Creating a Private Yellowstone: Environmental Entrepreneurship in Action

A model for how to voluntarily rewild North America.



In my article, "Where the Private Buffalo Roam and the Private Antelope Play," I reported earlier this year on the efforts of the American Prairie Reserve to to create a private-public wildlife domain the size of Connecticut in eastern Montana. The idea is to basically recreate the wild landscape that Lewis and Clark would have seen including herds of bison and antelope. Eventually the reserve would also be home to free-roaming grizzly bears, mountain lions, and wolves. Of course, neighbors have to agree to tolerate living with willdlife.

In today's New York Times, Pete Geddes, the managing director of the reserve, explains in an op-ed, "The Yellowstone of the Future," how enviropreneurs are offering incentives to private ranchers to manage their land in wildlife friendly ways:

Increasing wildlife populations is a sociological problem. Ranchers are asked to bear some of the costs without seeing benefits and hence view wildlife as a threat to their economic security. To change this dynamic, we've started a for-profit beef company selling a brand called Wild Sky, a business that fits well with the state's ranching culture — and culture is an important variable often overlooked by conservationists.


Here's how it works. Wild Sky ranchers agree to modify their operations in accordance with our conservation goals by, for example, not tilling native prairie or killing prairie dogs. In return Wild Sky pays them a premium when they sell their cattle. Much like a frequent-flier program, ranchers choosing to do more receive higher payments. For example, we install camera traps on ranchers' land and offer payment for photos of species we wish to restore, like mountain lions and bears.

This business is only a year old and yet has been profitable since August, selling about 50,000 pounds of beef per month across the country. And Wild Sky is not our only for-profit venture. For several years the High West Distillery, headquartered in Park City, Utah, has produced American Prairie Bourbon, giving 10 percent of the profits on this label to our nonprofit. The hybrid conservation model allows this sort of experimentation to augment traditional fund-raising. …

Around the world, "environmental entrepreneurs," as we call ourselves, are creating alternatives to the traditional models of nature protection — filling a void left by governments either unwilling or unable to act. Our role is a vital, but often underappreciated, piece of the conservation puzzle, and it can be used as a model to protect the world's natural legacy.

With the advent of peak farmland, more and more land will be available for returning to nature. The American Prairie Reserve is offering a possible model for how to get folks to agree to rewilding much of North America.