The American Prairie Reserve: Private Ownership and Conservation Writ Very, Very Large


This NPR story has some of the same themes as other topics we’ve been discussing about private lands conservation. What I like about this story is that it puts a different twist on many of the topics we discuss with regard to US government lands.

A privately funded, nonprofit organization is creating a 3.2 million-acre wildlife sanctuary — American Prairie Reserve — in northeastern Montana, an area long known as cattle country.

But the reserve is facing fierce opposition from many locals because to build it, the organization is slowly purchasing ranches from willing sellers, phasing out the cows and replacing them with wild bison. Those private properties are then stitched together with vast tracts of neighboring public lands to create one giant, rewilded prairie. The organization has purchased close to 30 properties so far, but it needs at least 50 more….

But the project’s efforts have garnered a lot of positive attention from those living outside northeastern Montana because, once it’s complete, it will be the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Lower 48 states — about 5,000 square miles, nearly the size of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.


(1) What I missed in this article was an understanding of the concerns of the ranchers.  It’s odd that the article focused on the Bible when more pragmatic answers are likely out there. Here are a few of my guesses for rancher resistance.

  1. reintroduction of critters that eat animals they care for and depend on for their livelihood. (personal economics losses)
  2. losing social capital from their already small community (friends, fellow volunteers, neighbors to borrow or help with things).
  3. losing economic capital from their already small community (taxes, donations, etc.)

I’m quite curious as to what kind of convos are going on in these communities about those concerns.  Conceivably the new owners have a plan for being good neighbors, paying for eaten livestock and so on.  What makes a good wildland neighbor? If it’s important for rich people to be good neighbors, how about Uncle Sam?

(2)  Another interesting aside in the story was bringing up where the owners got the money.

Do college profs get to determine the “appropriate goodness” of other people? And why interview a professor from Stanford about a story in Montana?

Some see hypocrisy in this kind of money, including Rob Reich, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University.

“The structure of global capitalism, which they had a role upholding, is partly responsible for the degradation of the environment,” Reich says.

If we go back to federal lands, Uncle Sam got it by dispossessing Native Americans.  To circle back to the New Testament, seems like stone-casting (John 8:7) has become a national sport.  I don’t think that that’s a good thing.

I also thought it was interesting that Garrity questioned the idea that producers of resources carry more responsibility than users:

But Gerrity says the reserve can’t afford to be that picky because almost all of his donors, big and small, are driving the climate crisis.

“The person who puts the gas in their car, or uses the coal in their house to heat, or the person who gets on a nonessential jet trip to take a vacation or go to a wedding or something like that, is the person actually creating the business and encouraging the oil companies to keep on doing what they’re doing,” Gerrity says.

(3) The owners buy only from willing sellers, so is this just another western “making a living” transition, along with ski areas, population growth (in some places), gas wells, wind and solar farms,  and so on?

29 thoughts on “The American Prairie Reserve: Private Ownership and Conservation Writ Very, Very Large”

  1. One of my neighbors has a big sign in his front yard here in western Montana hundreds of miles away, “Save the American Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve”. I think that sums up the fears right there. It’s more than just a way of life. It is the entire mythos of the rancher as the archetypical rugged individualistic see reliant westerner.

    • Lance, I don’t see the people as archetypes of anything. The people I know are just rural people trying to make a living the way their parents and grandparents did in a place and business that is hard physically, economically and even to the heart (seeing a calf you birthed killed by coyotes vs. say, having your briefing paper severely edited). Not getting a regular paycheck but having your ability to live depend on the weather, and so on.

      Sometimes I talk about “things” and “ideas about things”. In this case, I think it’s about “people” and “ideas about groups of people.”

      • I don’t think I was clear. I was talking about myth and stories. We all as individuals and as groups, whether tribes or nations have stories/myths we tell about ourselves; usually to make us the hero. So in my above reference, I think it important that the sign says save the cowboy, not save the rancher. The cowboy is a heroic mythological figure in the American story. Ranchers, on the other hand are people.

        • Cow boy a person who works with cows that are livestock on a ranch or farm. What more does one have to do to explain what a cowboy is? Draw a picture?

          • Stupid answer but very literal !! If you have ever worked on a real ranch out where you have to depend on a horse to work cattle on a cattle drive on a sage prairie and eat -sleep on a prairie you would only have a tiny experience of what the life of a cowboy is. My great grandfather started pushing cows from Texas to Cheyenne Wyo when he got off the train at age 15 in Cheyenne from Ohio. Indians were still on the plains… There is a certain Romance and heroic element to what makes a real cowboy. You are probably thinking about what we call ” Drug Store Cowboys”

  2. Read a recent article that said that a large number of these “large ranch” lands are owned by the uber rich who bought them as a plaything with the hope of offsetting some of their recreational hobby costs by ranching and related revenues. But, they did it without any financial concerns even if they didn’t recover any costs.

