More than half of Montana is currently in the grips of a severe drought, according to the latest numbers released by the U.S. Drought Monitor Thursday. And, as pastures shrivel up in the heat, ranchers are trucking in bales of hay and selling their cattle early.
But there’s another big, horned animal out there on the range. Bison.
“Yeah, you know, they seem to be holding on,” says Damien Austin, supervisor for the American Prairie Reserve.
It's a sprawling, 350,000 acre private wildlife sanctuary in northeastern Montana located near the epicenter of the drought. The reserve is home to nearly 1,000 bison.
“They’re well adapted to the heat and stress that they are seeing this year, and see every year, out on the prairie,” he says.
Austin says there’s enough hardy, drought-resistant native grasses on the reserve to keep the animals well fed. So, at least for now, there’s no need to truck in hay. Instead, his biggest concern is water.
“Coming into the fall, if we don’t get any more precipitation, we could be looking at diminishing water sources for the bison,” he says.
Jeff King, with the National Bison Range north of Missoula, echoes that concern.
“Water availability is the one thing that we really stress during these times because they do take a lot of water,” he says.
Bison drink more water than most cattle in Montana do, but so far, the sudden droughts here aren’t depleting aquifers and streams the way a prolonged, multi-year drought would.
King says they haven’t seen any bison mortalities due to the drought. Other wildlife on the range, such as pronghorn antelope and elk, are also doing fine.
“We’ve got calves on the ground, and the deer are fawning and the elk calves are out there, so again, we really stress that providing water, making sure that all our water tanks are clean and running, then they’re able to take the available forage and they seem to be doing just fine,” King says.
Austin says if the drought continues into next year, they could install solar-powered water pumping stations and begin culling the herd by either donating animals to other conservation groups, harvesting through hunting, or potentially using contraceptives to slow the birth rate. But he stresses that, at least for now, the reserve isn't freaking out about the drought.
“It’s a land of plenty and a land of longing at the same time," he says. "Historically there’s been droughts and floods, even in the short time that APR has existed that have been pretty monumental and quite damaging, so, it’s just a normal part of the landscape and a normal part management.”
The American Prairie Reserve plans to conduct its first bison hunt this fall, though they haven’t yet released information on how much a tag will cost.
About two-thirds of Montana’s rangeland is considered in poor or very poor condition, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest report, and ranchers are selling their cattle two to three weeks earlier than normal.