The American Prairie Reserve (APR) is a non-profit organization based in Bozeman, MT that focuses solely on the restoration and conservation of American prairie. Many of their conservation efforts center around the native wildlife and grasslands found on what is often called the "American Serengeti." When In Focus Astronomy first met with Gavin Clark, APR's Philanthropy Manager, he said, "It's really in the middle of nowhere, but that's kind of the point."
Hearing about the utter isolation of the prairie, we researched the darkness rating of the Buffalo Campground, one location on the APR property. We discovered, much to our delight, that the darkness rating at the Buffalo Campground is 22 (Bortle class 1), which is as dark as the middle of the ocean! Locations across the world are rated on the Bortle scale, which quantifies how visible celestial objects are to the naked eye based on surrounding light pollution.
The best observational astronomy is done as far away from urbanization as possible. Due to increased population and urban sprawl, truly dark locations have become more difficult to find. In fact, light pollution has increased so much across the United States that 80% of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way from their backyards. (1)
In Focus Astronomy was lucky enough to be part of the APR's Memorial Day Open House Weekend. Naturalists from all over Montana congregated to share knowledge of botany, bison preservation, geology, paleontology, astronomy, and more. In between teaching other scientists about the wonders of the Universe, we got to learn some things, too!
Don, a veterinarian from Northern Montana, brought an amazing taxidermied bison - half of which shows the pelt, and half of which displays a perfectly reconstructed skeleton. Don travels with a huge array of prairie educational displays with a heavy focus on bison behavior, habitat, and history.
Cary runs the Malta Dinosaur Museum, and we had the chance to speak with him about geology. We learned about a common, fascinating phenomenon called an ironstone concretion. These are objects that form when matter accumulates around other matter as it tumbles through running water. These dense, metallic spheres were found on Mars, and were instrumental in theorizing that Mars did, in fact, once have running water on its surface. (2)
We had a wonderful time during our stargazing experience. The dry, crisp, still air of the prairie gave us (and our guests) phenomenal views of the Moon and Jupiter. We also observed several deep space objects before some unexpected clouds rolled in. Even with the clouds, the attendees were able to learn about Moon formation, solar system formation, and the life cycle of stars. During our solar astronomy experience, we observed small sun spots, and their proximity to the Sun’s pole gave a striking perspective of the Sun's curvature. We also observed some lovely solar prominences, which gave us the chance to discuss the Aurora Borealis.
When folks think about conservation, they often consider its relation to the diurnal parts of ecosystems, wildlife, and the climate. As this was the first of a few residences this summer, we are excited to continue showing American Prairie Reserve visitors the nocturnal part of conservation - preserving the night sky.