Storm on the Prairie: American Prairie Reserve Tries to ‘Buffalo’ Rural Montana


American Prairie Reserve Threatens Ranching in The West

Seeks To Create Largest Natural Reserve in United States

The American Prairie Reserve began in 2001 as the Prairie Foundation, created by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as a “land trust partner.” The goal of American Prairie Reserve is:
• To put together the United States’ largest natural reserve in north-central Montana
• Recreate what famous explorers Lewis and Clark might have seen in 1805
• The primary focus of the reserve is free-roaming, naturally regulated wildlife
• The total targeted area is 3.5 million acres, which is larger than the entirety of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and includes the already preserved lands of the million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the 375,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

Numerous Ranches Must Be Obtained for APR to Fulfill Their Vision

The remainder of the lands APR needs to complete their vision is made up of privately-owned ranches interspersed among millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered lands. The key to amassing the desired total land is for APR to purchase the ranches and therefore obtain the BLM grazing rights attached to those properties. Read more about the practice of ranching on federally administered land here.

Impact to BLM Land

The problems with APR’s plans are with the bison themselves, as well as the way APR wants to manage them. It is important to note that no one is protesting what APR will do with their privately-owned land; the issues are what they want to do on BLM land, and the effects it would have on the environment, ranch families, and local economies.

East Coast Biologist & Silicon Valley Entrepreneur Join Forces

The reserve was the brainchild of Massachusetts resident and former WWF biologist, Curt Freese, who is listed as a founding executive director of APR. Freese recruited Silicon Valley consultant, Sean Gerrity, who became another founder of APR. Gerrity came up with the plan to buy any ranches near APR that were put on the market. In order to do this, they created a non-profit organization and started collecting donations. In 2004, they began acquiring land. Since that time, APR has made 29 land purchases and amassed over 400,000 acres of land, which includes the grazing rights on BLM parcels attached to privately owned lands.

This is not the first time something like this has been proposed. In the 1980s, a pair of East Coast professors, Frank and Deborah Popper, envisioned creating the “Buffalo Commons.” The Poppers infamously sought to rewild the majority of the Great Plains, with de-privatizing and depopulating the region as key components. They stated that their wish was to return the area to its “original pre-white state.”

APR’s Vision of Rewilding

Over two centuries after Lewis and Clark passed through the region, APR’s vision is creating great turmoil in the rural ranching communities of north-central Montana because of what they aim to do. APR’s central goal, and reason for grabbing up every bit of land they can, is to “re-wild” the area, which was identified by The Nature Conservancy as the “Northern Great Plains Steppe ecoregion” in 1999. The area is already home to a great many species of wildlife, including elk, big horn sheep, antelope, deer, coyotes, mountain lions, prairie dogs, and numerous species of birds.

Nevertheless, APR is importing “genetically pure” bison (or buffalo) in an attempt to mimic the great plains of yesteryear. The reserve is already home to about 900 of them, which are considered pure by APR since there are no domestic cattle in their lineage. The long-term goal is to build a herd of 10,000 such bison.

APR Uses Unethical Tactics

APR emphasizes that they only buy land from “willing sellers,” but finding those has sometimes proven to be a challenge. In many cases, APR has resorted to less-than ethical methods of obtaining land. In one case, a landowner decided to sell property, but not to APR. Then, upon selling the property to a third-party LLC, the seller found out that the LLC was a front for APR after all.

APR researches property ownership and goes after what they consider to be easy targets. They are known to search out small enclaves of property with a different owner than the surrounding property, and aggressively seek to buy it. If successful in such a purchase, APR then affects the larger ranch around the isolated property in numerous ways, from water rights to access easements.

Numerous Wealthy Donors Fund APR

APR’s ability to buy out ranches is made possible by a few incredibly wealthy donors, among them former television executives, Silicon Valley billionaires, and family members of a co-founder of Hewlett-Packard. APR also brings in foreign money through their sister organization, the German-based group called Friends of the American Serengeti. In 2017 alone, APR raked in over $16 million in contributions and grants. In addition to having a board of directors, national council, and national scientific advisory council, APR employs over 40 people. Job titles range from Graphic Designer to Director of Philanthropy. In 2017, payroll was listed on the group’s 990 form as over $3 million.

