wrong, I answered him by asking “Where are all of the birds supposed to nest?”
Now, let’s be clear, I am an absolute emotional basket case and have been since I was four, people make fun of me for it all the time, but thinking of any number of the grassland birds that we saw during our trip try to make a nest in the grasses in the four feet on either side of c-470 is the most depressing thing in the world.
The thing is, when you are riding through the parts of the prairie that are still intact, you get the feeling that it is limitless. We were moving slowly enough across the landscape that it felt like it was never ending. The landscape is so immense, so very vast, filled with such grandeur, that you believe and hope it is indestructible, that it must stretch everywhere; It doesn’t. It is on the lip of disappearance, unsung and unnoticed except by few as more wheat goes in and more buildings go up. When you are riding through healthy prairie, when you are in the midst of the riot of its sounds and colors, it is difficult to imagine the edge of it; half a day’s drive will bring you to it. We talked with so many remarkable stewards of the prairie, had such heartfelt conversations about why it is important to them, that it seemed impossible that there are parts of the country where the prairie is not appreciated; but, of course, there are.
Part of our project objective revolves around the celebration of the prairie— to challenge the common narrative that surrounds the plains dominated by adjectives such as “boring,” or “flat,” a narrative that suggests the prairie contains very little of note. Not one mile of the landscape we traversed was boring, and very little of it was flat; I hope we succeeded in conveying this.
In addition to celebrating the landscape and the people that care for it, we hope to draw attention to the very real fact that little intact prairie remains. The huge swaths of native prairie we rode through, though they seemed absolutely boundless at the time, are the small remainders of an ecosystem that has all but disappeared. The meadowlarks, the ferruginous hawks, the kangaroo mice, the Sprague’s Pipits, the little bluestem, all of these trademark prairie species have greatly diminished. Their habitat has shrunk to stamp size islands increasingly isolated from the next checkerboard piece of viable habitat. I wrote a little bit about what this means for grassland birds in a previous post here.
The loss of native prairie has secured grasslands the title of one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world. The mixed grass biome that we rode through has shrunk to 29% of its historical distribution. Estimates for remaining tallgrass prairie dip to fractions of 1%. The populations of 80% of grassland bird species are in decline. 74% of the species reliant on grassland habitats in the Northern Great Plains are listed as imperiled by federal, state, and provincial governments. The fact is, the country we rode across, much of it native prairie, is some of the last remaining intact prairie left on the planet. What seemed like huge tracts of prairie while we were riding across them are really islands. They are shadows of what they once were. The tracts of prairie that took us weeks to ride through take a couple of hours to drive across. My point here is that they are treasures. They demand celebration.
Mixed into the soil of the Great Plains landscape are beauty, peril, promise, fear, rapture, and something all its own that transcends all of this. The long-term health and resilience of the prairie is not at all a given. The future presence of many of the species that now exist in its remnants is even less certain, even improbable. The populations in many of the rural towns we rode through have considerably shrunk since the 20’s. In the threads of stories woven into these grasses are countless individuals who cherish the prairie. Many of them do their part to protect it, each with a unique approach. Each approach has its limitations, no one attempt will likely result in a final solution, but the remarkable truth is that each of these efforts will have a resounding impact on the story that unfolds. It was such a joy to learn about each of the efforts made every day in the lives of so many of those that live off the land we rode through; I feel lucky to be able to share some of the stories of the people, the pipits, and the grasses we had the distinct pleasure of getting to know.
Oct 1: Day 1 of Non-Trail Life
And so our days will forever be divided. Yesterday in a cold rain we rode to the foot of the Big Horn Mountains, which had been rising higher on the horizon for a week. We brought this stretch of the trip to a close as we pulled off the pack saddles and unloaded everything into a barn. As I write this, I’m sure the horses are munching frantically to get their fill, thinking that we will call them in tomorrow morning for another day’s ride. Luckily for them, they’ve got a little while to get to know their pasture. There’s a great little stream that runs right through it, a shed for cover when it snows (which it happens to be doing right now), plenty of deer to spook them into a trot, and lots and lots of grass. Pearl even has the most perfect sandhole to roll in.
Having a moment to begin to reflect upon the last 3 months, I am absolutely floored by all of the kindness and generosity we encountered while on the trail. We were welcomed so seamlessly into so many homes and invited to share so many meals and to be part of so many beautiful lives, if only for a few days, and our horses were offered hay and green pastures. I know that none of us ever smelled all that good, so it truly is a remarkable thing. It does something to a person, to look towards the horizon and be able to go see about it. There is an openness about the prairie and its horizons that has been imprinted on my heart. I know that I will crave that sense of being fully alive, fully a part of my environment, drinking from the same watering holes as pronghorns and weathering the same storms, for the rest of my days. Feeling entirely at home in a creekbed or meadow or open prairie flat. With the least nuclear looking family you could imagine, Pearl, the horses, Sebastian and I found home, along with a deep sense of belonging, wherever it was we pitched camp for the night. That sense of place, discovered and rediscovered every day on the trail, is one that will continuously affect me, even now that we’ve hung up the slickers for the winter.
In fact, we haven’t hung them up just yet; this morning I pulled mine out during a hailstorm that peppered us as we moved 242 cows from one side of the ranch to the other. For a little while at least, we’ll be helping out here, and as the horses rest up, our real work will begin to share the stories we found while on the trail. We cannot begin to thank everyone who took part, in some way or another, in this trip with us. Your encouragement and support and well wishes meant and mean so much to us. We surely never would have set out without them, so thanks for getting us out the door and onto the trail. I imagine it won’t be long before we’re back on it.
* * *
Whether it was Randy Claybaugh who brought out his refurbished sheep wagon for us to stay in on a bend of the Powder river, complete with a cooler of ranch raised beef, elk steaks, beer, and sweet corn, or the families who cooked us hot meals in the mornings: eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, or the kindness of a stranger we met who dropped off cheeseburgers, cold cokes, a dozen eggs, cookies, sausage, steaks, and m&m’s on the side of the highway, we are so grateful for every meal, bed, floor, shop, sheep wagon, sheep shed or pasture offered so thoughtfully to us. As travelers, you gain a new respect for the thoughtfulness of hosts and hostesses, the care taken to take care of their exhausted guests. I’ve never felt more cared for in my life.
When we started the trip, Robin and I had no real way of being sure how our horses would hold up on the trail. Considering the challenge, they did amazingly well. Nonetheless, they are due for a long rest. With saddles on for nearly three months, their backs were getting sore and their enthusiasm waning. Despite their cranky attitudes at being saddled recently, the amazing thing is how they took to trail life, and still enjoy our company. When we turned them out to run free yesterday, they ate the grass all around us for hours, even when we whooped and hollered to get them to run for a good photo. Now those are some tired, happy horses. Perhaps a better test was walking out to meet them today, and they all came trotting up, Pearl insisting on an ear scratch as usual. They followed us as we walked away. It’s been so wonderful to see a bond form between the horses, the mule, and the two of us that goes beyond treats and training.
After we arrived here, turned the horses out, and headed for the house, we hesitated. Shouldn’t we be setting up the sleeping bags in the pasture? We almost did. Life has become the tone of belled horses, the snap of cold air inhaled from a warm sleeping bag, and steaming cups of cowboy coffee and hot oatmeal as the sun warms the day. Life has become the nomadic rhythm of daily moves; eating, packing up camp, riding, riding, riding, setting up camp, eating, sleeping, repeat. Every day to a new spring, a new cove, a new bend in the river. Every day to new grass. No two days were the same. To those who think the Great Plains are monotonous, try horse packing through them. All you have to do is slow down a little to notice how incredibly different every single mile is, and every single hour. Every day is unique. Every minute new. Maybe it was the linearity of the trail that made time seem new and precious. Appreciate this here now, because soon you will be passed it, and the next stretch will be different.
With the coming fall feeling like winter already, the warmth of sunrise has been eluding us. The key in the last week of the ride was to stay dry as grey clouds hung low and autumn winds blew rain and sleet against our slickers, stinging hands and faces. That sort of weather made the transition back to sedentary life, and the decision to sleep indoors, a little easier. So does the snow today. A hot shower and warm bed feel awfully good at the end of a day like that.
Now, some of you may have noticed that we didn’t make it to Oklahoma, or Missouri, or Eastern Kansas, or any of the potential ending destinations that we originally set out for. For some, that may be a major disappointment. I hope not. We may be able to continue on next spring toward one of those geographic goals. For us the physical distance traveled and the end location was never the most important goal at all. Our goal (careful what you wish for!) was to slow down. To slow down enough to see and understand the landscape, to learn from and share with the people that we met, to learn the local flora and fauna even as it changes from county to county, drainage to drainage, to notice the precise way the sunlight gleans off different bends in the river, hear and see and recognize and celebrate the wildlife we passed, the changes in vernacular of the families we visited with, to notice the change in soil types, rainfall, management practices, and to relish, fully, the prairie. We originally thought that we would be able to meet a family one night and hear their story the same evening and begin riding again in the morning. Once we started we found that usually we had to stay for at least two nights and a full day in between if we really wanted to begin to get to know them and learn something about their relationship to the land. So we slowed down. We had heard it was possible to average 15 miles a day riding 5 days a week, but we didn’t realize what and who we would miss riding 15 miles a day 5 days a week. That wasn’t slow enough. So we changed schedule, making new objectives to accomplish our larger goal. We think it was a worthwhile compromise, one that made our journey that much richer, and enabled us to dive a little deeper into the country we rode through. And now, with a roof over our heads and internet at our fingertips, we’ll be able to share what we found with you.
Thank you everyone for everything.
All the best,
Robin and Bass weren’t the easiest to find. Before I could track them down, I had to work my way through Robin’s shopping list:
- one headlamp
- 32 beers
- 2 boxes in a basement in Bozeman
- 8 iodine bottles
- sandwich bread
- one saddle + bridle
- vet supplies
- white gas
- two bags of alfalfa
- two bags of sweet feed
- a passle of pens
- oh, and hot chocolate please!!
After some odd hours of collecting items in Bozeman I followed Robin’s directions (which she left in a series of voice messages):
Voice mail 1: Head down Powder River Road
Voice mail 2 : Where are you?!
Voice mail 3 : Head down the Powder River Road, we’ll be there all day; it won’t be hard to find us! Just scan the old horizon!
Voice mail 4: I’ve been calling you from a satellite phone; we have no service!
A day later (after a stop-over in Billings) I saw two cowboy hats bobbing in the distance. I offered the travelers a lift, but hell, they had a lot of baggage, four horses and a mule. Two of the horses had packs rising over their backs like camel humps; are you sure we can fit the beers Robin?!
It seems that I had both good timing (for Robin and Sebastian) and bad timing (for me), arriving with the coldest days of fall. We had all heard reports of a storm rolling in and hunkered down in a bull pasture to weather it. Those bulls looked fierce indeed! But we were brave and cold and made a nice little fire on the Powder. I even played Robin and Bass “Silent Night” on the harmonica.
Since I joined the team, Pearl, the mule, and I have developed a deep understanding.Two local farriers, Bill and Ward, put new shoes on the horses today. Bill was getting a little irritated with Pearl, huffing, “Quit it donkey!” and I politely corrected him, “She’s a mule.”’ I’ve secretly been looking into livestock trucking rates to get her to California while Robin takes her pee breaks.
