Celebrating World Rewilding Day 2024

Happy World Rewilding Day! Today we join dozens of other conservation organizations from every corner of the globe to celebrate our commitment to rewilding. Last year’s theme was #RewildingHope – this year, we turn that #HopeIntoAction.

If the term “rewilding” is a new one, no worries! To all of us at American Prairie, rewilding means working to restore our piece of the Northern Great Plains with a particular focus on the complexity and resilience of the ecosystem. In a rewilded prairie ecosystem, populations of native plants, insects, and animals will be robust and healthy enough to fulfill their natural ecological roles, and biodiversity will abound.

The significance of rewilding, from a scientist’s perspective, is the idea of putting all of the pieces back into the puzzle. The ecosystem has a mind of its own. It is dynamic, it is intended to change. But an ecosystem cannot function without all of its animals and all of its species present. Once it has that, it will do unpredictable things. It will move like a river moves and changes its bank. But the river can’t do that if there’s not water in it. (Daniel Kinka, Ph.D., Senior Wildlife Restoration Manager)

How do we get there? That’s where “Hope into Action,” the theme for this year’s World Rewilding Day, comes in.

As the Global Rewilding Alliance says, hope is a verb. Instead of an abstract concept, hope takes form in courageous, pragmatic, innovative action. We’re sharing examples of #HopeIntoAction across our social media channels today, paying particular attention to three of the keystone species so crucial to the prairie landscape: beavers, black-tailed prairie dogs, and bison. Don’t want to miss anything? Visit us on Instagram – we’ll have links to everything in a saved Highlight available on our profile.

World Rewilding Day is also an opportunity to signal boost the valiant efforts of our partner organizations from all over the world. Use the hashtags #WorldRewildingDay and #HopeIntoAction to browse stories, and visit the Global Rewilding Alliance online.

The most recent issue of our magazine, The Sentinel, focused on rewilding: an introduction to our vision for a rewilded prairie and a look at some of the rewilding projects we’re currently working on. Keep reading or an excerpt from the magazine, or check out the full PDF online.

WILD RIDE: The Journey to Rewild American Prairie

Daniel Kinka, Ph.D. | Senior Wildlife Restoration Manager


I don’t believe that any life has a throughline except one imposed upon it in hindsight, but there have been two formative experiences in my life that speak to a kind of belief in wildness.

The first was an ecstatic drive through South Dakota to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” as loud as the speakers of my 1998 Toyota Tercel could muster. Windows down at 87 miles per hour, I abandoned a mundane track toward an academic’s life and headed West, with the carefree attitude only a 24-year-old can conjure. I lay awake that night in my small tent, pitched in the heart of Badlands National Park, as a chorus of coyotes yipped and yodeled their approval of my decision.

The second experience was one of quiet, overwhelming insignificance, as I lay alone on a sandbar in the Escalante River. Watching the Milky Way slowly turn through the keyhole of Stevens Arch towering above me, I sank through deep, geologic time, and felt myself one infinitesimal piece of that timeless wild river.

The Northern Great Plains, stretching from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Missouri River’s southbound descent along the 100th Meridian, were one of the wildest landscapes on the planet. As little as 200 years ago, the prairie teemed with bison, elk, pronghorn, prairie dogs, wolves, and grizzly bears, while the skies were filled with raptors, sparrows, and waterfowl. That once vibrant ecosystem has been drastically transformed.

The Indigenous Peoples and lifeways of the plains were driven onto reservations; bison were hunted to near-extinction followed by the extirpation of wolves, bears, elk, and bighorn sheep; native grasses were replaced by non-native “tame” grasses; and prairie dogs were (and are still) exterminated as pests. As a result, the Northern Great Plains lost much of their ecological integrity, and the species that once called this landscape home were pushed far beyond ecological relevance, and in some cases to the brink of extinction. In a shockingly small amount of time the unparalleled indigenous biodiversity of the Great Plains — a cradle of North America’s human ecology and the first landscape ever dreamt of as a “Nation’s Park”—was very nearly subjugated into a homogenous, domesticated obscurity.