    It appears that a large number of these large ranches are now on the market because of estate planning issues. These include the age of the owner negating any pleasure that they used to receive from the property. In addition, the heirs most often don’t have the same interests as their parents and would prefer cold hard cash to satisfy their own desires.

    All of this depresses market prices and makes for excellent timing for buyers whether they are other ranchers, developers, conservation reserve coops or anyone else with money to invest and an eye to recognize opportunity.

    Robert Reich leaves much to be desired as an economist. Definitely a socialist and anti-capitalist. Know someone who happened to be living in the same NJ school district that he loaded up with debt and then moved on. Unfortunately, the heavy debt greatly depressed the resale market values for the remainders. (As told to me by a friend since Jr. High whose husband taught at Princeton along with Reich.)

    Someone is stretching to tie any of this to John 8:7 IMHO

    • Gil, I don’t know how Reich defines capitalism, but history/archaeology show that people worked with/disrupted the environment getting things for survival at long as we have been around working with fire and tools.

  3. Sharon


    The question is how to enhance the earth’s carrying capacity or constrain the use of its limited resources.

    We don’t need to “just do someththing” without properly validated science.

    The science is definitely not settled as is illustrated in the following:
    And the link leaves out additional questions that remain unresolved as discussed in many previous posts over the years.

  4. Sharon —

    You mentioned that you are curious about the conversations going on in the Montana communities in the region around the American Prairie Reserve (APR) operation. Range magazine offers a recent primer:

    While APR’s boosters contend that the nonprofit only purchases land from willing sellers, the record is a bit different on the point. Most are former family operations that went on the market for a variety of the usual reasons. APR is able to offer more than many of the other potential purchasers in the region can.

    The American Prairie Reserve began nonprofit life as the American Prairie Foundation (APF). APF was created in 2001 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as WWF’s “land trust partner” in Montana.

    Range magazine did another article in 2012 on this earlier phase of the APR project and its place in a larger conservation framework:

    There’s also a piece from the North Central Montana Stockgrowers Association That provides additional context:

    Taken together, these articles will go some distance to inform you about what’s being said locally and the regional context into which APR is working to insert its project. While some here may take exception to these articles’ sources, they should certainly serve to stimulate thought and discussion.

    There are a lot of pieces on this chess board, and APR is just one of the pieces.

    • I find it funny that Republican welfare ranchers, who graze invasive species on public lands at impossibly-subsidized rates, are complaining about billionaire outsiders buying up private land, when that’s literally Saint Ronnie’s laissez-faire capitalism at work. Trump just gave them a huge tax break to go buy more prairie land. Guess Montana ranchers should start pulling the lever for the Democratic Socialists of America so those billionaires won’t be so powerful!

      • Travis, not all ranchers use public lands. I can drive from Texas to North Dakota and see plenty of ranches and cattle that are not on public lands. In fact, some of the widest wide open spaces around me are ranches.

        I am not sure that the ones we’re talking about in NE MT have public lands leases.

        • I would be very surprised if any northeast Montana livestock ranchers of any size don’t have public lands leases, either state of federal public lands. Also, the “welfare rancher” charge doesn’t just apply to livestock grazing on public lands. There’s also the entire issue of general federal “farm subsidies,” which includes various subsidies that may, or may not, also apply to ranchers. According to the Environmental Working Group, $8.5 billion in these types of farm subsidies were doled out in just Montana since 1995.

          • I don’t understand why there seems to be “rancher hate” but not “soybean farmer hate” or “milo farmer hate” or (gasp)”wine-grape grower hate.”

            But who is going to be stone-casting here? I have recreation subsidized by the federal government every time I visit a National Forest. I guess that makes us all “welfare recreationists.”

          • Matthew, it’s pretty easy for you to use the term” Welfare Ranchers” why don’t you jump off the govt subsidized tram and sidewalk take off your loafers, put some boots on and try to make a living just as they are. Look around Matt your only seeing one side of a issue.

            • Thanks Rob. But I don’t own a pair of loafers. I do; however, own a few pairs of boots and I seriously doubt you could keep up with me in the backcountry. By the way, my wife and I contribute far more to the government in the form of taxes than what we receive back. Have a nice day.

  5. Perhaps if the Forest Service national grasslands were dedicated to conserving their ecosystems by managing them for bison, there would be less pressure to buy up private lands for that purpose.

  6. The ones I know are fairly small and checkerboard, which would mean a great deal of fencing per bison. I think buying large contiguous ranches would work better. When we worked on the Cimarron Comanche plan (until the 2005 rule lost in court) there were definitely groups that wanted to do that.

    • Buying large contiguous ranches in areas of existing federal checkerboard ownership would be even better, which is what the American Prairie Reserve is doing. They must have seen this as a better opportunity than for any NFS national grasslands, but maybe they’ll do more down the road.