Now, we are in another meadow, although Robin laughs at me calling it a meadow, just outside of Broadus. Last night we rode the horses right through town and grazed them in front of the Sleepy Motel before we found a home for the night. Just another day on the trail with Rob and Bass. Full of thrills, grass identifying lessons, and lots and lots of laughing.
From this Grass Earth
I watch the heat build
and rise in waves
over this silver sage steppe;
clouds, pink and lavender-hued
converge on the lip
of those hills
to the east.
Wait for the heat
over this hard-pan
on black wings
streak through the night
as it settles,
I settle, disjointed
* * *
Fall, it seems, has snuck up on us. It has written itself all over the landscape: in the curing grasses, the gradual ting of yellow on the branches of cottonwoods along the rivers, and the thin film of frost covering our tent in the morning. We have just begun to see the horses’ breath as we have our coffee in the morning and wait for the dew to burn off. We spent a particularly cold day holed up watching hay equipment crawl by as ranchers hurried to get everything up before the first freeze. The horses are beginning to grow in their winter coats and Pearl has taken to bucking in the most phenomenally mulish ways to alert everyone of the coming winter. We’ve heard talk over the last month from every place we stop in of an early winter, and it seems to be the case, with over a foot of snow accumulating just a couple hours drive from us. All the hawks are molting, and every kestrel we’ve come across has been puffed up in an effort to stay warm on telephone wires. The geese have begun to bunch up and herald in the changing season with their gabble. We’ve dug up our coats and gloves and have made good use of our slickers riding through rain and sleet.
In the last several weeks, we have crossed over the Yellowstone River, I-94, and the Keystone XL pipeline (currently under construction), three major arteries that cut across the state and much of the Great Plains. Each corridor has an effect on the surrounding ecosystem.
We crossed the Yellowstone against a backdrop of badlands in Terry, MT. The Yellowstone, first called the Elk River by the Crow and Blackfoot Indians, is the longest undammed river in the lower 48. We camped on its northern bank for several days, wading in its swollen waters and letting the horses rest after a long push. We rang in my birthday with a visit from friends from Wyoming and Colorado with a fire on a drizzly day. It was rare to look up at the sky above the river without seeing a flock of geese, a great blue heron, a few sandhill cranes, flocks of white pelicans, or a bald eagle crossing over. It’s a wonder to think that what we now consider to be “a lot of birds” may pale in comparison to the abundance that once flanked the banks of the river. After moving out of the Hi-Line, where native prairie dotted with black cattle stretched to each horizon, rangeland began to give way to wheat fields near Circle, and we rode by our first irrigated cornfields in Terry along the Yellowstone River Valley.
Owing to having remarkably calm horses that are, by now, very used to traffic, crossing I-94 on an overpass went off without a hitch. The horses were far more interested in getting to the swell of smooth brome on the other side of the overpass than the semi’s zooming below at 85. We met up with the Powder River about 18 miles south of the Yellowstone. It has become one of my favorite rivers. Much of the open savannah-like forest on either side of the river is still intact, whereas much of the wooded area on either side of rivers throughout the West has been lost. The land is converted to irrigated crops, and damns impede flooding and the natural regeneration of cottonwood stands. Huge swaths of trees still skirt the reaches of the Powder, a free flowing river, and the sunlight slants through their yellowing leaves in the most wonderful way. The open forests that line the part of the Powder we’ve ridden along so far, much of it rangeland, has been remarkable. It has been nice to have a tree or two to tie the horses to, sit on the bank next to a campfire and watch the deer run across the Powder’s shallow waters as the sun sets and things turn cold.
Here in Broadus, MT, we cut over the Keystone XL pipeline. As we rode closer to town, the only traffic was from trucks with South Dakota plates coming back from work on the line. The line, visible because the track where it lies hasn’t been reseeded to grass yet, stretches clear to the horizon. We’ve chatted with landowners whose property the pipeline has gone through, some with different views. The first time many of them realized that the pipeline would cross their land was when they saw surveyors out in their pastures. Trans Canada, the foreign corporation putting in the pipeline, has received the power of imminent domain from the U.S. government. The pipeline will transport crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands south to the U.S. gulf coast. Tar sands oil is difficult and energy-intensive to produce, and leaks and spills would have enormous implications for the health of rivers, aquifers, wildlife, and communities along the route. The pipeline is a topic that has created enormous political, environmental, and indigenous friction.
Everyone we have met in this part of the country has been remarkably kind. During a windstorm, some folks picked us up and shuttled us down the road where they put us up for the night. On one hot day, just north of Mizpah, Sebastian rode up to a house to see if they had any ice cream they’d be willing to sell, and we were loaded down with ice cream cones and popsicles. We can’t count the number of times we have been offered cold drinks from passersby. Bags of grain and carrots have found their way to the horses, and homemade cookies and vegetables from gardens have made it into our saddlebags on several happy occasions. In these towns it seems everyone has a good grasp of which neighbors have horses (most) and might have corrals for us to keep our motley herd in.
With the coming winter hot, or rather cold, on our heels, we have decided to continue to go up the Powder River into Northern Wyoming in lieu of heading southeast from here. Given the early winter, the weather could quickly become dicey for our horses and the both of us. We plan to make it to Big Horn, WY in about a month, and will keep the horses there for the winter. From there, we’ll see what Spring holds…
Here are some photos from the last few weeks. Enjoy.
Across the far bank
Osprey, black wings,
beak, circles low
over still lake:
back and forth
With lights far off
across a flooded prairie flat,
into the grass: maroon stands
of little bluestem.
I raise my eyes
to the peak of brown hills.
Black cattle wade across
the far bank, my thoughts
somewhere between them.
I sink deeper
into the sandy shore,
suspended, as always,
between what I fear,
the hot sun,
and steady wind.
After winding our way through rimrock, rattlesnakes, sinkholes, and bogs, we have made our way through and out of the Sand Arroyo Badlands. It was a little patch of that hollywood-west I’ve come to expect from Utah’s slick rock canyons but didn’t expect to find in Montana. Either side of that vulture thick, mosquito heavy maze of alkali seeps and sheer cliff faces (it’s actually very beautiful, and decent rangeland for someone’s cattle operation) has been beautiful grass country of gentle rolling hills. Around Circle, they’ve had a very wet year, and things look more like spring than fall with lush green grass everywhere. We got caught in a rainstorm and found out that our rain gear didn’t work. Thats what you get for using old backpacking gear when you should have a slicker. Soaked to the bone and in the wind at 47 degrees, we were cold, and thankful to find shelter in the Brockway bar, a little watering hole with plenty of character, hot choclate and fireball. An off duty waitress, Rayln, offered us her room for the night. We stayed for three. She lent us her truck to get slickers in Miles City, the closest town with a ranch supply store, and we kept our horses down with hers at the rodeo grounds. In miles city we picked up some grain and alfalfa for the horses who were cold themselves. The wheat harvest, in full swing, came to a halt, and the locals and out-of-town combining crews quickly joined us at the bar. The rains lasted through the weekend, bringing 7 inches to some spots in an area that only gets 12 inches per year on average. The ranchers are happy for it, and the wheat farmers are worried sick over seed heads sprouting in the fields before harvest, and fungus sweeping through their fields. The crop adjusters, working for the insurance agencies, already in the area for hail damage, will be busy. We have stayed with several ranch families who have been the kindest hosts you can imagine. The colorful history around here bears pretty wild stories. Ranchers are full of tales about horse thieves and cattle rustlers. We are hooking down from the Hi-Line and heading into the part of the state frontier photographer LA Huffman called “The Big Open.” In the next few days we’ll cross the Yellowstone, and from there head down the Powder River. Here are some photographs from the last several weeks. Enjoy.
Overgrazing is dead. At least that seems to be the case in this part of the country. I know that’s not news for some of you, but for others I bet it is. I wasn’t sure what we would find at the beginning of this ride, but so far we’ve discovered that, if anything, the ranchers in northeast Montana have gotten too good at growing grass. Or at least that’s what the ecologists are saying. “The ironic thing is that for decades everyone was telling us to reduce bare-ground, to leave more grass and leaf litter for wildlife,” said Leo Barthelmess as he drove me through rolling hills covered in thick grass and sagebrush. “And now they’re all saying we need to graze it down in some areas to make habitat for the species that need that open ground.” As we wound our way down the gravel road, we only occasionally passed patches of bare hard-pan, where the white clay earth is smooth and hard as cement. Small areas of blue grama grass, growing like the turf of some wild golf course, and thick beds of prickly pear cactus were scattered here and there amid the taller grasses and shrubs. You might wonder why any ecologist would want a rancher to graze down their grass to nearly nothing, when you’ve heard that overgrazing is such a problem.
Overgrazing was a serious problem in this area at one time, and a national disaster for the United States. In other regions, and certainly in other countries, overgrazing is still an issue, especially in the more arid climates of Southern WY, UT, NM, and AZ. When the Indian peoples were displaced from much of the land in this area, the settlers that moved in were largely from cool moist climates, such as Norway, Sweden, and Ireland. Raising livestock in the northern great plains, a cold high semi-desert prone to drought and severe winters, was something none of the settlers knew anything about. It might have been different had the settlers been from Kazahkstan or Mongolia, which have long histories of livestock husbandry in high steppe environments, but they weren’t. There was a steep learning curve as they figured out what the carrying capacity of this land really was, both in the average years and in the bad years.
In the days of the cattle drives up from Texas in the late 1800’s and the homesteading days of the early 1900’s this whole region was open range. There were no fences. Any land that was not claimed for a homestead, which was much of the land out here, was retained as federal land. Anyone was allowed to run their livestock on that public land, and a classic environmental problem ensued, a phenomenon known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It takes a big disaster to get Washington’s attention for any national policy change, and they didn’t realize the importance of regulating the public lands until disaster struck in the 1930’s. A combination of severe drought, overgrazing, and newly plowed up wheat fields let the dirt fly, blacken the skies, and literally coat the desks of the bureaucrats in Washington as it drifted east on the prevailing westerlies.
What’s needed to combat a tragedy of the commons is either privatization of the public resource (get rid of the commons, get rid of the problem) or some serious community organizing. This can come from the grass roots, but in this case it came from the top down with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. Taylor and a small group of men, pouring over maps and traveling the west, split up the Federal Lands into grazing allotments, giving individual ranches 10 year grazing leases for so many cattle per so many acres of public land. Now individuals had incentives to care for their portion of the range knowing that they would reap the benefits from any improvements in management, and any grass they left standing wouldn’t simply be eaten by a neighbor’s stock. The implementation of the plan took time, however, and much of the lands weren’t actually fenced into the 1950s. Just about everyone we’ve talked to around here remembers growing up without fences anywhere. Robin and I can only fantasize about not having to open 15 gates a day in 15 miles as we ride down the roads and have to get around cattle guards, dismounting at each one to pry the gate post free from the barbed wire and swing the gate around without getting our string of horses tangled. It would be nice to not have to sidetrack miles out of the way to find a gate while cutting cross country as well, but knowing how much healthier some aspects of the grassland ecosystem are for all of the fencing quiets my complaining, though they present their own problems with obstruction of wildlife migration.
Another contributing factor to the overgrazing of this area’s grasslands was feral horses. Horses were continually escaping or being turned loose onto the public lands. They were allowed to breed and when anyone needed spare horses or money they’d round up a small band, brand them, break them to ride or sell them at auction. (We’ve also been told some pretty colorful stories of this occasionally happening to the neighbor’s horses). It was a good system except that, with no one claiming the vast majority of them, their population exploded and they added to the overgrazing problem. Eventually there were government roundups and the range was cleared of the feral horses, except in designated areas reserved for the mustangs, but that is another story.