APR claims that they only pay market value for land. However, property values have been greatly inflated around the reserve because of APR. What they pay for land is similar to extremely expensive land in Western Montana, and does not reflect the traditional land value of the area. When several existing ranchers might pool resources to purchase a ranch property, they can’t compete with APR’s ridiculously deep pockets. The facts are that for some residents who have struggled all of their lives to make ends meet, becoming a multi-millionaire by selling to APR is a siren’s song that’s hard to resist.

The Multiple Personalities of APR

APR has put substantial effort into public relations and keeping up appearances. Examples include offering a limited number of bison hunts, mostly to locals and Montana residents, paying incentives to ranchers who utilize APR-approved management techniques and marketing the beef they raise as its own brand, Wild Sky Beef, and leasing out grazing permits APR isn’t currently using. Permits are often leased back to the ranchers who just sold to APR, generating a very calculated but misleading sense of goodwill.

Many locals see right through APR’s grandstanding. APR only leases BLM grazing back to sellers because of the BLM’s “use it or lose it” policy. If an allotment is left un-grazed for too long, the owner of those grazing rights can lose them. By keeping the allotments in use, APR is able to retain control of them.

In ranching communities, it is common practice to help others in many ways, but for APR that only seems to include publicity stunts. One local told of APR making a great show of going to the county fair and purchasing 4-H market animals, making sure to seem cooperative and philanthropic in the public eye. However, in private, APR had already disallowed ranchers from simply moving their cattle across a section of the reserve to a different pasture as they had always done in the past.

“It’s not good, there’s nothing good about APR. They aren’t good neighbors—they’re not the kind that are going to stop and help you if you have flat tire on the side of the road,” said an area resident.

APR Meeting Resistance from A Variety of Stakeholders

APR is rightfully meeting resistance all along the way, from private ranch owners clear up to the state legislature. In fact, two bills aimed at issues with the reserve made it through the legislature, only to be vetoed by Governor Bullock. Signs are posted around the greater area that say things like “Don’t buffalo me, “No federal land grab,” and “Save the cowboy—stop American Prairie Reserve.”

Membership Denied to Montana Stock Growers Association

APR went as far as to join the Montana Stock Growers Association (MSGA) as an Allied Industry member, via an online portal. The MSGA Executive Committee met immediately upon finding out, and rescinded APR’s membership due to conflicting policies and missions.

America Prairie Preserve’s Bison: Wildlife or Livestock?

Two Categories for Bison – Free Roaming Wildlife and Privately-Owned Livestock

Bison are categorized in two ways in Montana. Bison that are free roaming and held in the public trust are categorized as wildlife, but privately-owned bison are legally categorized as livestock. The APR website states that “Although APR’s bison are managed as wildlife, as a legal matter, they are privately owned domestic livestock and subject to the same rules and regulations as other livestock in Montana.”

There Are Significant Concerns Regarding APR’s Bison Management Plans

The categorization of bison matters a great deal, since livestock requires hands-on management, such as vaccinations, for their own health, and management of their grazing patterns for the well-being and balanced use of rangelands. Livestock owners are also responsible for keeping their animals where they are supposed to be, whereas no one has such responsibility for wildlife. It is of great concern that APR states that their bison will be managed as wildlife, for a number of reasons.

APR Seeks Special Treatment from BLM for ‘Radical Experiment’

APR’s mission to devolve the area to its condition two centuries ago would require that the BLM throw away decades of sound, well-established range management science and practice. Even while APR manages their bison as wildlife, they can’t just turn out 10,000 head of bison on their BLM grazing permits, which are mandated to be multiple use and include raising livestock, and declare those bison to be “wild.”

Thus, the APR initially requested that the BLM convert the type of livestock allowed on APR-held grazing allotments from cattle to bison; that 300 miles of fences within the reserve be torn out; that their bison then be allowed to run year-round over a combination of state and federal land totaling 290,000 acres; and that the outer perimeter fence be “strengthened” with a single strand of solar-powered electrified wire.