  7. Back in the forest world, here’s another example of channeling private dollars into conservation of private lands (from the Conservation Fund:

    “The Working Forest Fund identifies and buys the most important at-risk private forests with vital support from the philanthropic community and state and federal agencies. Once it owns a forest, the Working Forest Fund develops a sustainable harvest plan along with wildlife and habitat restoration plans. These protect the forest while also maintaining local forestry jobs.

    Simultaneously, the Working Forest Fund begins the process of securing a permanent conservation easement that will forever block fragmentation or commercial development of the forest. These easements provide for public access and recreation along with continued timber harvesting according to sustainable forestry best practices. Once the easement is secured, the Working Forest Fund resells the permanently protected forest to a private or public buyer, recovering all its invested capital for redeployment in another forest acquisition.”

    So you play by the rules of private property and capitalism and end up with new owners who must manage subject to privately enforced conservation restrictions. It’s not quite like the heyday of buying up farm foreclosures to create national forests, but the desired conservation outcomes should be less subject to political interference.

    • Either “political interference” or “endless planning and litigation” or some cycle of both… while people might disagree about the “sustainable forest practices” perhaps there is no hook for litigation on private land other than ESA.

      • True, that, and limited under ESA to federal permits or actions causing incidental take.
        Coincidentally, the IRS is taking a position that could invalidate donated working forest conservation easements (which is different from the Working Forest Fund above, where a non-profit creates the easement) where the landowner wants a tax deduction for the donation. They are arguing this in court about a conservation easement in Tennessee: “Even where commercial forestry is conducted responsibly, it is inherently inconsistent with significant conservation interests.” Totally different circumstances than national forest management, but still an interesting argument for the government to make.

          • Will the word tradition eventually be eliminated from our vocabulary just to satisfy people that don’t know what the meaning of the word is? The hard working people known as cowboys or ranchers know more about land management than any so-called professor who teaches socialism. Yes there will be the old tired not retired cowboy that has sweated and mastered the storms of an honest days work that will sell his land to the APR just to have something to servive on till he dies. Then there will be the inheritance young people that have no interest in ranching or farming that will sell out to a foreign firm or APR. These are the things that will happen and I’m not condemning them. It’s only human nature. Tradition will keep the American way of life going but to let people who know nothing of Tradition to buy up lands just for tax purposes is nothing but disrespectful. Destroying American heritage isn’t much different than the protests that just happened in mpls mn. This APR is the same example of what’s happening in this country today. I classify these protesters and APR as the people who only care about their selfishness. As its very plain to see they would rather not pay taxes to do something for mankind but to destroy the lives of people that know what hard work and sweat is really about. Save the cowboy is something that they will never know the meaning of. Shame on them!

            • Dwayne, welcome to The Smokey Wire! Part of how we manage to keep coming here is that we try to be respectful and stay on topic. I know it’s hard in this environment in which people (Russkies? Our own politicians in the quest for political power? The media for clicks based on outrage? Who knows?) are trying to divide us.

              Anyway, your comments lead into something that is off-topic after “destroying”..

              And to be fair to the people who buy up land, I think that they think that they are doing a good thing by protecting it. If we think that everyone has good intentions and just disagree about whom or what to feel compassion for.. I think our dialogue would be very different.

              Along those lines, in the next few weeks I’ll be posting a review of the book Wilderness Billionaires that touches on some of these topics, so stay tuned!

  8. I read the recent RANGE article, and while some concerns may appear reasonable, the reporting was one-sided. The only folks that were profiled were naysayers. How about folks who are being employed for bison management, or outfitters and guides? The claim that APR doesn’t have enough bison to attract visitors is ridiculous. Visitors are coming to see the ecosystem, not just the bison (as if they are the only thing interesting to see). Developing a sustainable economic model is going to take time. Ranching is no more a sustainable business than APR might be. Indeed, by reducing supply, you might think the value of the commodity to the remaining ranchers would increase. Apparently not. We are producing too much cattle, so that we are over-reliant on exports, which are subject to price shocks (as we are witnessing now). A more diverse economy is better for the long term prospects of these communities. I think APR is providing that.

  9. My concern is focused on the cattle of the rancher and the buffalo and wolfs that will become neighbours. It would be expensive and nearly impossible to build a fence between the two. Buffalo are large and capable of knocking down structures that keep them from their food source. Montana has an average rainfall of about 10-15 inches a year. History shows that dry years oftentimes follow each other and if the winter snow is also reduced the grass and the water in the streams and rivers are also reduced. Private owners often reduce the size of their herds in those conditions to match what the land can support. Who will manage the buffalo and wolves? How will the rancher’s cattle be protected? Will the fence be checked for holes? I’m not sure what kind of fence would contain wolves.


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