In addition to those pressures on the grasslands was the near eradication of most predators in the early 1900s. Leo Barthelmess remembers when jackrabbits and cottontails were absolutely thick, and Sage Grouse, now under consideration for listing as an endangered species, could be flushed by the hundreds. The Mule Deer and Pronghorn Antelope numbers were higher than they ever were before or since, with no predators to keep their numbers in check. Well, it may have been a hunter’s dream, but for livestock producers Leo figures that the benefits of losing a few less calves and lambs every year to predation were outweighed by the damage it did to the grass, reducing the livestock carrying capacity further. Since Coyote numbers have climbed over the past half a century, it has become extremely hard to keep sheep in this country, though some like Leo have had success with guard dogs protecting their flocks. Still, with game animal numbers very low throughout the area we’ve been riding, and Coyote numbers high, more predator control may be necessary to achieve a desirable balance of species.
Dale Veseth, who runs cattle and sheep on the land his grandparents homesteaded (not so long ago really) could explain each stage of the improvements to the range first hand, as he’s lived through them all (and he’s really not very old). It continually amazes me how recent all of this history is. There were border fences put in on property boundaries which helped people use their own land more responsibly, and kept livestock off of public land unless it was permitted to be there. Dale doesn’t remember the grizzlies being roped and shot by cowboys in the late 1800s, nor the demise of the prairie wolf and coyote from hunting, trapping, and poisoning, but he does remember the steady increase in the coyote numbers since he was a boy, and the decline of jackrabbits etc. Then there were improvements in cattle management on private ranches. In the early stages, there might have been a perimeter fence, but the cattle were largely allowed to graze through the entire ranch year round, though they were herded to areas that weren’t being used as heavily when possible. Then the seasonal pasture system came about as interior fences were put in. There were generally four or so big pastures that the cattle would be rotated through corresponding to the seasons. They would spend about three months in each pasture. Usually each pasture was used during the same season every year, which impacted some pastures much harder than others. Grass is most vulnerable during the growing season in the spring and summer, so the spring and summer pastures were usually in the worst shape. Dale explained that the next big thing was the rest-rotation system, where one pasture was entirely unused each year, a sort of fallow system. That helped improve conditions, but it took a large chunk of the ranch out of production every year and the cattle were still in each pasture for months at a time. After that, some people started experimenting with dividing up their pastures further. It seemed like the more pastures they had and the shorter the period of time cattle were in any given pasture, the better the grass did. They also figured out that if you grazed a pasture in the dormant season, it was like you had rested it for the entire year. By rotating which pastures were grazed in which season, they could largely do away with the “rest” portion of the rest-rotation system. Not all ranchers have adopted this rotational grazing system. Some still have just a few big pastures, but almost all of them have moved in that direction and implement some of those principles in one way or another. About the only pastures that are hammered down year round now tend to be the small horse pastures by the houses.
And the proof is in the pudding. The drought (pronounced “drowth” here) in the 1980’s was bad. All of the patches of bare ground expanded. The cactus grew like crazy. The cracked black clay of the adobe hills was all bare. For two nights we stayed with the Stonebergs in Valley County, sleeping in their sheep wagon and letting the horses run in their horse pasture. Rose Stoneberg fed us the most wonderful meals and gave us as much fresh milk from her two half brown swiss nurse cows as we could possibly drink. She knew it was bad living through the drought in the 80’s, but when she went back recently and looked up the weather records, she realized that the 80’s had been even drier than it had been during the Dust Bowl. And you didn’t hear about a Dust Bowl II in northeast Montana. So something had improved. The Drought that has been raging for over a decade in south eastern Colorado, north east New Mexico, western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, the exact same area as the heart of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, has been drier and lasted longer than the drought in the 30’s too. Yet so far the dust hasn’t made it to Washington, so something is different there too.
Now, the dust bowl didn’t result from overgrazing alone. It was largely a consequence of native grasslands being plowed up for dry land wheat fields. With the encouragement of the railroads, the homestead acts, and several good years of rain leading up to the 30’s, settlers moved into the country in droves. Sylvan Walden rode with us across her ranch in McCone County. She pointed to a small depression in the ground, a few snowberries growing inside, and told us of the dugout where a homesteader tried to “prove up.” She knew that’s what it was because it matched the government records of the homestead’s location. We never would have seen it, but the spot came alive with history after she pointed it out. It was a requirement to plant wheat if you wanted to own the land. At one time, she said, there were seventy homesteaders along this small dry creek. Now, the creek sustainably supports one family. A lot of the wheat fields were abandoned during the Dust Bowl. Some were left bare to be re-seeded by the surrounding vegetation, some were replanted to perennial grasses (sometimes native, sometimes not, usually to the introduced Crested Wheat Grass around here). The federal government reclaimed much of the abandoned ground, and private landowners did the same, turning land from crop production to permanent pasture for grazing. That in and of itself has made a huge difference in the resiliency of the plains to severe drought, though the improvement in grazing management on private and public lands alike has certainly helped too.
“What we want to manage for is heterogeneity,” explained Charlie Meserley to Robin, a group of New York City students in the Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program, and me. We were taking a break after moving hay bales all morning in the heat. “Most ranchers manage their grass for a mid level height” he held his hand apart about six inches, one over the other. “They try and take about fifty percent of the grass in a pasture and move on.” Grass is most productive when you do that. It grows more grass through the season than it would if you didn’t touch it at all, or if you grazed it down more. It is basically pruning to stimulate more growth, without taking away all of the leaf area that makes photosynthesis and re-growth possible. We sat in the dim light of the old log bunkhouse where generations of cowboys rested their weary bones, and at least one was shot in the door. “For a lot of species, that’s good,” he continued, “but others prefer longer grass, and some need the short grass and bare ground.” At The Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch, they use area rancher’s cattle to manage the grasslands for a range of different grass heights. “What we graze this year is creating the habitat structure for next spring, when the birds are nesting,” he explained. They aren’t destroying the vegetation in any areas, just creating different habitat structures. For a three inch long bird, six inches of grass height can make a big difference.
Sierra Holt leans back. She has to raise her voice over the whining roar of the four wheeler she, her husband Jason, Robin and I are piled onto. We’re headed between vegetation monitoring transects on their place, slowly accumulating a healthy coating of dust from head to toe. “Well, it really depends on what you mean by ‘improved’. What your values and goals are.” She points to the small patches of hardpan that remain bare. “There is more grass now, especially since the eighties, but there is less cactus and blue grama.” Living on the ranch with her parents, Rose and Ron Stoneberg, she understands that usually “improvement” of rangelands means increased carrying capacity, heightened functioning of the mineral cycle and water cycle, higher productivity etc. Being a botanist by training, with a PhD in plant taxonomy, she leans towards a wider perspective of what “health” means for grasslands. “Depending on your values, having areas of low productivity, of a stunted mineral cycle and inefficient water cycle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can actually be a good thing.” I’m beginning to sense a pattern here. “That’s why having different ranchers across the landscape is so important. Everyone will manage slightly differently, and that will create some heterogeneity across a region.”
I used to think I understood that we needed heterogeneity for a healthy environment, but I still perceived grazed down, grubbed out pastures hammered into the ground as a bad thing. Now, I’m not so sure. As we’ve ridden our horses across eastern Montana at a snail’s pace, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve been hearing from the ranchers and ecologists we’ve met. A shift is taking place inside of me. I’m starting to feel it. When we started I half-suspected we might find some terribly overgrazed pastures, and I thought that that would be a bad thing. I’ve found that there aren’t many overgrazed pastures at all, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if a few of them are around. I’m not too worried about overgrazing creating another Dust Bowl, either. The vast majority of ranchers understand the limitations of the land now, after generations spent figuring it out, and they will be careful not to exceed it going into the future. Their livelihoods depend on it. If anything, the biggest problem on the public land in this part of the country may be over-rest of the grass, which is arguably just as bad for grassland productivity and biodiversity as is overgrazing on a wide scale where everything is homogenous.
What I’ve slowly been learning is that overgrazing isn’t really a useful term at all in most cases. There is heavy grazing, moderate grazing, and light grazing. None are bad or negative in and of themselves. Each is good and necessary on a certain scale, in certain areas. If your management goal for one area is to have it lightly grazed and it ends up being heavily grazed, you could say that it has been overgrazed; but you can’t look at a piece of land that has been heavily grazed and say that it is overgrazed without knowing what the management goal was for that piece of land. The same applies for “over-rested” land. The ranchers around the Charles M. Russle National Wildlife Refuge are fond of saying that the grass there is all over-rested, because of the extremely low stocking rates allowed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Riding along the shores of the Fort Peck reservoir, we saw that much of the grass is thick with old dead growth from previous years, and likely has lower productivity than if it were moderately grazed. The question is, what is the management goal for that land? Is it over-rested, or lightly grazed? Perhaps more importantly, should the entire refuge, over 1 million acres in size, all be managed for the same level of grazing, or should heterogeneity be part of the refuge’s grazing management goal?
I can’t help it, but rotational grazing still gets me excited. I still get a kick out of talking with a rancher about how to increase leaf litter, use hoof action to aerate the soil, get more water to infiltrate into the ground, and reduce bare ground. But maybe not everyone should try and do that. I no longer think it is such a bad thing if a few guys still have just a couple of big pastures, where some areas inevitably get “overgrazed” and others are “over-rested.” It depends on rancher’s goals. For some it is maximum productivity. That might mean moving cattle every day on a four wheeler through three hundred and sixty five small pastures. Others might value having large pasture free of fences, using horses to move them when necessary, and having more spare time to do other things. If different people manage for different values, it is a good thing ecologically too. We heard of one neighbor who always puts off fixing his fences. “It would cut into my riding time,” he told them. “I’d have to spend all summer fixing fence instead of riding to gather up the strays.” It is all about values, I guess.
During the environmental movement of the 1960’s and 70’s many people perceived cattle as the root of the problem. “Get rid of the cattle, get rid of the overgrazing” was the common thought among many environmentalists. Even the Nature Conservancy took that stand back then, though they’ve taken the opposite stand now. Livestock numbers were drastically reduced on public lands. In some cases environmental groups fought to end all grazing on some public lands. What wasn’t appreciated at the time is that grasses and grasslands evolved with large grazers moving across the landscape. Large grazers are needed to maintain range health, as well as something to move them across it. With the Bison and Wolves that chased them gone, you need cattle and the cowboys that chase them or the grasses and grasslands would diminish. And don’t worry, they won’t overgraze it. Besides, if a few do, thats not such a bad thing.
