With temperatures hovering around minus 21 degrees Fahrenheit, six outdoor enthusiasts gear up for volunteer training on American Prairie Reserve. The blue skies and sunshine are deceptive. Standing too long in these temperatures will create a chill in one’s body that is hard to shake, no matter how much physical exertion is expended. The orientation proceeds quickly, then the team heads out to get their blood pumping.
As part of our new Landmark adventure science program, this group is the first of many that will traverse the Sun Prairie area of the Reserve. Year-round, volunteers will be recording wildlife populations, movement, and behavior through direct observation and with the help of remote camera traps.
The Landmark project is made possible through a partnership with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a Bozeman, Montana-based organization headed up by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish. Landmark is harnessing the power of citizen scientists to help us make improved wildlife management decisions on the Reserve. Dozens of motion-triggered video cameras are capturing how animals like elk, mule deer, and pronghorn navigate and interact with the perimeter fence required for our growing bison herd. Wildlife population surveys for big cats, greater sage grouse, and amphibians will provide much needed insight into species survival and, most importantly, will provide solid data for informing future discussions focused on the potential of increasing wildlife populations in the region.
Volunteers are hiking, snowshoeing, skiing or mountain biking 5 to 10 miles a day up to 5 times a week to survey the 31,000-acre study area known as Sun Prairie. Collectively over three years, they will travel roughly 21,000 miles by human power – or approximately one circumnavigation of the earth. As a long-term project, we are already making plans to expand data collection into other portions of the Reserve’s 274,000-acre landscape. We have always made public access for recreation a priority in our efforts to build the Reserve, which involves gluing together public lands through the purchase of private properties and managing them for biodiversity. Landmark takes conservation to the next level by enlisting citizens from around the world to help us make real, meaningful changes on the ground.
Unlike some scientific studies that are limited in time and scope to a single season, the project is designed to collect information every week of the year. Even more rare in the science community is the fact that Landmark data will be open access – free and available to everyone. Starting this summer, data and multimedia collected in the field on electronic tablet devices, GPS units, and by cameras will be added to an online repository and displayed in interactive maps. Land managers and wildlife agencies, community members, researchers, and schools will be able to download and explore this grassland ecosystem like never before.
We believe that whenever possible open access to, and the sharing of, information is important to the advancement of education and science and to improved habitat management. Gregg and I often discuss how important it is that data is shared as soon as is practical rather than being held in obscurity while it is waiting to be published, or held back for years because it has become the intellectual property of an institution or organization. Together, ASC, APR and hundreds of hardy volunteers are taking action to conduct scientific studies in innovative ways and then share results rapidly so that data can be used broadly by anyone who’s interested. We look forward to sharing our discoveries, and I’m excited for the day when someone not currently involved in this project shows us what impact they are having by using the data — particularly in ways that we might not have anticipated.
American Prairie Reserve (APR) is assembling a world class wildlife reserve in northern Montana, with the goal of one day creating a seamless 3.5 million acre grassland ecosystem. APR’s President Sean Gerrity is a National Geographic Fellow. Learn more about the Reserve, including how to visit and current progress, on the Reserve’s website. Interested in applying to join a Landmark crew? Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is accepting applications.