Cattle Country Wilderness
Where small-town Montana and the continent’s largest intact prairie ecosystem collide.
Text & Photos—Charles Post
In June of 2001 the idea behind an ambitious and historic conservation project was born. Sean Gerrity left Silicon Valley, where he led a firm that consulted for big corporations including AT&T and Apple, and returned home to Montana to try and do something monumental for the protection of North America’s rapidly disappearing grassland ecosystems.
Funded by a coalition of progressive conservationists, Gerrity launched a massive effort to acquire and steward the largest nature reserve in America’s lower 48 states, enough land to create the American Prairie Reserve (APR): a 1.3-million-hectare wildlife reserve complete with bison and predators like wolves and grizzly bears. It remains a colossal project in both physical size and significance for conservation and local ecosystems. But it isn’t without its detractors.
For some who call eastern Montana’s small towns home, the APR is a mounting threat seemingly poised to push them off their land. Many of those concerned locals are descendants of settlers and pioneers who moved out west in search of a better life, one made possible by the systematic genocide of Indigenous populations who called these lands home for millennia. Following years of bloody conflict, forced eviction from tribal lands and relocation to reservations, and a slew of other overt and subversive efforts, much of the Native American way of life was gradually destroyed. Along the way it became clear that their staple, the bison, which once grazed from Mexico to Canada in millions-strong herds, also had to go so that cattle could fill their void. A ruthless erasure of Native peoples and a relentless slaughter of wildlife unfolded.
Having dispossessed the Native Americans in their way, the U.S. government enacted the 1862 Homestead Act, which offered 65-hectare tracts of land for a small fee to any American who would, in vague terms, “improve” it. Much of the high-quality land was quickly claimed, leaving acreages of marginal farming quality readily available. These were tough places to make a living. In time, many who tried eventually moved on.
Making it as a farmer or rancher in eastern Montana requires more than resilience; it requires a serious dose of will and grit to thrive in such a harsh environment.
Summer is windy and dry. Winter is bitter cold. With climate change, weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable and more challenging for agricultural communities. These dynamics set the stage for a rise in vacant and available land on the open market, which created an opportunity for newcomers.
It’s easy to imagine how the whispers began: how locals might interpret the APR’s upstart conservationists and their plans as an existential threat to their multi-generational heritage. To some, it was a Silicon Valley land grab in the making. If the project’s ambitious goals were met, the newly formed reserve would connect its massive sea of prairie to two adjacent swaths of wild country within the 151,000-hectare Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which spans 400,000 hectares of the Northern Great Plains Steppe ecoregion. As Beth Saboe, senior manager of media and government relations for the APR, explains: “Our main focus is to purchase and permanently hold title to private lands that glue together a vast mosaic of existing public lands so that the region is managed thoughtfully and collaboratively with state and federal agencies for wildlife conservation and public access.”
Collectively, this could become something like the American Serengeti, a relatively intact prairie ecosystem with keystone species like bison and bears, prairie dogs and wolves, coexisting at, or close to, historical high population levels. The journey to that point has proven to be a dynamic one, full of learning, hurdles, and setbacks.
Some locals are worried that their community’s fabric will change as working families are displaced through a shift in land use from agriculture to wilderness. Rather than being farmed or grazed, eventually much of the land will be taken out of agricultural production and returned to wildlife habitat. However, the APR is actively addressing these concerns. Saboe explains the reserve is “committed to being a good neighbour and making a positive impact on local communities in our seven-county region. We recognize that agriculture will remain the dominant industry, but trust that visitors to American Prairie Reserve will stimulate local economic activity when they contract local guides; buy food, fuel, and supplies; and patronize local establishments like lodging and restaurants.”
There remains, however, a lingering fear of the unknown alongside growing wildlife populations and the reintroduction of species like bison, which can carry disease. The idea of increased predator abundance also doesn’t sit well with many who benefit from an ecosystem largely devoid of grizzly bear and wolves, which historically called these lands home. And while the APR doesn’t plan to reintroduce grizzlies or wolves at this point, it’s expected that they will discover the massive refuge on their own. Over the past few decades, their populations have continued to expand from the Rocky Mountains far into the prairies. Clearly, it is a matter of time before they become established on the APR. Signs of this future abound: just recently a grizzly bear was spotted a few kilometres away from the reserve’s boundary.
This encroachment by apex predators threatens some ranchers and farmers. It’s clear, coexistence measures will need to take centre stage as wildlife and folks from outside these small towns integrate, an effort the APR is committed to supporting and facilitating.
When I first set foot on Sun Prairie North, an 8.900-hectare habitat in the heart of the APR in July of 2019, I knew I was experiencing an impressive moment in history. Privately funded conservation had succeeded on a massive scale. By then, the APR had acquired much of the land it set out to and had successfully woven together hundreds of thousands of hectares of wildlife habitat as part of their ambitious vision. Herds of genetically pure bison, some 800 strong, were freely grazing across huge swaths of prairie. Their populations have grown so fast that each year a small number are available for hunters to harvest from APR lands.
On certain parcels, ranching is still under way. Black Angus cattle still graze, and cowboys still move them by ATV and on horseback. In these cases, APR land is made available to ranchers through leases which often span years. Though co-operating with the APR might still incite community backlash for some ranchers, it appears that the divide is shrinking. Synergy between the conservationists and the locals appears to be on the upswing.
In other sections of the APR, great colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs thrive, and the critically endangered black-footed ferret, one of the rarest mammals in North America, is being reintroduced to an ecosystem that had nearly lost them forever. Chief among the goals of the APR is to be a catalyst in the effort to “rewild” and to help existing wildlife populations return to pre–European contact numbers. Species like white-tailed deer, mule deer, bighorn sheep, coyote, cougar, elk, pronghorn, badger, kit fox, and black-tailed prairie dog, as well as many songbirds and pollinators, all thrived here once, and through the APR’s management, their numbers are expected to increase markedly.
As an ecologist myself, with a passion for conservation, it was impossible to miss the chatter amongst birders and naturalists excited for the future of the APR, and their accomplishments thus far.
As a resident of Montana, it was also hard to miss the simmering conflict and the sneering op-eds from those keenly opposed to the mission and methods of the APR. While great progress is being made, some remain skeptical, and perhaps fearful of what the project represents. Whichever way you look at it, it’s clear the APR represents a new and ambitious model of land management and rewilding across a significant portion of the rural American West.
To better understand the ecological implications of this massive stewardship, conservation, and rewilding experiment, National Geographic and The Smithsonian Institute are leading a multitude of studies investigating the transformations that are under way. While this research continues to measure data, it’s already clear that the APR represents one of the world’s great grassland ecological preserves, an important element of the wildest and most intact prairie ecosystem left in North America. On a broader level, the ecological contribution to our planet’s future is unquestionably enormous.
We are currently undergoing our planet’s sixth mass extinction. Species are disappearing 10 to 100 times faster than the natural background rate (i.e., the number of species, over a given time, that would naturally go extinct without human influence). Now more than ever we need to support efforts that aim to preserve biodiversity, rewild landscapes, and restore ecological structures that we have damaged.
Charles Post is a Montana-based ecologist and brand consultant, award-winning filmmaker, and co-founder of The Nature Project, an organization committed to creating opportunities for underserved youth to experience nature. His passion for science stemmed from his studies at U.C. Berkeley, where he was advised by the esteemed ecologist Dr. Mary Power. Since then, he has built a career bridging his ecological background and creative interests. His social media platform, creative work, and consulting opportunities aim to grow the groundswell of ecologically minded companies and people compelled to save our home planet.
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