Lonesome is rolling in a field of crested wheat grass, Pearl is exploring the perimeter of the fence. I am both exhausted and exhilarated. This land is so open. The horizons unhemmed. In huge swaths the landscape is invariably whole, uncut by power lines or trees. Once you quit your fighting, your swatting at the clouds of biting bugs, once you stop sheltering yourself from the hard noon sun, a shift happens. A transition between fighting your environment and becoming part of it. Not minding so much the heat and sweat. (I will say I haven’t entirely made the switch-the mosquitos at night still have me swatting.) It’s been some long days. When we left the Matador a few days back, come noon it was hot enough that a reservoir we passed looked awfully inviting to pass the heat of the day. We splashed around some with the horses, had lunch, napped, and did some birding. Saw this great eared grebe, his eyes red, dipping and diving through the marshes. A ruddy duck boasted a beautiful iridescent blue bill. There was a muskrat rutting around in the mud, and a billion blue dragonflies anchored to different grasses as the wind blew their lithe bodies this way and that. The place was so alive, so teeming with vibrancy, all of the insects and animals and their habits, going about their day. And us with our funny daily routine: checking hooves, scratching big white mule ears, watching the sky fill up with stars. I felt part of it, no different than the blue-billed ruddy duck making its way around its pond. It was about eight before we finally finished packing up to continue riding. It was a gorgeous ride out of the Matador, the perfect time to be moving. The sage brush steppe lit with evening light, the horses moving quick in the cool temperature. Pearl was trailing behind us, stopping for an occasional roll and snack, and then she’d come galumphing and cantering after us, her ears flopping in every direction. The ride was pretty idyllic until night set in and we couldn’t see much of the road. We were still a couple of miles from water when the sun finally sank, so we made the last few miles by starlight. We’d bargained for a little more moonlight, but the clouds gathering cloaked it pretty well. By the time we made it to the reservoir it was 11 and dark. The grey sky was turning tar black, and we began to hear rumbling from over the hills and would see an occasional streak of lightning light up the horizon. By the time we had the fence set up and everybody hobbled, the wind was whipping and the lightning quite a bit closer. The windmill on the shore of the pond was whirring. We finally got everything secured and the tent set up in huge gusts of wind. By the time we finally crawled in it was 2:30. We’d started riding at 5:00 that morning, so were exhausted. The whole night I worried the horses were going to break out. I checked on them twice during a restless night’s sleep. Luckily, they were lined up at the gate the next morning, calm and quiet.
* * *
An assortment of photos from the last few weeks. Click to enlarge.
About two weeks have passed since the four horses, Pearl the Mule, Sebastian, Winnie, and I were dropped off in the middle of a pasture in Northeast Montana. We were shepherded up from Bozeman by our good friend Riley, Sebastian’s little sister Eva, and her co-pilot Carley. The drive was long but beautiful. Somewhere in my mind was the very concrete fact that once we were dropped off it would take us 4 miles per hour to get anywhere compared to the truck’s 65.
4mph was what we were guessing at; so far, our average speed has been about 2.7 mph. What with the filming stops, water stops, lunch stops, packing and repacking and packing some more, swapping horses, repositioning saddles, tightening cinches, etc., we’re winning no races, but I’m happy to report that we are taking everything in in such a way that I, for one, have never once been able to experience before. The region we’re starting in is an astounding mix of sagebrush steppe and open grasslands. It boasts some of the most intact mixed grass prairie left in North America. One of the amazing things about this region is that the native prairie still has a stronghold on the landscape; the cultivated fields we’ve ridden by have been of note not because they stretch in every direction, as is the case in most of the great plains, but because they are in the minority. There are places around here where you can see native prairie extend to the horizon no matter which way you turn, on horseback or on foot, from a hilltop or in a coulee. It’s neat because you can’t do that just anywhere.
The best thing about it, for me, is that these large tracts of intact prairie are the stomping grounds for a whole host of rare grassland birds that I had only ever read about but never before seen. In the first day alone we came across about six species that I had never seen: Swainson’s hawks, long-billed curlews, grasshopper sparrows, prairie falcons, sage grouse, you name it. I learned pretty quick that you oughtn’t get too relaxed on your horse lest a flock of eight sage grouse flushes, flapping from beneath you and your horse. Luckily, we’ve got good horses.
The very best part of the trip for me so far was my first encounter with a sprague’s pipit. It’s this tiny little brown bird that is probably the least sexy bird you can imagine. It’s about the size of a badminton birdie, is pretty uniformly brown, and you can’t really ever see it. It’s got none of the hullaballoo of a crane, could easily be likened to a mouse, and I’ve been obsessed with it for over two years. I first read about it in Trevor Herriot’s book on grassland birds, Grass, Sky, Song. If you’re at all intrigued by the sounds of the pipit, buy the book, you won’t regret it. Herriot beautifully describes a wide variety of grassland birds and explains why their tenure on the plains is so perilous.
We saw the pipit during our stay at The Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch just South of Malta, Montana. The property operates as a grass bank for surrounding ranchers. The way it works is area ranchers lease pasture from the Matador to run their cattle and the price they pay for grass decreases in accordance to conservation measures implemented on their own property. For example, if an area rancher maintains a prairie dog town on his property, or uses wildlife friendly fencing, the price he pays for a lease on the Matador goes down. This model is so successful because it is a community-based approach; the Matador benefits the area ranchers, and the area ranchers benefit the Matador by providing the cattle, a tool used to create diverse habitat for wildlife. The practices adopted by the ranchers facilitate a balance between production and conservation, a balance we’ll need to fine tune as our population continues to grow. The manager, Charlie Messerly, was born and raised in Malta, and has a feel for the way things work around the region. He respects the ranchers and their knowledge of the land they’ve been working for generations, and has created a management plan that reflects sound scientific findings on the ways grazing can help create and maintain optimal wildlife habitat.
The Matador is bustling with researchers and field technicians that are conducting wildlife studies on the ranch and in the surrounding area. One of the studies underway is on the reproductive success of grassland birds. Tim Wuebben, with Avian Science Center, and Annie McDonnell, with World Wildlife Fund, are surveying nests as part of the study. They offered to take us out with them to do a little birding.
As we tumbled down two track roads at six in the morning in Annie’s red pickup, we were on the hunt for a pipit. According to Annie, their song sounds like a laser being shot: pew pew pew pew pew. We first heard the pipit through her rolled down window. When we heard him, we piled out of the truck to get a closer look. The first thing I saw was a tiny speck no larger than a peanut careening towards us from fifty feet above. He was in the middle of a dive and was singing his little heart out. As soon as I saw him, he disappeared again into the crisp morning air. It’s easiest to spot pipits by lying down on your back so you can take in more sky. Supine, we saw two singing males come in and out of our vision, zigging and zagging their way across a pale blue sky dotted here and there with a white wisp of cloud.
During its flight song a male pipit will circle high above his mate and will sing to her for up to 3 hours. This is the longest flight display of any other bird on the planet. I told Sebastian this to try to get a little more singing out of him, but so far the hint has fallen on deaf ears. The future of Pipits, like myriad other grassland species, is dubious at best. Around 80 percent of all grassland birds are in decline. According to BirdLife International, Pipit populations in the US have declined at a rate of 32 percent per decade since 1970. The challenges they face are vast. They depend upon a prairie that we depend upon for food, fuel, and fiber, and thus nest in habitat that, largely, we’ve plowed up. Habitat loss and fragmentation, fire suppression, land and water mismanagement, and the presence of all of these factors in their wintering grounds are among their largest threats. Knowing the host of hurdles pipits face made seeing one in the middle of its flight display all the more exhilarating.
The morning only got better when Annie and Tim took us to a nest they’d been monitoring full of 5-day old Sprague’s pipits. The nest was marked by a bamboo pole situated a few yards away. Once you see the pole you have to tread carefully, lest you squash a baby pipit. Annie parted the thatch of grasses the nest was woven into, and we saw four fuzzy little bodies squirming hither and dither chirruping for a snack. They were covered in grey down and their wings were bent at improbable angles. They had pink necks that erupted from their awkward bodies and boasted outlandish orange beaks that were constantly opening and closing in anticipation of food flying in from one of their nearby parents. To see these little guys squirming and chirping, alive and well despite the sizeable stack of odds piled against them, was an incredible thing.
Another great stop we’ve made so far was on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes. We met with Tribal Council Chairmen Mark Azure, who has been an instrumental figure in the tribes’ ongoing effort to reestablish a healthy bison population to the reservation. Bison were first reintroduced to the reservation in the early 1970’s, after nearly 100 years of absence. Mark explained that his people and the bison have shared similar trajectories in recent history, from near decimation with the influx of white settlers in the late 1800s to the more recent revitalization of both the tribe and the animals. Today the tribes are continuing to ensure the long term health of the herd, the land, and their people by carefully managing the herd for production, conservation, and cultural values. As part of this program in 2012, while serving as the head of the Tribes’ Fish and Wildlife Department, Mark welcomed “excess” Bison from Yellowstone National Park into the reservation’s herd. The move triggered reactions ranging from celebration, area opposition, to an injunction banning the transfer of any federally owned bison to any reservations within Montana. The tribes won the case in court last year, and the Bison appear to be on the reservation to stay. The struggle and work is not over, but Mark is dedicated to seeing that the animal’s future is secure. Mark’s family welcomed us into their home for the night, and it was a pleasure getting to know each of them.
Another highlight was our stop at ferret camp, not so different, in some ways, from summer camp. The field crew headed by Randy Matchett, a senior biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is assessing the efficacy of a vaccine against plague in an attempt to lessen its hold on black tailed prairie dog colonies and black-footed ferret populations. Both species have been majorly affected by plague and habitat loss. In the 20 years that Randy has been involved with efforts to reintroduce black-footed ferrets to the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, their population has peaked and plummeted in a sawtooth pattern. 234 ferrets have been reintroduced to UL Bend, and their population at some points has hovered around 90. Currently, there are 3 known surviving ferrets in UL Bend. It’s a frustrating story, and it is a battle for the ferrets to survive out here. Black-tailed prairie dogs, which the ferrets depend upon for food and shelter, occupy only about 2% of their historical range. The prairie dogs are beset with plague themselves, and are hunted on public and private lands alike. A great read by Scott McMillion on the theme ran in the Montana Quarterly and can be found here.
In an effort headed by USGS underway across seven states, biologists are administering a vaccine against plague. They trap the prairie dogs, check ear and pit tags, take blood and fur samples, weigh them, measure their foot length, and send them back into their burrows when all is said and done. When we arrived there were about 85 prairie dogs stacked one on top of the other in small mesh cages waiting for their turn through the gauntlet. The team had it down to clock-work: one tech caught the prairie dog and funneled it into a plastic tube where it was anestheticized, another took it out, weighed it and ran a comb over its back, took a small tuft of fur and sealed it in a small manila pouch, handed it over to another technician who took blood samples and measured foot length, and then another who put the prairie dog back into its numbered cage until it came to its senses and was released. All the while, data was shouted out to another technician whose duty it was to record all of this info. Each prairie dog took about 4 minutes to process. When it was time to release them, we helped place the cages by the mouth of the burrow, tip the cages upside down so the door would flop open, and watched as they disappeared back into their hole.
Another favorite stop was at Dale and Janet Veseth’s cattle ranch. Dale is a fourth generation Montana rancher that is intimately connected to the land he works and knows just about every single species of grass on his ranch. He learned at a young age that the grass is the life force of the place, and manages the ranch with this in mind. He’s identified over 170 plant species on the place, no more than 20 of which are non-native. With an intensive rest/rotation grazing system in place that keeps the cattle off any one pasture for too long a period of time, his pastures contain a diverse range of mixed grasses. This provides optimal habitat for several species of endemic grassland birds that nest on the ranch. He was good enough to let us pester him with questions about his history with the ranch and his involvement in founding the Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes ecological, social, and economic conditions that generate biodiversity on the land and foster thriving rural communities. He is full of information on the history of the area, the history of ranching in the west, and the different areas of thought behind a sustainable future in the industry. His partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Ducks Unlimited, the BLM, NRCS, and other organizations and agencies, serve as an example of the way ranchers and conservationists can collaborate to foster a common goal: rangeland health. Janet was kind enough to send us on our way with homemade banana bread and a bag of aspirin. Liam the guard dog was keen to send us off with many licks.
