By Hayley Young

Nearly 20 years ago, a group now known as the American Prairie Reserve entered northcentral Montana. This organization operates under the guise of saving the ecosystem and wildlife restoration. The efforts of the APR tug at the heart strings of those who yearn for an era long past. Their mission and goals have left farmers, ranchers, business owners, and community members across rural Montana pondering what will become of the lands that they have utilized for decades.

Who Is the American Prairie Reserve?

The American Prairie Reserve was founded in 2001 under the initial name The Prairie Foundation, then American Prairie Foundation, and then American Prairie Reserve as we know it today. They are a Montana-based nonprofit. They began purchasing private lands in Phillips County in 2004; however, the proposed area stretches across Chouteau, Petroleum, Fergus, Phillips, and Valley Counties, with the goal of purchasing privately owned grasslands to create the “largest nature reserve in the continental United States.”

The APR is funded almost solely by donations, the majority of which come from out of state. Less than 20 percent of donors reside in Montana. The largest donors include the Mars family of the Mars Candy Company and the family of Roger Enrico, who was once the chairman of DreamWorks Animation. These individuals donate millions of dollars to the APR. Money speaks, and with deep pockets to draw from, the APR offers to buy land for prices that are hard to turn down.

The Mission

The size of the nature reserve that the APR wishes to create is at least 3.2 million acres. When complete, it will reach closer to 3.5 million. To create a tract of land that is as large in size as Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks, they will have to purchase private lands that are spread strategically throughout public lands. They will knit together smaller parcels of private lands with much larger sections of public lands. Of the projected 3.5 million acres, a mere 500,000 will be private lands; 3 million of these acres will be made up of lands from the Charles M. Russell (CMR) Wildlife Refuge and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Essentially, the APR is staking claim to lands that are already protected and open to the public.

This raises two points of concern. First, the APR claims to be creating something that does not already exist, when in reality it does. People already have access to these lands. Hunters and recreationists can access lands as long as guidelines that are set in place by each organization are followed. Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area is flooded with visitors each fall as the elk begin to bugle. It is a beautiful sight that many would not be able to experience if it were not for this area being open to the public.

The second issue is the grazing rights on public lands. Ranchers can apply for grazing permits (CMR) or allotments (BLM) so that they too can use these lands for grazing. Currently, ranchers are not able to graze on public lands year-round. But in some areas the APR has been granted the rights for their buffalo to graze year-round on the public lands that are attached to private lands that they have purchased. Which then begs the question: how will there be access to these public lands once they have acquired the private lands surrounding them?

Restoring the Lands & Wildlife

Photographs are taken of wildlife that already live in large numbers here, but the APR will have you believe that their project is creating this abundance. The one exception is buffalo. Buffalo are considered to be keystone animals for their project, and the APR strongly believes that they will improve the quality of the land. The planned bison herd size is roughly 10,000 animals. Elk herds could consist of 25,000 animals. Some reports suggest the APR will also try to introduce wolves and bears to the area.

The APR makes claims to restore the lands in these areas but do not have a problem disturbing the lands to create campgrounds and place cabins and yurts across their nature reserve. Creating a campground disrupts the lands more than they have been disrupted in hundreds of years.

The lands that are being “saved” have been almost unchanged for centuries. When you look at an aerial view of the proposed APR desired ownership area, it is wholly undeveloped. The area adjacent to Fort Peck is a harsh breaks environment offering modest grazing potential for agricultural use.

In regard to Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Area, “The area has remained largely unchanged in over 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled through it on their epic journey. Within the monument you can float the river, fish, hike, hunt, drive for pleasure, find a little solitude, enjoy a sense of exploration in remote setting or simply marvel at the variety of natural beauty.”

Tourism to Replace Agriculture

The American Prairie Reserve will affect more than just ranchers. It will ultimately impact agriculture —Montana’s leading industry. It will have a trickle-down effect to the communities that surround the reserve. APR reports that tourism will offset money lost as agriculture declines; however, it is very unlikely that tourism will make up what is lost. The area already has the CMR Wildlife Refuge which has not been overrun by tourism. It offers almost all the same elements being touted by the APR. Buffalo preserves are scattered throughout the West. South Dakota has several. Montana has the National Bison Range located at Moise. What will make this rough area—with nearly impassable roads in inclement weather—more attractive to tourists?

Don’t Be Buffaloed

Do not be distracted by publicity moves. Do not forget what the end goal entails for these lands. Sure, the APR may lease back property to ranchers once they have purchased it, but in some cases, if the land goes unused, ranchers will lose the ability to graze it after a certain amount of time—a “use it or lose it” guideline set in place by the BLM. It benefits the APR to continue to have these lands grazed so they will eventually be able to use the lands for buffalo. They will purchase 4-H animals at the county fair to develop allies within these small counties as an attempt to create relationships that many do not believe will last once they have been able to grab up all the lands they are interested in.

Save the Cowboy

Montana communities are woven together by farmers and ranchers. Most family ranches have been passed down from generation to generation and it is more than just a way of life; it is engrained in their souls.

With their livelihoods threatened, a few ranchers from Fergus County started the grassroots organization Save the Cowboy–Stop the American Prairie Reserve. They set out to educate donors of the APR as well as people in this area and bring awareness to the threats that are being posed to their neighbors, fellow cattlemen, and communities. In order to spread awareness, the group created signs that are now seen all over rural Montana, down county roads, and in local business windows. You might even see “Save the Cowboy” displayed across a bumper sticker. Since the project began in 2019, approximately 2,000 signs and bumper stickers have been sent out across the country. The group is happy with their efforts and has no plans of slowing down.

If you would like to help the cause, educate yourself on the APR’s impact and write letters to your local paper. Post on social media. Purchase your own sign or bumper sticker.

For more information, visit upom.org or call Deanna Robbins at (406) 464-2281, Laura Boyce at (406) 462-5691, or Coke Knox at (406) 462-5668. You can also email info@upom.org.