Photo: O.S. Fisher/Shutterstock

The American Prairie Reserve Brings Back Biodiversity to the Great Plains

Sustainability News
by Tim Wenger Dec 4, 2020

This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

In the 1800s, upward of 50 million bison roamed the plains, prairies, and high country of the United States. These bison had sustained Indigenous populations for thousands of years and played a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem across the central and western parts of the country. We’re not going to dive into a full history lesson here, but for reasons including sport and to weaken Native populations, bison were slaughtered in mass numbers in the ensuing years. By 1884, only 325 bison were left across the country.

Conservation efforts were launched coming into the 20th century, including the first bison preserve in Cache, OK, which opened in 1907. By 1910, the bison population had grown to 1,000. Fast forward to 2017, and that number reached half a million. Yellowstone National Park alone has more than 5,000 bison today. This is a far cry from 200 years ago, and to be sure, the fate of the bison is an American tragedy. But thanks to our nation’s extensive system of public lands and a dedicated team of conservationists, scientists, and other activists, the bison — and additional species threatened by everything from a changing climate to habitat loss — are getting a breath of fresh air on the Great Plains.


Photo: Dennis Linghor/American Prairie Reserve

The American Prairie Reserve, located in Montana, is a unique concept seeking to increase habitat for prairie wildlife. In partnership with National Geographic’s Last Wild Places initiative, the reserve is — at its simplest — a bound collection of land seeking to protect the diversity of plant and animal life on the Great Plains.

The model of the American Prairie Reserve is unique. As a nonprofit organization, the reserve exists to obtain and preserve parcels of land adjacent to or near public lands in Montana’s Glaciated Plains. Once a piece of land is acquired, the organization works with federal and state agencies to optimize its use for wildlife and plant life, connecting it to the area’s extensive public lands to broaden the corridor of protected spaces. Essentially, the American Prairie Reserve is returning the land to its original purpose, with an ultimate goal of protecting a space larger than Yellowstone and Glacier national parks — combined — for flora and fauna that have called the plains home since long before Europeans arrived in North America.

For Montana residents and visitors, this includes the chance to get out and enjoy the prairie. The land is publicly accessible for outdoor recreation, including permitted hunting. “Our objective for all visitors, whether they are bird watchers, hikers, mountain bikers or hunters, is to create richer and more satisfying outdoor experiences as wildlife populations in the region continue to increase,” said American Prairie Reserve CEO Alison Fox in a press release.

As a result of its efforts, the biodiversity of the region is on the rise. The bison herd has grown to more than 800 on the reserve, with the long-term goal to reach 10,000. The scale is slowly being tipped back toward environmental justice for Indigenous communities that have long depended on a diverse ecosystem to survive. And the bison, well, they benefit too.

More climate wins

A study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Clean Air Act, authorized by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, is estimated to have saved the lives of 1.5 billion birds. This finding marks a greater impact than originally known, leading co-author Ivan Rudik to note that, “Reducing pollution has positive impacts in unexpected places and provides an additional policy lever for conservation efforts.”

President-elect Joe Biden named John Kerry the country’s first Climate Envoy, giving him the task of bringing climate action to the National Security Council. Also on the policy front, General Motors pulled its support for President Trump’s efforts to keep California from setting its own vehicle emissions standards.

Vail Resorts, which operates 37 mountain resorts worldwide, announced this week that it will be 93 percent renewable-powered by 2023, thanks to two major renewable energy projects in the US. Those are the Plum Creek Wind Project in Nebraska and the Elektron Solar Project in Utah. Additionally, the company announced that it has reached a 50 percent waste diversion goal by reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills while growing both composting and recycling.

“Across the company, it has been an inspiration to watch our employees stay focused on achieving our sustainability goals while working hard to keep our guests and each other safe,” said Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz.

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