On their famous expedition to the heart of the western United States, Lewis and Clark filled their journals with lush descriptions of the abundant wildlife and endless skies there. Herds of buffalo, pronghorn and elk crowded the prairies. The land teemed with millions of animals, and each turn in the river revealed a sight unlike any they had ever experienced.
That expanse of flatland west of the Mississippi, north to Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains and south to vast Texas plains, called the American Serengeti, still inspires the same sense of awe today. More than just a pass-over spot for the dramatic western mountains, the prairie lands are a world worth exploring.
Here are some flatland facts to inspire a prairie adventure:
1. Thundering hooves
Sure, Blue Buffalo® is partial to bison, a symbol of strength, survival and abundance in the American West, but bison are truly magnificent animals. Native Americans honored these noble creatures for their sacred power and considered it “walking in tune with the Great Mother.” To them, the bison represented warmth and protection.
At one time there were between 20 and 60 million bison roaming the West, but by 1885, they had been hunted to the brink of extinction. Echoing the bison’s spirit of fortitude and perseverance, conservation efforts have helped them survive. It’s estimated that about 500,000 bison now thunder across the North American plains once more, and a flatland adventure is your chance to witness their glorious comeback.
2. Eco-friendly prairie “rats”
Settlers traveling the plains thought the vocalizing they heard from the small animals there sounded like dogs barking. That’s how prairie dogs got their name, but they’re really rodents. Extremely social animals, prairie dogs reside in highly populated, close-knit family groups known as coteries.
And they actually live in the prairie by burrowing elaborate tunnel systems with multiple openings and separate "rooms” that mimic human homes, including bedrooms for sleep, food storage areas and even bathrooms (minus the wall paper and appliances, of course).
Quite the architects, prairie dogs create raised platforms at their burrow doorways to appear taller than they actually are, ideal for guard duty. They also have an intricate communication system with a variety of high-pitched warning sounds and squeaks that differentiate predators.
Prairie dogs are environmental creatures, playing an important role in the prairie’s sustainability. They provide dinner for golden eagles, badgers and coyotes, and their droppings fertilize the soil, benefitting both plants and animals.
3. Deep roots
Hundreds of different flowers and grasses poke above the prairie’s surface, but the root system that anchors the prairie below is composed of an intricate network of bulbs and roots. Extending as much as 12 feet below the surface, portions of this root nexus die off and provide important nutrients for the soil.
Prairie fires also serve an important ecological function. Although they move fast, burn hot and are extremely dangerous, they leave behind beneficial ash and soot that actually refreshes and renews the soil. The dense root system below remains intact and new growth can begin quickly in the aftermath.
4. Abundant birds
Hunters and birdwatchers have long known that some of the most spectacular and treasured birds flock to America’s grasslands. Prairie chickens, wild turkeys, quail, western meadowlarks, ferruginous hawks and burrowing owls are on many birders’ lists, while hunters obsess over the game birds that hide in the thick, tall grasses.
5. A legacy of conservation
While the flatlands are a huge part of the U.S. natural heritage, only about one percent of the original prairie remains in a pristine state. Many local organizations and communities have gone to great lengths to restore the prairie and stem the vanishing ecosystem.
One such successful effort is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, a showcase of breathtaking prairies and grasslands named after one of the prominent architects of modern conservation.
If you visit expecting to find flat, rolling grasslands, think again. Surreally textured with badland terrain, the volcanic rock structures may feel like you’ve journeyed to another planet. No wonder this otherworldly environment prompted the park’s presidential namesake to claim that the great romance of his life began here.