As I write this the sun is sinking low into the horizon, silhouetting the outline of an old cottonwood along a creek that is cracked dry. The cutting wind that sent me into a shed to hole up and write this has since quieted down, and is now bending tufts of cured grasses to the east. There’s a colony of kingbirds in a tree nearby whistling at the hills. In the distance I can hear the horses’ tails swishing and the occasional billow of breath punctured by the chime of the bell around Pearl’s neck. I’m being eaten alive by mosquitos, and I’m pretty glad to be out here.
More to come about these stops and the ones we’re soon to make as we head North a short ways to the tip of Lake Fort Peck before we head down its eastern edge and make our way South to meet up with the Yellowstone.
Robin and Sebastian
It seems absolutely wild that we’re finally writing these words, but, we are headed out the door. We are so incredibly thrilled to begin. We headed North last week with four wheels to do some final route finding in anticipation of hitting the trail with 28 legs (four horses, a mule, Winnie, and the two of us); the country we found was lush, green, and covered in wildflowers. It has thankfully been a wet spring and water is running. We saw our first sightings of several rare grasslands birds and look forward to growing more familiar with their song.
We’re particularly excited about the first leg of our trip in Northeastern Montana near the Charles M. Russel Wildlife Refuge. One of our first stops is at The Nature Conservancy’s Matador ranch, and then to Fort Belknap to learn more about the Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) and the Assiniboine (Nakoda) Tribes’ history with the land, before ferreting around CMR to learn more about black-footed ferret reintroduction efforts. In between we’ll meet with several local ranchers whose management practices are widely celebrated for their innovation and sustainability. That’s all in the first two weeks before we make our way South to join up with the Yellowstone River.
We’re so excited to finally be setting out. With a little bit of a later start than we originally bargained for, it seems unlikely we’ll be able to make it to Northern Oklahoma before the winter truly hits, but we’re not quitting till we’re snowed out, and the country in between is ripe with beauty and promise. We can’t wait to share what we find with you. Thanks for helping get us here.
Robin and Sebastian
After a seemingly interminable search, we have found the four horses, plus Pearl the mule, that will come with us across the plains. With our group finally assembled, we are set to leave mid July.
We found our third horse, Sally, at the end of an exhausting couple of weeks of 10-hour days driving around looking at every horse for sale in Montana. Eventually we found ourselves on a gorgeous ranch on the north bank of the swollen Yellowstone River half an hour east of Billings. When Robin and I hopped on the big red roan dun mare we had come to see, we both knew she was the one we had been looking for. Sally stands taller than our other horses, and is about twice as wide, but beautifully proportioned. She’s ¼ draft horse and ¾ quarter horse, getting size, strength, and a docile nature from her draft grandparent, and agility, responsiveness, and speed from her cow horse ancestors. She is calm, gentle, and gets along with our other mares well. Her namesake, “Sally” from Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove, is particularly auspicious because Robin picked up the book to read the night before we went to see her. It could be coincidence, but we’re chalking it up to a good omen.
We found our fourth and fifth horses, Pearl and Lonesome, a couple of days ago at an outfitter based out of the Paradise Valley. The place sits tucked into a bend of the Yellowstone River in the shadow of the formidable looking Black Mountain. They’ve both logged hundreds of miles in the backcountry, have packed a ton, and know where their feet are. Pearl is the sweetest mule around, is great with her feet, and lives and breathes for a good ear scratch. Lonesome originally came from Canada from a premarin farm where pregnant mare’s urine is harvested for a drug that’s used to decrease menopausal symptoms. Living conditions are poor for the pregnant mares and most of the premarin foals are sold to slaughter. Lonesome was brought from the premarin farm to Montana as a colt, had a good start, and has been used in the mountains ever since. He’s got a steady head on his shoulders, is pretty unflappable, and doesn’t pay much note to traffic or tractors. He is a seasoned mountain man, and we think he’ll take to the plains gladly.
Raven, a chocolate colored bay who we’ve had for a few months now, was rescued from slaughter. She is an amazing little 6 year old. She’s our youngest horse, but easily our most reliable. She’ll cross anything, has a great handle on her, and has a ton of heart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her spook at anything and the other mares follow her lead. She is the boss.
The mare we’ve had since the beginning, Lil, has taken to the constantly changing team in stride, scrutinizing the new comers at first and eventually allowing them to nuzzle her withers and drink beside her at the water tanks.
We took three of the horses up the creek near our barn to camp out for the first time a few weeks ago. With the memory of Viper breaking his leg on our first night out last Spring, and with Denny’s accident fresh on our minds, we were half prepared for disaster. Thankfully, everything fell right into place under a beautiful full moon rising. We took Lil and Sally on a trip up into the Crazy Woman mountains last week and they both did great. They were entirely unperturbed by the absence of switch backs up steep climbs or by the elk cutting across valleys lit with spring wildflowers. The electric blues of Alpine Forget Me Nots mixed up in the pastels of Penstemon among the violet Shooting Stars made a pretty gorgeous canvas to ride across.
We’re especially grateful for all of the help we’ve received over the last few weeks and over the past year while preparing for our trip. Our farrier in Bozeman, Joe Plymale, has been a godsend for the project. He’s taken extra time to work with our horses to make sure their feet are in the best condition possible before we set out. He’s been teaching us shoeing skills that we’ll need on the road. Each time he comes to shoe our horses he spends at least as long patiently answering our endless questions about what he’s doing and why and what we should do in this or that situation as he spends actually getting the shoes nailed on.
Last summer a friend of ours, Kurt Ilgin of Big Horn, Wyoming, a killer storyteller and the best horsemen we know, taught us important shoeing and packing skills as well. We are so grateful to both Kurt and Joe; without their help and support, and the generosity with which they share their trade and art, we would be ill prepared for this journey.
Finally, we’re so thankful for our friends, family, and supporters whose words of encouragement have been absolutely paramount to meeting the challenges we’ve met and continuing forward with this dream. An enormous thank you to Pat Gormley who took time off from work to help us with final preparations, and to Joyce Young who has lent us all sorts of things for the road and is a joy to see everyday at the barn.
Thanks for helping make it happen. We can hardly believe it’s about to unfold.
Here’s to a good trip and a safe journey,
Sebastian and Robin
A week ago on Saturday May 10th, 2014, we had to put down one of our horses, Denny. It was a terribly hard day for me (Sebastian). As many of you probably recall, last year we had to put down another horse, Viper, after he broke his leg in a picket line. I can barely believe it happened again. Though Denny came into our lives only a couple of months ago, we had grown close, working together nearly every day on skills we would need for the trip, building our communication, developing our relationship, and gaining each other’s trust. The pain I felt was the pain of losing a friend.
The accident happened in a split second. One moment all was beautiful and joyous and un-weighted by time as I watched our three horses celebrate the rain-fresh spring grass. Running and bucking through the pasture, feeling their oats, the horses tore from one side of the pasture to the other. They were led by Raven, our third horse, who after weeks of climbing the pecking order, had finally proven herself as lead mare. Denny was having a great time. He was fully alive. The next moment everything was grim and present and final, the cloudy skies suddenly ominous in meaning. He ran too close to the neck of a flatbed gooseneck trailer parked in the corner of the pasture, tried to turn, slipped in the wet ground, and drove his shoulder into the immovable object, glancing off of it, the damage done. He had torn a huge gash from the top of his shoulder down to his chest, and shattered his scapula completely. I grabbed the halter and ran to him. He waited calmly, in shock no doubt, as I slipped it over his head. I shouted to my friend Bryan to call a vet, that it was an emergency, and sunk my hands into the wound to try to stop the bleeding. I thought back to the Equine First Aid class I had taken three years before. “Direct pressure, Direct Pressure, Direct pressure” they had said. Go to the source. The blood was pouring down his front left leg, making his one white hoof brilliantly red. From my first glimpse of flesh and skin flapping as he came to a stop, I thought, “Oh no… We’ll have to put him down…” I thought it might be hopeless, but I couldn’t stand to do nothing. My thoughts tumbled back to last spring, when Viper broke his leg in a picket rope. The feelings of guilt and anguish at having to put him down, feeling responsible for his death, I wouldn’t let that happen again. My fingers found the holes and the bleeding slowed. We waited. Denny was so trusting. He was scared. He looked to me to help. And there was nothing I could do to save him.
Once the vet arrived she told me what I already knew. The injury was bad, the situation grave. She thought the bone was probably broken all the way through, which reduced the chances of any degree of recovery to basically zero. If he did eventually heal, there was a good chance he would develop complications in his other leg and hoof from that massive shift in weight. After talking to Robin on the phone, who was away for the weekend, we decided to bring him to the clinic to X-Ray the bones. We had to see if there was any hope. We couldn’t face putting another horse down, one that we had already grown close with, if there was anything we could do to save him.
Robin had been working with Denny for weeks on loading on and off of a trailer calmly and willingly. He had been resistant for a long while. Just the day before the accident he had followed me onto a trailer without any encouragement or prodding for the first time. Who knew that this is what it would come to. Bryan backed his trailer close to Denny in the pasture and I led him on. Barely able to move his leg, he limped to the trailer and followed me on, brave and determined and trusting. It was incredible. It makes me cry just thinking about it. Imagine having a hip dislocated and your leg half severed off, standing calmly, walking on it, composed, and climbing a flight of stairs. How he did it is beyond me. We drove the mile or so to the veterinary clinic and brought him inside. Several X-rays later, and the diagnosis was confirmed, the shoulder-blade was broken all the way through and largely separated from the body. The decision had to be made. I was stalling. I knew what had to be done but wanted another option. Looking into Denny’s eyes I wanted to see an answer, to see what he wanted. Did he want to hold on, to go through the pain of standing on that mangled shoulder with minimal stitches and painkillers for weeks, confined to a stall for months, all for an uncertain shot at being able to live a sedentary life? Did he want to end it now? It was impossible to really tell. I am sure as a young, energetic, living being, he would have wanted to fight. To not give up. But was that really the best thing for him? And could I even afford to keep him alive? That was the worst part, the financial thinking that crept in and marred the noble thoughts of keeping a friend alive, or even of putting a friend out of their misery. I was coming to the conclusion that putting him down was the best thing for him, and second guessing my reasoning as a rationalization for making the practical, economical decision. It’s hard, sometimes, to know what the right thing to do is, and to know what drives us to do the things we do. A decision had to be made though. With Robin on the phone, we started saying goodbye to Denny. We told him how much we loved him, how beautiful he was, what a good guy he was, how sorry we were, how lucky we were to have had him come into our lives, how thankful we were for the lessons he had taught us. I hated myself for it. I wanted to have more time with him, to travel together and see the country. To see him run and buck across pastures from here to Oklahoma, and taste the sweet green shoots of so many more springs. I handed him a handful of grass and looked into his eyes. He fell fast and heavy after the injection, the veterinarian holding up his head and laying it down gently. I bent over him crying, caressing his head and petting his neck. I looked into his eyes as he faded away. What a good horse. What a good friend.
By opening ourselves up to the animals we work with, we stand to gain something deep and rewarding, and we make ourselves vulnerable to the heartache of losing someone close.
Throughout the day, there were many people who lent a hand, grabbed blankets for Denny and jackets for me as we stood in the drizzle, and showed both of us great love. It was a blessing to be surrounded by so many thoughtful, caring people. I am thankful for all that they did.