One Bozeman resident was quoted in the Tri-State Livestock News as saying: “If BLM changes its rules for APR then they’re actively empowering APR to bulldoze Montana families and communities.” A member of United Property Owners of Montana testified, “We should not let them conduct a radical experiment on BLM lands.”

Following The Law is “Difficult” and “A Hardship” for APR

Further, APR is requesting a variance from ordinances in Phillips County Conservation District that require that “all bison/buffalo must be tested and certified, by a state veterinarian to be disease free” and that “bison/buffalo must be branded, tattooed, tagged or otherwise identified to track its health status.” APR cites “great practical difficulties and unnecessary hardship” as a reason for the request.

The Phillips Conservation District (PCD) had approved the bison grazing ordinances in June 2016.

Revised Proposal Is ‘Smoke And Mirrors’

In late September 2019, it was announced that APR had scaled back its requests substantially because of the intense resistance they have met, stating their desire to be good neighbors. The revised proposal seeks year-round grazing on 12,000 acres rather than 290,000, and removal of 40 miles of fence instead of 300. The revised proposal now also includes a request for rotational grazing on 48,000 acres. An APR representative stated that, if granted, the new request would last for 10 years, and assumes herd growth of 1,000 buffalo per year.

Considering APR’s track record in the area, those intimately involved in the issue can see right through this new superficially softened approach, and that the long-term goal remains the same. The Save The Cowboy movement is a grassroots effort to stop APR, and on their Facebook page, referred to the revised plan as a “shameless ruse.”

An organizer of the Save The Cowboy movement stated: “APR’s platform has not changed—they want to establish a massive, free-roaming bison herd in Central Montana and eliminate our communities and our agriculture economy. They know that convincing the BLM to go along with this plan, even on a single grazing allotment, establishes a precedent they can use to expand over hundreds of thousands of acres. In the end the American Prairie Reserve has received millions of dollars in donations and will be obligated to fulfill those goals they’ve promised.”

The Buffalo Roam

While the number of bison currently on the reserve is a mere fraction of what’s intended, there are already issues with keeping them where they are supposed to be. A number of area residents have already had stray bison appear on their properties and found APR ill-prepared to remedy the problem. State representative Dan Bartel (R-Lewistown) stated: “My constituents have brought to my attention significant technical, environmental and other complaints that APR may not be a good neighbor with their existing bison operation.”

One local rancher told of reporting a stray bison to APR, only to have APR employees show up with a helicopter and tranquilizer guns, but no means to actually remove the animal from the property. According to the rancher, he was then told that if it happened again to “just shoot the buffalo.” This begs the question: if APR can’t handle one stray buffalo, how will they handle 10,000?

Bartel was quoted as saying: “Let’s say APR gets 10,000 bison out there. What happens if the fences break? If the range is overgrazed? If the money dries up and the whole scheme fails? What happens with 10,000 buffalo? If APR falls apart, who will be responsible? The state of Montana? The counties? The feds?”

Even the unlikely event that APR folds and there were no bison left, the effects of removing existing infrastructure would affect the area for many years to come. In the slight chance that the area be allowed to return to traditional uses, replacing fences to reestablish grazing allotments would be incredibly cost prohibitive and involve the required lengthy BLM analysis process, further crippling the local ranching economy.

Bison ‘No Easier on Riparian Areas Than Cattle’

Historically, ranchers have followed rest and rotation grazing practices rather than the year-round grazing on BLM allotments that APR has requested. Range management specialist Terry Holst worked directly on some of the areas that are now part of APR. He was quoted in Range magazine as saying: “…buffalo were always where the good water was. They’re no easier on riparian areas than cattle.” Proper management and carefully timed moving of livestock prevent overuse and damage to sensitive areas. Since the APR bison are legally labeled domestic, but will be managed as wildlife, there will be no such consideration for areas in need of more attention and protection.

The damaging impact that these unmanaged bison can have on sensitive areas of wildlife habitat cannot be underestimated. Free-roaming bison has been tried elsewhere, only to result in severe overgrazing and the rebuilding of fences to allow for rotational grazing.