That’s where I found myself in 2018. Fresh out of graduate school and dropped out of a Suburban in the heart of Montana, an hour from a paved road and a stone’s throw from the reintroduced but soon-to-disappear black-footed ferret population at the UL-Bend Wilderness of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. American Prairie had been hard at work putting the pieces of a grassland ecosystem back together for nearly two decades at that point, but I just got there. And after four long field seasons camping with shepherds and observing the interactions of livestock guardian dogs, domestic sheep, and wolves in the idyllic mountain meadows of the Sawtooth, Blue, and Bighorn Mountain ranges, I was having trouble connecting to the lonely prairies. It is a harshly beautiful place, but hardly wild.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to rewild the diminished and degraded corners of the world. The movement seeks to restore the ecological balance of the planet’s degraded biomes by reintroducing and repopulating native species, connecting fragmented habitats, and jumpstarting dormant ecological processes. The goal is to create self-sustaining ecosystems that support resilient socio-ecological communities, production of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and refuges for both people and wildlife. It is in many ways something besides just conservation. Rewilding isn’t about saving or recreating something lost, but instead — by putting back the missing pieces—allowing natural systems to recover a new kind of equilibrium. Biodiverse systems are complex ones, and in complexity we find not just resilience, but a kind of beauty.

I understood this when I joined American Prairie, but I couldn’t connect with the grasslands or feel any sense of kinship with the place until I saw that vision of a wild prairie with my own eyes. Thankfully, it did not take long. Only a month or two after I started, I was traveling across the Sun Prairie management unit on a snowmobile looking for a GPS collar that had dropped off a bison. I crested a ridge with an expansive view looking out over the Box Elder Creek drainage, and just as I did, I startled a small herd of bison. The bison had heard me coming and were already running full speed along the rim of a small cliff edge just ahead of me. I turned off the engine and watched the backlit animals move effortlessly through two feet of snow, fleeing from the sound of my approach, but also, perhaps, just running because they can. Because bison hooves kneading ice and grass into prairie soil across vast stretches of wild, rolling grasslands propitiates something very old and fundamental. The prairie had just been pleasant scenery for me until that point, but here was a brief glimpse of wildness.

The future American Prairie will be the very portrait of North American wildness. The land will be wild, the animals will be wild, and the experience will be wild. But the critical missing component of this kind of wildness is wildlife. Relative to the current state, there should be a distracting amount of wildlife in every direction. This conspicuousness (and the abundance that underpins it) is crucial to the system. Thriving wildlife populations are critical to sustaining the integrity, complexity, and resilience of the ecosystem.

The American Prairie team is hard at work rewilding our little corner of the Northern Great Plains. We are not a wildlife agency, which means that we do not have the authority to directly manipulate the wildlife that are held as a public trust for the benefit of all of us. As such, our actions are often indirect and sometimes counterintuitive, but have no less ability to grow the wildlife populations on our properties to a level of ecological significance. In the pages of this Sentinel we are pleased to share with you our Rewilding Model, the philosophy that underpins it, and introduce you to some of our colleagues hard at work making American Prairie a wilder place.

American Prairie’s Rewilding Model

American Prairie’s vision is to fully restore the shortgrass prairie ecosystem in an identified region of the Northern Great Plains in Montana. As such, the American Prairie Ecosystem will again contain ecologically meaningful populations of all non-extinct, native species present in the reference ecosystem (i.e., the Missouri Plains ecosystem, circa 1800), with management focused on maximizing the integrity, complexity, and resilience of the system.

Realizing our Rewilding Vision

  • Assemble a landbase of 5,000 square miles encompassing the 1.1 million acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding private lands that are connected to grazing rights on adjacent federal and state public lands.
  • Expand bison herds on American Prairie deeded and leased lands, and facilitate black-tailed prairie dog range expansion, such that each species occupies the largest acreage possible to maximize their role as keystone species and ecosystem engineers.
  • Increase “safe acreage” for dispersing wolves and grizzly bears so that these keystone species can naturally reestablish populations in Central Montana.
  • Reconstruct stream and wetland habitat with low-tech, process-based solutions (e.g., beaver dam analogues) that allow riparian systems to recover and beavers to recolonize.
  • Repair prairie habitat by replanting cropland with native vegetation.
  • Restore the keystone effect of wildfire by executing a prescribed fire plan.
  • Maximize habitat connectivity and reduce habitat fragmentation by removing or modifying fences, treating and eradicating weeds, and removing junk piles and other unwanted infrastructure.
  • Increase social carrying capacity for wildlife through community advocacy, coalition building, community-based conservation, and providing economic incentives for tolerance.
  • Balance hunting and other access on American Prairie’s private lands to maximize the ecological role of humans in the ecosystem, without artificially or unnaturally suppressing wildlife populations.