Birds and Bison on a Montana Morning

On a typical day of fieldwork, my alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. in the bunkhouse at the National Bison Range. I stumble around for a half hour, trying to avoid bumping into my field technician as we prepare for the day. We pull on hiking boots and snake gators, and throw our packs into the truck. It is still dark out, but the faintest light is beginning to grow over the Mission Mountains.

I have never been a morning person. Unfortunately for me, it seems to be in the nature of most wildlife species to be up and at ‘em at first light. This is especially true for the grassland songbird species I study for my master’s project. I am researching the relationship between grassland songbird abundance and the intensity of bison grazing.

Bison

What, you might ask, do grassland songbirds and bison grazing have to do with one another? Good question. Bison are considered “ecosystem engineers,” meaning they modify habitat to be more or less favorable for other species. They can do this through behaviors like grazing, trampling and wallowing (taking dust baths).

With bison weighing up to 2,000 pounds, you can imagine that a herd makes quite an impact. I am investigating whether different grassland songbird species associate with different levels of bison grazing intensity.

As we drive towards our site for the day, we see elk startle from the beam of our headlights. We can just barely see a coyote trotting away – it looks back at us over its shoulder and twitches its ears. We open a gate and drive onto a management road, where we get an insider’s look at the National Bison Range. We are soon hiking to our first plot for the day, and the dawn chorus of birds is in full swing.

I have come to appreciate those early, peaceful hours because it is the best time to see wildlife. I am still not a morning person, but it was an absolute privilege to do field work at the National Bison Range last summer.

With any luck, my future in wildlife biology holds many more early mornings!

– Danielle Fagre, Wildlife Biology graduate student and recipient of the Don Bedunah Memorial Scholarship 

Read more from Wildlife Biology graduate students on the WBIO blog, wildlifebiologymontana.tumblr.com.