Range Magazine stated: “For all their romance and symbolism, bison in the flesh are actually pretty boring animals, until they aren’t boring. Nor are they magic miracle ungulates, which automatically leave plenty of graze for other species and riparian areas untouched. ‘That’s why we have range science and rotational grazing,’ (Montana Representative) Dan Bartel (Lewistown-R), points out. ‘All animals have their favorite places, cows, elk, deer, antelope. Bison are no different.’”

Bison Can Harm Livestock & Ranch Breeding Programs

In addition to potentially causing large-scale damage to the environment, bison can be a threat to the overall viability of ranches for several reasons.

Interbreeding with Cattle

Bison can, and do, interbreed with cattle. When done intentionally with a certain ratio of bison to cattle blood, the cross results in a fully fertile and marketable “beefalo.” However, a situation with APR bison running wild, breeding neighbors’ cattle would be certain disaster for ranchers’ breeding programs and therefore overall ranch viability.

Spread of Disease

Another concern is Brucellosis, a bacterial infectious disease that can affect wildlife, livestock, and humans. It causes stillbirths in cattle, making the disease devastating to ranchers as their annual calf crop is drastically reduced. Bison are just one type of wildlife that can carry and transmit brucellosis to other species, both wild and domestic. Brucellosis has been an issue in and around Yellowstone, and a great deal of resources have been spent to control livestock’s exposure to potentially infected wildlife. APR has imported their bison from certified brucellosis-free herds; however, the animals can still become infected from other species and therefore spread the disease.

For this reason, Montana code states: “the legislature finds that significant potential exists for the spread of contagious disease to persons or livestock in Montana and for damage to persons and property by wild buffalo or bison.” Further, code stipulates that a management plan must be developed before bison may be released or transplanted onto private or public land.

Avoiding a Full Environmental Impact Statement—Why?

When any major change on or affecting public lands is requested, a full environmental impact statement (EIS) is normally required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This is to examine potential effects of a proposed action. Seemingly aware that their proposals could easily result in ecological and economic disaster, APR actively sought to avoid an EIS. Somehow, instead, they managed to get by with a less thorough and detailed Environmental Assessment (EA). In the public scoping process of the EA, the BLM received nearly 2,500 comments that were sorted, categorized, and distilled down to 24 concerns. These concerns need to be properly addressed before an official change in the type of livestock allowed can be made. The Environmental Assessment is currently in progress.

Bison Management Plan Reveals True Motives

It is in APR’s bison management plan that their true motives and exceedingly convenient, if not outright intentional, ramifications become abundantly clear. The first three objectives (there are eight total) listed in the plan are:

OBJECTIVE ONE: Establish a self-sustaining, naturally regulated, and ecologically effective population of at least 10,000 bison that is free of cattle-gene introgression, semi-free ranging, and subject to all the forces of natural selection.

OBJECTIVE TWO: Restore all native species and ecological processes and their natural interactions with bison.

What do these objectives mean – Apex Predators

APR coyly states on their website that “if large carnivores naturally recolonize the region,” they would cooperate with relevant agencies in establishing management plans. In the previously mentioned RANGE Magazine article, Terry Holst expressed his fear that “natural regulation” of a free-roaming and expanding bison herd inevitably means importing large carnivores, such as wolves and bears, to do the “regulating” of the population. He stated that such a move would “crash game herds, just like wolves crashed deer and elk in Western Montana.” These smaller species of game are much easier for wolf packs to hunt than bison, and therefore are more vulnerable.

Indeed, regarding bison population management, Yellowstone’s website states: “Due to high rates of survival and reproduction, the bison population is currently increasing by 10 to 17% per year. Predation by wolves and bears has little effect on bison numbers.”

This goes to demonstrate that APR’s bison population would remain largely unaffected by apex predators, but populations of elk, antelope, big horn sheep, and deer–and the livestock of ranchers that remain in the area–would undoubtedly be drastically affected.

Even while APR and its donors are enamored with the past and wild carnivores, they conveniently ignore the role that humans played as apex predators in the grassland ecosystems of yesteryear. Out of necessity, native tribes practiced herd management, moving with migratory animals and utilizing them in every aspect of day to day life. The natives also hunted and killed wild predators.