* * *
Working with the farrier a few days before Denny died, I (Robin) remember chatting with him about where Denny came from. It was not a nice place. When we first got Denny, he flinched badly every time you raised your hand to pet him and his eyes were full of fear and mistrust. His feet were badly overgrown and uncared for. If they had been left much longer he would have developed chronic lameness and I hate to think what might have become of him. His previous owner wasn’t a good horseman; he didn’t respect the animals he worked with and they grew to fear him. When Denny first came to our barn, he would race around the pen when you went in to catch him, fearing the contact he had grown to expect. After a few months of working with Denny, of loving him and encouraging him and talking to him, he had begun the process of regaining his trust in those around him. As we spent more and more time with him, he would walk up to you in the pen, lay his head in your hand, and follow you around hoping for another scratch behind the ears.
While contemplating whether or not his feet would be in good enough shape to go on our trip, the farrier said, “you know, even if you can’t take him on this trip, at least you got him out of there. It saved his life.” Although his life was cut short while he was with us, I take heart knowing that the life we were able to give him for the few months we had him was a good one. I’m glad that he was loved and that he began to trust people again. He went out with a brand new set of good shoes on while eating the first shoots of spring grass with Lil, Raven, Winnie, and Sebastian by his side, and for that, I am grateful.
Over the last several days Sebastian and I have been talking about how we want to proceed with the trip. It was a blow to lose one horse last year, and it is even worse to lose another again this year. Planning and preparing for this trip has put us face to face with death and dying. It is a hard thing to experience; we have come to learn that it is part of life, and especially of life with horses, who, as strong and beautiful and powerful as they are, are not exempt from coming and going. We want to see what this journey will bring and we want to share what we learn. If we are able to find the right fit for our team, and are able to safely prepare them for the trip, we want to move forward with the project and carry Denny and Viper in our hearts as we do so. For some reason or another, Sebastian is obsessed with grass, I’m obsessed with birds, and we’re both obsessed with the prairie and horses. Thank you for all of your kind thoughts and wishes, and may Denny, a beautiful horse and spirit, one we are lucky to have gotten to share the winter and beginning of spring with, rest in peace.
Before you get too settled into spring, I wanted to put up a few shots taken from in and around the prairie this winter. Cloaked in quiet and snow, it’s an oddly reflective time to be out there. Something about the white horizons, or maybe the way pronghorns move through the snow as if it’s their theatre (which it is) in comparison to my plodding and trompling across the winter landscape, awkwardly, in heavy boots, falling through drifts trying to keep my chin and camera above water…
Here in Bozeman Sebastian and I are digging into final preparations before our departure in June. It’s all coggins tests, throwing out backs while shoeing horses, pouring over maps, somewhat frantic emailing, and no shortage of coffee. But spring, it seems, has finally decided to come, with the first prairie buttercups (Rananculus rhomboideus) spotted last week. Here’s to a good spring.
All photos © Sebastian Tsocanos and/or Robin Walter
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”– often attributed to Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan, probably neither coined the saying.
And so our spirits have been high at the sight of our new horses! So far we’ve acquired two of the four horses that Robin and I plan to take on the project. Lil (pictured right) was the first. She is more or less perfect in every way. We think, second in rank to the two of us, that she will probably be our lead Mare. Experienced at 14 years, even-headed but energetic, willing and brave, she will lead the others well. The second horse we decided on, Denny (Pictured left), is younger at 8 years old. He is sound, smart, gentle, and aims to please. We think he’ll do well.
While looking for horses we have found a number of things to be true. One of which is that advertisements for horses in the MiniNickle, on Craigslist, or anywhere else, are almost guaranteed to omit certain unfavorable characteristics of the horses for sale. “Great 14 hand horse for sale!” (actual height at the withers, 12 hands – that’s a pony). “No holes, no bullshit!” is a favorite line. There are always holes, and often bullshit.
Buying one horse can be a harrowing experience. Buying four can be downright nerve wracking. Especially if those four need to carry you and your gear across 1,500 miles of remote, sparsely populated country, through towns and busy cities, across rivers and interstates, without pooping out, breaking down, blowing up, running into traffic, going lame, or being a general headache the whole way. To find a horse that is sound and healthy, with good conformation and good feet is one thing. To find a horse that has a good mind, that is another thing. It has to be calm enough to be gentle and even headed in scary situations. It has to be smart enough to learn new things all along the way, brave enough to take on challenges, energetic enough to have some go and get you there. It has to have some years under its belt to have seen enough to know a thing or two, and young enough to not break down. Now to find a horse with both the necessary physical and mental qualities, that’s a real trick.
A lot of horses that are calm and experienced are on their way out at 20+ years old. Most horses that have “go” and can “walk out” without constant leg pressure and prodding are high strung and nervous. Often horses with years of experience in pack-strings, working for dude ranches and outfitters are fine as long as they’re on a single track staring at the backside of another horse, but try and take them out on their own, through an open field, and it’ll be like trying to ride a nervous snake. The horses with the best handle on them (the ones with the best steering) often have spent a lot of time in an arena, and little time out in the big scary world. Most young horses are sound, but inexperienced; lots of old horses are experienced, but not sound. It is not easy to have the best of all worlds. Plus, we’re on a budget.
Luckily, there are good horses out there, and for reasonable prices. After a long search, we couldn’t be more excited about the two that we have found.
Lil, a bay, has ridden trails all over the western states, from California to Nevada and Utah to Montana. Denny, a dark buckskin, was a ranch horse in his previous life. Beginning to work with Lil and Denny over the past few weeks has been such an incredible joy. We were lucky enough to find a stable nearby, a ten minute drive from our little basement apartment in Bozeman, and have been working with them every day. I can’t tell you how meaningful it is to see those two everyday. To feel their breath and hear their foot steps, to smell their coats on my hands as I’m driving home. Its true, I think, there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. There is something too of connecting with their interior, looking into their eyes and seeing them for themselves, as individuals with personality and agency. Respecting that they are horses, not humans, but acknowledging them as conscious beings with their own agency, and greeting them as partners, does good for a man’s (or woman’s) insides as well.
“There will be more grass, wind, and light.”
This is what Sebastian told me in order to mollify any further fretting on my part over leaving our camera in the trunk of the car as we waded our way through 8 foot tall rustling tall grass prairie in Northern Oklahoma. The wind was working the whole hillside into a frenzy— a riot of autumn-cured grasses swooshed this way and that. The light caught the Little Bluestem just so, highlighting each individual blonde floret against an undulating backdrop of red all mixed up in ochre and maroon—the stalks of the taller big bluestem. Big surges of wind lifted up milkweed seeds as they were released from their shell-like pods. Gossamer strands of spider web whipped around in the wind with all the rest of it.
That phrase, “there will be more grass, wind, and light,” was stuck in my head for the remainder of our trip as we zigzagged our way across the Great Plains. We were ground checking the route we plan to traverse on horseback this summer. The success of our upcoming trip, which aims to increase public awareness of our critically threatened grasslands, relies upon the assumption that there will, indeed, be more grass, wind, and, light.
Well, wind and light, yes, I imagine there will be endless amounts of wind and light to come. Although, just 80 or so years back, during the height of the dust bowl, the sun was reported to have been blotted out by soil swept up from fields that, plowed and exposed, were left for the sweeping. One of the main catalysts for these gargantuan dust storms, coupled with drought, was the European-style farming techniques employed by pioneers that came to settle “the last great west.” Aided by legislation designed to promote western settlement and encouraged by the prospect of dirt-cheap land, settlers came to the Great Plains to capitalize on the opportunities presented by this vast frontier. The arrival of European-American settlers inaugurated a massive transformation of the Great Plains landscape. As settlers pushed west, the native prairie was plowed and broken, initiating a process that would later lead to the near elimination of North American grasslands. Deep plowing of virgin topsoil displaced native prairie grasses that traditionally trap soil and moisture in their deep root systems. The soil, thus unanchored, was swept up in clouds that literally blackened the skies.
Loss of topsoil paved the way for the ecological and economic disaster of the dust bowl. Despite widespread adoption of soil conservation practices following the “dirty thirties,” the problem of soil loss has only increased since then. Some practices such as contour plantings, strip cropping, and, recently, no-till agriculture, reduce erosion on a per acre basis, but none completely stop or reverse the loss of soil. The total amount of soil lost per year in the United States has likely increased since the ‘30’s. In his New Roots for Agriculture, Wes Jackson points out that studies indicate our annual soil loss is greater now by at least 25% than in the Dust Bowl years. Under natural conditions it’s estimated to take between 300-1,000 years to build one inch of topsoil. The majority of the cropland in the U.S. isn’t building soil, but losing it. An Iowa State University report published in 1972 study tells us that we lose over 4 billion tons of topsoil each year, or the equivalent to enough soil to load a train 633,000 miles long. That’s long enough to stretch to the moon and back and towards the moon again, or, if you prefer, to wrap around the planet 24 times. That is topsoil lost in the U.S. alone.
With the advent of synthetic fertilizers and the large-scale mechanization of farming, more land than ever before is in crop, the majority of which is planted in annual monocultures that replace the complex prairie ecosystem. As smaller fields are consolidated into larger ones the prairie remnants once protected by fence lines, right of ways, ditches, and hedgerows are plowed under. It’s easy to intimate that, on the large-scale, we haven’t exactly improved our situation since the ‘30’s; indeed, we’ve taken a turn for the worse. Last month Southeastern Colorado and the panhandle of Oklahoma saw dust storms on par with those that ravaged the country 80 years ago. It’s conceivable, if not probable, that we could go through the paces of a second dust bowl in the years to come, which would blot out the light that Sebastian was so insistent we’d see more of. But shorthand, yes, there will be more light; I’ll grant him that.
And wind. We need not look beyond the recent 22-fold increase in the U.S.’s installed wind-energy capacity since 2000 to confirm that there will be more wind. Ten of the top twelve states in wind development potential are located within the Great Plains alone. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land are being scouted, leased, and bought by wind-energy developers. These numbers will only increase as we continue to develop and expand alternatives to non-renewable energy.
But grass! Whether or not there will be more of that is a far more interesting question, the answer to which is less certain, less of a given. Once you start digging into that question and into the landscape that teeters on the edge of its answer, you begin to walk the fine line that exists between hard facts and hope. What I mean is, you are confronted with the statistics surrounding the decimation of the prairie and the species that were once abundant in it; on the other side of the spectrum you see its determined resilience and take heart in the teeming life it supports – its insistence upon survival despite all of the odds piled against it. When you look at this side of the argument, you develop a fragile sense of hope that the future of the prairie is not as bleak as the numbers suggest.
At one moment you’re sure there’s nothing for it, that we have done too much, dug too deep, and that the price we will pay for ‘progress’ and production is the land itself, the same land that enables these processes and has brought us such astonishing abundance. The estimates of remaining intact prairie in the U.S. range from 5 to 20%. Many estimates of the remaining tallgrass prairie are fractions of 1%. You soon realize that even the remaining ‘intact’ tracts of prairie, such as the one in Oklahoma pictured above, are not intact at all, if by intact you mean whole, unbroken, or unaltered, as its definition suggests. For though these ‘intact’ remnants of prairie managed for conservation may host herds of reintroduced bison, the herds of elk that used to roam across them, with few exceptions, are gone. The Plains grizzlies and the gray wolves that hunted these herds are also gone. The black footed ferrets that used to move freely across these landscapes are headed towards the cliff of extinction. We’ve poisoned the prairie dogs that the black footed ferrets depend on, and have destroyed the vast majority of their habitat. Black-tailed prairie dogs now occupy 2% of their former range. Many of the grassland birds that used to shower the prairie in song are plunging towards collapse.
