Where the Private Buffalo Roam and the Private Antelope Play

Nongovernmental conservation is saving the planet


Nevit Dilmen / Wikipedia

"I asscended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightfull view of the country," wrote famed explorer Meriwether Lewis on April 22, 1805, as the Corps of Discovery journeyed westward through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. "The whole of which except the vally formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture."

The objective of the American Prairie Reserve (APR) is to recreate an untamed landscape in Montana so that 21st century Americans can similarly be exhilarated by the sight of thousands of wild bison, elk, deer, and antelope roaming free over vast areas of unfenced, native prairie. The APR is working to create the largest wildlife park of any kind in the lower 48 states—and it's doing it all with private money.

In the late 1990s, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sought examples of various biomes that remained largely intact and could become a focus for conservation. Identifying the unplowed prairie grasslands of Eastern Montana as one such area, the WWF initiated the Prairie Reserve project in 2001. The organization's priorities later shifted and the APR became a standalone private organization in 2004. It reintroduced bison to the region in 2005 and the herd now numbers around 600 animals.

The ultimate goal is to create a 3.5 million–acre reserve, an area about the size of Connecticut and one and a half times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Once completed, the reserve will consist of contiguous parcels of purchased private land (500,000 acres), permanently leased Bureau of Land Management grazing land (1.5 million acres), and the adjacent Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge that already stretches along the Missouri River. So far, the APR has acquired 65,000 acres of private land and leases 270,000 acres from the government.

As the reserve grows in size over the next couple of decades, so too will its wildlife herds. As noted earlier, the region is currently home to 600 bison and perhaps 3,500 elk. Managing Director Pete Geddes says that the APR plans to nurture those herds to as many as 10,000 bison and 15,000 elk. In addition, the APR aims to be a "catalyst to bring many wildlife populations, such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, big horn sheep, elk, cougars, and grassland birds, back to significantly larger populations than currently exist in the region." In February 1805, Lewis' partner William Clark recorded that he set out early and "Saw great numbers of Grouse feeding on the young Willows, on the Sand bars." The APR lands now provide significant habitat for the Greater Sage Grouse, which is listed by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency as a "species of concern."

Already some reserve lands are located along the migration route of tens of thousands of pronghorn antelope, which travel from their wintering grounds in central Montana to their fawning grounds in southern Canada each year. Assuming the reserve can get buy-in from the local residents and the approval of Montana wildlife officials, it may eventually be able to reintroduce predators such as gray wolves and grizzly bears. "We scarcely see a gang of buffaloe without observing a parsel of those faithfull shepherds on their skirts in readiness to take care of the mamed & wounded," Lewis wrote of the wolves in May 1805.

Geddes notes that growing the reserve is "as much a sociological problem as it is a biological one." Specifically, the reserve should ideally have "soft boundaries," rather than the armed hunters and fences that currently confine wildlife to national parks. Animals should largely be free to range across reserve boundaries without being harassed or killed by adjacent landowners. In other words, local ranchers and other residents have to be persuaded to permit wildlife on their property.

How to do this? Incentives. One big one is the APR's new Wild Sky beef program. The project "promotes the production of wildlife-friendly beef by returning a portion of its profits to participating ranchers raising cattle to a set of specific conservation-oriented practices."

What sort of practices? Among other things, ranchers who sign onto the Wild Sky program must install wildlife friendly fences, where the bottom wire is at least 18 inches off the ground so that pronghorn can squeeze under it. They may not till the soil and must maintain natural hydrology (no irrigation and a high percentage of stream banks that are excluded from cattle grazing). In addition, evaluators track the number of deer, elk, pronghorn, and prairie dogs on the land.

Let's look more closely at prairie dogs. When Lewis and Clark set out, some three to five billion black-tailed prairie dogs lived in colonies stretching over tens of millions of acres from Texas to Canada. On September 7, 1804, the Corps of Discovery succeeded in extracting a single member of this new-to-them species from its den. How? "Caught one a live by poreing a great quantity of Water in his hole," wrote Lewis.

The rodents are important shapers of prairie ecosystems. They trim grasses near their colonies in order to see predators coming, but their mowing also enhances the production of fresh forage for larger herbivores. They are also at the bottom of the food chain, serving as prey for coyotes, bobcats, foxes, badgers, black-footed ferrets, golden eagles, and prairie falcons. While they are not endangered, this species occupies only about 2 percent of its former range, in part because ranchers have long considered them vermin to be exterminated.

The Wild Sky project also scores ranches on their carnivore compatibility, and ranchers get credit for accommodating their management practices to the needs of species of concern; APR priority species are pronghorn, sage grouse, bobcat, prairie dog, ferret, deer, cougar, and elk.

Depending on how high each ranch scores, the Wild Sky program pays a premium of 3 to 8 cents per pound of beef over the standard market price. Let's say a grass-fed steer after butchering dresses out at 700 pounds. The current price of grass-fed beef is around $300 per hundredweight, so the rancher would get $2,100 for the steer. A Wild Sky premium of 8 cents would put an additional $56 per steer in the rancher's pocket. Wild Sky is selling about $70,000 worth of beef per week, and it is so far available at 65 outlets, including restaurants, distributors, and stores nationwide.

The APR has raised $75 million so far, mostly from individual donors. The total to complete the reserve will be $500 million, of which $125 million will be set aside as an endowment to finance its management. Five hundred million dollars is no small sum, but Geddes points out that universities and other charities raise that amount all the time.

Geddes paints a vivid picture of the sort of wildlife and landscape experience visitors can expect within a couple of decades. After a several-days-long float trip down through the Missouri Breaks, visitors could debark to hike between rustic cabins dotted through the reserve. (Take your bear spray.) Or they could take a Land Rover tour to a luxurious Serengeti-style safari camp—bison steak dinners under the stars included—to experience circle-of-life moments such as watching a pack of wolves take down a bison calf. (The reserve already hosts the premium Kestrel Camp.)

Ambitious private conservation aims to achieve what political landscape management has failed to do: conjure back into existence for the 21st century the "immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture" that Lewis and Clark witnessed 200 years ago.