The damage that large carnivores do to livestock, and a ranch’s bottom line, is extreme. Gray wolves were first introduced to Yellowstone Park and central Idaho mountains starting in 1995, and since then have spread across the northwest. Wolves kill thousands of domestic livestock animals nationwide. USDA/APHIS data shows that in the year 2015 alone, 10,000 cattle deaths were wolf kills confirmed by state wildlife agencies. Thousands more livestock deaths are not officially confirmed as wolf kills, because many times, despite the lack of obvious external wounds, animals die from internal injuries or extreme stress from wolf attacks.

What do these objectives mean – Grassland Fires?

The presence of apex predators is not the only threat to the communities surrounding APR. Another concerning issue is what they are calling “ecological processes”. APR intends to restore the role of “natural grassland fires,” but it is unclear how or to what extent. If a fire is left uncontrolled on reserve land, it could very easily spread to neighboring lands. This ignores the fact that native tribes often utilized controlled burns to both manage the prairie and to control bison movements. In the days of Lewis and Clark, fires started by man were managed.

OBJECTIVE THREE: Establish a population that serves as a source of animals for bison restoration throughout the Great Plains.

What does this objective mean – Spread of Wild Bison onto Private Ranches?

APR plainly states on their website that they aim to “restore habitat contiguity…(on) both lands within APR and to non-APR lands that are important as buffer zones around the reserve and as ecological corridors for wildlife movement between APR and other areas important for wildlife.”

It is certainly interesting that APR talks of wildlife movement “between APR and other areas,” since they put on such a show of confidence in their “fortified” perimeter fence and there are already bison containment issues.

Is There A Need for American Prairie Reserve?

It is not as if the United States is lacking in protected lands. The National Park Service oversees over 85 million acres, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service manages nearly 837 million acres. The APR website boasts that “the Reserve is free and open to all walks of life,” but those millions of BLM lands in question are already “free and open to all walks of life”—there are just no bison on that particular land. However, there are no fewer than four other places in the region with well-established bison herds, including Yellowstone, where people can go to view bison. With many other similar options for tourists and recreationalists, it’s difficult to see what the draw for tourists to visit APR really is.

Glamour Camping and Reinvention of the Conservation Wheel

While the wide-open spaces of the proposed reserve are “free and open” to the public, the reserve also offers glamour camping in climate-controlled yurts, with a gourmet chef on hand to cook every meal. In addition, luxury cabins are being built overlooking on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River–definitely not something Lewis and Clark would have seen as they canoed by. Having the largest reserve and the biggest, most genetically pure bison herd to view from luxurious quarters may seem on the surface to be just a rich man’s hobby reinvention of the conservation wheel. But make no mistake—APR is more than meets the eye, and there is truly a great deal at stake.

American Prairie Reserve is a Threat to Rural Communities – “Re-wilding” Equals Depopulating

The APR and its goals fall directly in line with the world-wide trend toward “re-wilding.” Other current examples of rewilding campaigns are the Wilderness Corridor Act of 2019 and the proposed wildlife corridor in Ventura County, California. Read more about them here and here.

What many people don’t realize is that “re-wilding” equals “depopulating.” After all, it’s much easier to find “willing sellers” when ranches and surrounding communities can’t survive. The presence of bison themselves—especially 10,000 of them– will be an immense challenge to ranchers neighboring APR for both animal health and husbandry reasons. The arrival of wolves and bears to serve as bison population “regulators” is an obvious and daunting threat to livestock and producers.

APR currently makes a great show of community involvement and cooperation, but the future looks uncertain at best for the next generation of ranchers. Ranches can’t survive if the APR achieves their goals and the area overflows with bison and predators. If someone new did want to come to the area and make a go of ranching, or if established ranchers in the area wish to expand their operations, no one can compete with the kind of money behind APR.

As the number of productive ranches diminishes around APR, the small towns with their schools and businesses will also wither away. The tourism dollars APR might generate are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the revenue created through ranching in the area. Simply put, without ranching, there is not enough commerce in the region to keep small towns going. And really, that seems to be the point. The wolves and bears haven’t officially shown up yet, but the biggest predator of all has already arrived, and it’s called American Prairie Reserve.

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