The agricultural fields that border the ‘intact’ tracts of prairie render them scattered islands isolated to varying degrees from their nearest neighbors. The herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers used often disrupt the soil microbiology and cause rampant problems with the health of our water (and those that drink from it). We are draining the Ogallala aquifer at a rate far greater than its water is able to replenish. We’ve dammed or channelized nearly every single major river that runs across the Great Plains. Fifteen dams impound the main stem of the Missouri river, with hundreds more on its tributaries. This, along with siltification, has seriously compromised fish populations and has endangered at least six fish species, including the pallid sturgeon. We’ve plowed under most of the soil and are watching it wash or blow away at a rate far faster than it can regenerate. The fraction of the tracts of prairie that remain unplowed do not support the ‘intact’ ecosystems they once did. This landscape is altered.
At the exact moment you are contemplating what appears to be this full-throttle destruction of the prairie, you inevitably see a hawk cut across its expansive skies. So you make a bargain with hope and insist that these creatures are not on their way out. As Sebastian and I wound our way west along the back roads, it seemed like there was a bird of prey on every power line post we passed, waiting for its catch. We heard the cacophony of Canada geese honking and chattering as they migrated by starlight through the night. We heard the low hoot of owls cut across a chilly October night, and as the sun spilled into our tent in the early mornings, so too did the most clear and melodic birdsong, beckoning in the first light of day. We watched a flock of migrating American white pelicans, enormous birds with a 9-foot wingspan, rise in thermals, gaining loft as they made their way south, wings flashing silver then black as they spiraled upwards. We saw the opened beak of meadowlark after meadowlark as it called out its song from its post on barbed wire. We saw a pair of nesting bald eagles take turns showing off over Oklahoma Lake and eastern blue birds dart and surge and plunge from power lines to the tops of cottonwood trees and back. We watched coots and cormorants push their way through still waters, oblivious to the hum of the interstate alongside their ponds. We saw a loggerhead shrike, whose characteristic of piercing its prey on barbed wire, or if handy, on thorns, and then adorning it with bird bills and feathers to attract a mate, never ceases to amuse me.
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus)
Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)
Foreground: Red Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); Background: American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)
We encountered what seemed to be this abundance, this perseverance against all the odds we’ve piled against these birds: plowing under the grasses where they nest, flooding the soil and water they depend on with fertilizers and pesticides, planting corn or soy or suburbs upon nearly every last inch of their habitat, overgrazing grasses they depend upon to feed an exploding population… Seeing this push for life, this determination and insistence upon survival, the tilt and sway of wings cut across an expansive sky, birdsong flood across the slope of hills and the endless plane of horizon—it is heartening yes. It is promising, yes. It is beautiful, yes. And also, it is heartbreaking.
Look at the plummeting number of birds that depend on the prairie, including many of those that we saw on our drive, and especially those that we didn’t see, and you’ll have reason to pause. The populations of some of the birds we saw, including the pelicans, Canada geese, and red-tail hawks, have stable or even increasing populations thanks to their adaptability, and, in part, to conservation measures taken. The majority of the birds that depend on the prairie, however, have populations that have nose-dived in the last 60 years. Today, the population of around 80 percent of all grassland birds is in decline. The eastern meadowlark’s population has plunged by 71% in the last 40 years and is decreasing at a steady rate of 2% each year. Loggerhead shrikes populations have declined by 72%. The Nature Conservancy lists it as being extirpated from most of the Northeast, and nearly extirpated from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Eagle populations will face additional pressure following a recent Interior Department rule that will allow 5-30-year permits for wind farms to accidentally kill or injure bald and golden eagles.
Many of the grassland birds that were once common in the plains were eerily absent from our bird count during the drive. We didn’t see any grasshopper sparrows. Bird surveys indicate their populations have declined by 65% and are declining at a rate of 6% per year in parts of their range. Bobolink populations are steadily declining. They spend their non-breeding season on South American grasslands east of the Andes, and are thought to have one of the longest migrations of any New World songbird, traveling some 12,500 miles annually. Thanks to drought, inappropriate water and beach management, gas/oil industry dredging operations, and development, only 8,000 adult piping plovers remain in the wild. The list of shrinking grassland bird populations goes on and on and on.
Scrolling down the population estimates of grassland birds, you realize that, like the small stands of native prairie scattered throughout the fields and rangeland, we are witnessing a remnant, a relic of species whose future is as improbable as the powerful surge of song bellowing forth from such a small body. When confronted with this, hope is a tricky force to get behind.
And yet, when you stand in the prairie that is left, give yourself to its color and sounds: the buzzing of its grasshoppers, the bright flash of wings, the chirps and melodies inundating the space between swaying grasses, and the splash of yellow on a meadowlark’s breast, it seems impossible not to place your hope in it. When you stand in a tract of tallgrass prairie, something happens. Your brooding and your worry sink into the soil and the roots that run deeper than the grasses are tall and you settle. Against all odds, you place your hope in it. And in so doing you place your hope in us. In our responsibility to see this landscape and home into future generations, though it will never again be ‘intact.’ As Michael Forsberg puts it, “Hope looks forward.” It is his hope, and mine, and that of countless others who cherish the prairie and its teeming life that “someday, future generations will thank us for the courage we had and the efforts we made, each in our own way, to preserve and restore these treasures for their future. We certainly owe it to them, we owe it to the land and its wild inhabitants, and ultimately, we owe it to ourselves.” I hope that the prairie will indeed see unending grass, wind, and light.
 Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. 1980. New Point Press. Berkeley, California. 75.
 H.H. Bennett, 1939. Soil Conservation, McGraw Hill, NY.
 A.F. Gustafson, 1937. Conservation of the Soil, McGraw Hill, NY.
 O. Olivers, 1971. Natural Resource Conservation: An ecological approach, Macmillan, NY.
 N. Hudson, 1971. Soil Conservation, Cornell Univ. Press. Ithaca, NY.
 Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. 1980. New Point Press. Berkeley, California. 17.
 U.S. Gov. Energy Dept. “Energy Dept. Reports: U.S. Wind Energy Production and Manufacturing Reaches Record Highs.” www.energy.gov. 2013. 12/23/13.
Wishart, David. “Settling an Unsettled Land.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 28.
 “Grassland Threats.” http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/grassland-threats. National Geographic. 2013. 2/12/2014.
 Wishart, David. “Settling an Unsettled Land.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 38.
 Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013. Population Estimates Database, version 2013. Available at http://rmbo.org/pifpopestimates. Accessed on 12/27/13.
 J.R. Sauer, J.E. Hines, and J. Fallon, “The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis, 1966-2005.” (Laurel USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, June 2, 2006.) http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/bbs2005.html.
 The Nature Conservancy. 1999. Natural Heritage Central Databases. An electronic database on plants and animals. Arlington, VA.
 Species factsheet: Anthus spragueii. http://www.birdlife.org. BirdLife International. 2014. 2/12/2014.
 Savignac, Carl; Jobin, Benoit; Falardeau, Gilles. “Status of the Grasshopper Sparrow in Quebec.” http://www.ec.gc.ca. Environment Canada. 2011. 2/12/14.
 “Beating the Odds: A Year in the Life of a Piping Plover.” www.Audubon.org/plover. Audubon. 2/12/14.
 Forsberg, Michael. “The Roots of Hope.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 11.
We watched the leaves put on a little more ochre and heard the elk’s bugle grow a little louder this fall from such a beautiful spot in Sheridan, WY. We’d come home all the time to the very best surprises: a moose, with his enormous ears all a-swivel, dipping his nose into our horse’s trough in front of our cabin.
Or better yet, Smokey, with all his belly, enjoying a peaceful moment on our front porch.
And too, in the mornings sometimes we’d hear Smokey clomping on up to the door to push his nose through to wake us up. The soundscape around us shifting from songbirds to the honk of Canadian geese, signaling the coming frosts and turn of season more clearly than any other sound does for me. On our rides, if we hit the timing just right, we’d happen across literally hundreds of elk as they made their way from spot to spot, and when they caught sight of us they’d funnel, 4 or 5 wide, into what seemed to be a giant river of elk, moving as if one entity as they snaked their way across a drying landscape. You could feel the hammering of their hooves on the hard ground from hundreds of feet away. (Excuse the video quality, taken from the back of a somewhat antsy horse. Video by R.J. Connor)
For both of us, I think, the very best part of this summer and fall was a ten day pack trip we went on up into the Big Horn Mountains. It was the first big trip we took on after Viper broke his leg and had to be put down, and I, for one, was just short of a nervous wreck, anticipating every worst-case scenario. In character, Sebastian was calm and sure. As we rode into Penrose Park at sunset on the first day, with a beautiful view of pink clouds billowing out from behind Black tooth mountain, things started falling away: worry, fear, nervousness, and I felt everything slide right into place, as they so often do when you are sitting on top of a horse.
We wound our way alongside a roaring white Little Goose Creek for some time, and made camp at Winnie Lakes, (and I assure you Winnie the dog couldn’t have been more excited about staying at Winnie Lakes).
We eventually made our way up into Highland Park, loud and persistent in its beauty, as we followed the sound of an elk’s bugle ricocheting off sunlit scree.
Wind whipping cold against hands and cheeks, we worked our way across the park and down the other side, where we lost a shoe, put a shoe back on, unpacked and packed our boxes three different times, snaked our way through yellow aspen leaves, and finally heard the sound of water crashing down rock as we came across the best campsite yet, tucked right under Sawtooth falls, where streams of glacial water came cascading down the side of the mountain. The best visitor of the night was a moose who came to see about an evening drink at the river. We woke up that morning to something of a dream: a waterfall the backdrop to four beautiful horses, their place so graceful and sure in this world.
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* * *
At the beginning of the month Sebastian and I went on a trek to drive the route we hope to ride in the Spring. We started out in the tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma and through the Flint Hills of Kansas and stitched our way west along the back roads, traversing some of the more complicated stretches of the trip and stopping along our way to check out some of the projects we hope to highlight in the Spring. The fall is a beautiful time to see the prairie. If you look in the right spots, you can find native grasses that stretch across the horizon, host to the many many creatures and plants that call this grassland ecosystem home. And too, you can see what they’re up against.
After taking a walk through a tract of unplowed tallgrass prairie, through big bluestem 9 feet high and the 70+other species of grasses that thrive here, the space between each permeated by the chirrups of birds and grasshoppers, and then hop back in the car, a funny thing happens. As you drive past field after field after field after field of monoculture crops—soy, wheat, corn— and you make a connection between the percentage of remaining tallgrass prairie in the U.S.—estimates ranging from less than four percent to as little as one tenth of one percent—and the tract you just walked through, you go back and forth from being just so disheartened, unable to imagine how that number has dwindled so small, to holding on to some small hope that we might be able to reverse a course of destruction that has put this entire ecosystem on the verge of collapse. That we might work towards transforming our relationship with this vast landscape, striking a balance between production and conservation, and learn how to produce our food, fuel, and fiber in such a way that does not compromise the vitality of the land from which it grows. This hope sometimes feels naively optimistic, but it is easy to be inspired by the growing number of individuals and organizations that make their life work searching out ways to preserve, protect, and restore the prairie, not only for its value to us—which is immense—but for the landscape itself. Teetering between disappearance and perseverance, the prairie occupies such a fascinating and fragile place in history right now. Its future quite literally depends on our decisions, and I hope we learn to make the right ones.
We’ll put up more photos and thoughts from the road trip in the coming days, so be sure to stop back by the website for a visit. For now, we’re posting up in Bozeman, where we’ll spend the winter as we continue to prepare for our trip. I am about to set out into the mountains on a couple week pack trip into the high Rockies to help out a local outfitter. I hope I don’t freeze.
Robin + Sebastian
It has been such a pleasure to watch spring fade into late summer here in Sheridan. We’ve watched the hillsides burst into the bright blues and purples of lupin and penstemon and the electric reds and oranges of Indian paintbrush. They’re now shifting into their early fall colors. The grass has dried blonde and the last summer wildflowers are having their final say–prairie blazingstar and goldenrod bud into grass that now glints golden. Western meadowlarks let out their notes into an enormous sky from their posts on fences and barbed wire. The joy and surprise, the flap and rush of wings, as a Sharp-tailed grouse and her fledglings are flushed up from the silver-green sage brush have truly been wonderful to experience.
These last several weeks on the ranch we have mostly been helping out with the cattle operation and working with some of the young horses. One of the best parts of ranch life is the early mornings–waking before sunrise every day and hearing the sandhill cranes call in morning’s first light. We’ve met ranchers whose families have been working the surrounding land for generations. So many of the people we have met live in such intimate connection with the land, their livelihoods so closely connected to its changes, droughts, and abundance. They’ve been able to supply us with a wealth of stories about growing up in country that has a backbone of ranching, farming, and horses. Last week we interviewed a man who has lived in Laurel, MT for over 80 years. He farmed wheat on his family farm growing up and told us about his experience of the dustbowl, how the skies grew black as the dust rose.
Though we have learned a great deal these past few weeks on the ranch and have made some incredible connections, we haven’t yet found the right horses to continue our trip with, making a fall departure impractical given the rapid approach of the colder months. In light of this, we’ve adapted our plans once again and hope to begin riding in the coming spring. Though certainly a significant shift in our original time frame, a spring departure offers several advantages that we believe will ultimately make the project stronger: we will be able to work with our horses more extensively and thoroughly before setting out to help ensure they are as prepared as possible for the challenges ahead, we will have the opportunity to broaden our contact base and diversify the projects we’ll highlight, and we’ll be able to plan our route in even finer detail, making the trip safer for our horses and for ourselves. In many ways, early spring is an ideal time to cross the plains on horseback, before the extreme heat and thunderstorms of summer come and when water and good pasture are abundant. We look forward to seeing the spring blooms sweep the prairie and hearing the grassland birds beckon in the new season as we begin our journey east.
We have already begun filming and conducting interviews, and look forward to continuing to document the prairie around us as its landscape shifts into its fall and winter veneers. Our resolve to move forward with the project remains strong, and we are thankful to our sponsors and partners who have agreed to extend their support of the project into the spring. Please be in touch if you have any questions or concerns about contributions to the project or our new plans. We are so grateful for all of the encouragement and support we have received from everyone; it has helped reaffirm our conviction in the importance of celebrating the vast and open beauty of the prairie, and we look forward to sharing our discoveries.
You can check back at our website this fall and winter to stay tuned to trip developments, stories, photos, interviews, video clips, and more. You can get in touch with us by sending an e-mail to email@example.com. As always, we would love to hear from you. Enjoy this last stretch of summer, and we’ll be in touch soon.
All the best,
Robin and Sebastian
Dear supporters, friends, and family,
Thanks so much for your patience and support as we respond to an evolving situation. The plan we have developed maintains the spirit and intention of our original mission while fluidly responding to recent events.
Viper’s passing was a startling event to take place at the onset of the expedition–one that we have been deeply affected by. We intend to hold him in our hearts, minds, and plans as we move forward.
In addition to losing Viper, after working with our other horses for several weeks, we grew concerned that two of them were not physically fit or sound enough to make the trip. This past week we returned Bongo and Barry to Wyoming Horses and picked up a great little mare named Ruby in exchange. We were sad to see them go, but are excited to meet the horses that will join us.
We plan to spend the coming weeks putting together a new set of horses and spend the coming month and a half working with them. If our search for two new horses is successful we hope to begin our trip in September. We are grateful for the opportunity to spend the next six weeks working on the Flying H ranch in Sheridan, WY as we reorganize our team. From the ranch we can continue our search for appropriate horses, work with them extensively before we begin our trip, and begin exploring grassland conservation in the Sheridan Area.
Because winter will be just around the corner when we begin in September, it won’t be possible to make it all the way across the plains before the weather hits. We will alter our route to take into account a later start date. We plan to hone in on projects and initiatives that particularly excite us along a path most appropriate to the season we’ll be riding in. We’ll keep you up to date as our modified route continues to develop. We expect to ride for approximately two months before wrapping up around the end of October/beginning of November. At that point we will begin post production of our documentary and will dive into our educational initiative which will remain an integral component of our project. Though our route will slightly diverge from that which we originally outlined, we intend to retain the heart, spirit, and intention of our trip: to get the word out about the beauty and importance of the prairie.
In the meantime, here in Sheridan we are situated in an area that will prove to be an interesting ecological case study for our trip. From ranching to fishing to oil and gas development, the land around here has myriad uses that in turn have diverse effects on its surrounding ecosystems. We will begin filming from here, and will keep you keyed into our findings from the surrounding prairies.
Thanks so much for your continued support as we move forward.
Robin and Sebastian
I am writing with some very sad news about our horse Viper. Over the weekend he broke his leg and had to be put down. He got tangled in the picket line and spooked. He was so brave and gentle throughout the whole night. He had his head on my shoulder from about a minute after he broke it until right before he was put down.
With one horse less, we are unable to begin the ride at the beginning of this month as planned. We are working towards finding a solution, and will keep you updated as we know more. Thank you for your support and good wishes (especially those for Viper).
Robin and Sebastian
This has been such a fun and exciting week for Rediscovering The Prairie! Here are just a few highlights:
On Monday we opened up the front page of the Colorado Springs Gazette to a great article by Carol McGraw announcing our trip to the C. Springs community. You can take a look at it here!
Over the weekend, our Indiegogo campaign wrapped up with an outstanding $15,825 raised through the generous donations of friends, families, and prairie aficionados alike. We raised nearly 4k more than our $12,000 goal! We are so astounded and appreciative of the overwhelming support the project and its objectives have received. An enormous thank you to all who contributed and shared the campaign with their communities. We are so thrilled to be able to say that at the end of June we will launch our expedition and head East, thanks to the generosity and support of all of our contributors.
This coming weekend (!) we are heading North to Wyoming to select the horses we will spend the next four months with and will begin working with them. We could not be more excited to meet the horses and to begin to build a relationship with them. We’ll have a bag full of carrots…
The next two weeks we will be focusing our efforts on raising the remaining $10,000 needed to safely and effectively carry out this expedition. Please lend a hand if you haven’t already and make a contribution by clicking the “donate” button to the right. If you are connected to any foundations or organizations that would be interested in becoming involved at a greater capacity as a donor or sponsor, please let us know, we would love to connect with them.
Thanks so much for your support, we can’t wait to begin.
Dear Prairie lovers far and wide,
You may not know it yet, but I bet you are a prairie lover. What’s more, I bet our project to cross the American prairie on horseback, celebrating our beautiful and disappearing grasslands, will help you rediscover a love for the prairie and the myriad animals, insects, and plants it is home to.
Let’s take the Sprague’s Pipit. I learned all about this little guy while reading Trevor Herriot’s brilliant Grass, Sky, Song, a chilling look at the steady disappearance of grassland birds. The male pipit circles high above its mate and sings to her for up to 3 hours, the longest display of any bird on the planet. Until recently, the Sprague’s pipit was one of the most plentiful songbirds in the prairie. According to Birdlife International, the Sprague’s Pipit has declined at a rate of 32 percent per decade in the United States since 1970. The story of the Sprague’s pipit is not an anomaly in the world of grassland birds.
We hope to have the immense luck to see one of the remaining Sprague’s pipits on our journey across the prairie. We hope we’ll be able to communicate just how beautiful and vulnerable this bird is and how precious the native grasses host to it and many others are– how imperative it is that they do not go the way of the buffalo and disappear from the prairie altogether. Speaking of buffalo, they’re back. We’ll be visiting one of the visionary Bison restoration projects in Northeastern Montana, and can’t wait to tell you all about it.
We only have about 3 weeks to raise the remaining $9,000 dollars needed to saddle up. We are so appreciative and moved by all the support everyone has shown (we have secured over $20,000 through generous donations, grants, and sponsorships). Please double your enthusiasm, lend a hand and make a contribution if you can, and let all of your friends know they can donate to our project through our website under the “Donate” tab and sidebar. We are so thankful for your help in our final push. Let’s make it happen.
Robin, Sebastian, and Winnie
p.s. Follow us on Instagram at RediscoveringThePrairie as we prepare to saddle up. Our most recent post is a great picture of Winnie choosing her favorite orange safety gear.Sprague’s Pipit, Photo: Greg Lavaty
Colorado Springs Independent writer Edie Adelstein reports about the expedition to Rediscover the Prairie as we come into the final days of our Indiegogo campaign to ride across the North American Prairie. Check it out!
We’ve only get 9 days and $4,500 to go- please help us make it happen! We need all the support we can get! Make a contribution at our IndieGoGo Campaign and pass it along to your family, friends, and cohorts!
Thanks for sharing CSIndy!!
Artwork by Eleanor Anderson
We are delighted to announce that we are halfway through our campaign and half of the way to reach our GOAL! We are so thankful to the many contributors who have come out in support of “Rediscovering the Great American Prairie.” We are incredibly appreciative and overjoyed by the support and enthusiasm the project has received from our family, friends, and communities. Our vision and dream are becoming more and more of a reality every day, and for that, we have you to thank. You are helping to inspire the protection and conservation of North America’s prairies. We have made some exciting developments and contacts, so stay tuned!
We need your help to raise the remaining 50% of our goal, so saddle up, and please share your excitement about the project by e-mailing your friends, families, dentists, colleagues, and dog walkers. You can help by posting our campaign page http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/rediscovering-the-great-american-prairie on your Facebook and other social media networks, contact us about linking our page on your website, or become an individual or corporate sponsor of the project. Again, thank you SO MUCH for your unbridled (get it?) excitement and support; we are overwhelmed by the generosity and drive of our communities. Please help us move that fundraising bar from halfway to complete on our Indiegogo page. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with ideas, suggestions, and comments about the campaign and the project at RediscoverthePrairie@gmail.com
See you around the bend,
Robin and Sebastian
(artwork by Eleanor Anderson: www.EleanorAnderson.com
We’re excited to announce that starting TODAY, for the first time you’ll be able to help make our project a reality by visiting our newly launched Indigogo campaign! Give a little, Give a lot, whatever support you can share will be incredibly appreciated. And remember, pass it along to your friends and families, co-workers, your boss, your nanny and your dog’s veterinarian. We’ve only got THIRTY DAYS to go, so don’t wait! thanks so much for all the support! Check it out: www.indiegogo.com/projects/rediscovering-the-great-american-prairie
Artwork by Eleanor Anderson (www.eleanoranderson.com)