Lightning strikes in a field at Montana's American Prairie Reserve. Photograph by Dennis J. Lingohr

In northcentral Montana, along the Missouri River as it flows east from its origins, a nonprofit organization is working hard to conserve a large piece of the plains. By blending the public with the private, philanthropy with entrepreneurship, patience with boldness, the American Prairie Reserve is stitching together a 3.5 million-acre park for people and wildlife. And their ambition is paying off, both for the land and wildlife conservation targets they hope to reach.

“The way we see it, we have a last, best chance to save – to restore – a functioning ecosystem right here and right now,” explains Hilary Parker, the reserve’s communication and outreach coordinator.

“We are in a unique position because of what’s here. We have a large area of previously untilled prairie, so we have the land itself. And we have the rule of law, unlike some places in the world” says Parker, where conservation activities can be threatened by property disputes or poaching. “This means we can plan and implement restoration work with confidence over the long term.”

That confidence appears warranted, as the American Prairie Reserve has moved aggressively to achieve its goals. Since its 2001 founding, the organization has:

  • Acquired 86,586 acres of private lands.
  • Acquired grazing leases on 266,518 of federal and state public lands.
  • Established and expanded a 700-head bison herd.
  • Conducted ecological restoration work.
  • Established a conservation restoration tool, the Freese Scale, to measure the reserve’s practices and inspire other prairie restoration projects.
  • Launched a private-label grassfed beef enterprise, Wild Sky beef, to provide income and incentives for beef producers on bordering ranches to adopt wildlife-friendly grazing practices.
  • Developed basic infrastructure for camping, educational activities and site visits.
  • Raised more than $100 million in cash and pledges, including fundraising for a $125 million endowment that will pay for annual operating costs over the long term.

Parker is quick to point out that the group’s efforts are a work-in-progress. “Our model isn’t really based around a certain philosophy as much as pure pragmatic need.” She explains the organization’s organic management model. “We have overall wildlife goals, but our approach on growing our bison herd is really about a brown curve – that’s the bison – and a green curve – that’s the prairie. How much grass is available? How is restoration proceeding?”

Photograph by Dennis J. Lingohr
Photograph by Dennis J. Lingohr

Parker explains, “the bison are seen as livestock, so we have more control over that population. Other prairie species like elk, pronghorn and mule deer are owned collectively by the people of the State of Montana and managed by state agencies. While we want to see those numbers grow, we must take a much more long-term approach, working to persuade state and federal agencies to turn up the numbers as we make more land available for the wildlife to live on.”

In an audio interview with EconTalk, American Prairie Reserve Managing Director Pete Geddes listed the organization’s conservation goals. Once mature, Geddes predicts, the reserve’s interconnected 3.5 million acres would be home to 10,000 bison. This compares with an historic pre-European population of 50,000-70,000 in roughly the same area. Besides bison, Geddes says that the organization’s goals are to attract an estimated 10,000 elk and tens of thousands of pronghorn.

Conservation projects with the scope and scale of the American Prairie Reserve are, indeed, rare. Richard Manning, the author and wild grasslands advocate, wrote in his 2009 bookRewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape:

…[T]he temperate grasslands, which are the world’s breadbaskets, disproportionately bear the crushing burden of feeding the world’s population.  All other biomes—temperate and tropical rain forests, boreal forests, tundra, deserts, and such—are given some sort of protected status; that is, around 10 percent of their area is saved as parks and preserves in conditions that are close to the original, with wild native flora and fauna.  Temperate grasslands are a glaring exception.  Only 1 percent of them is so protected.  Agriculture gets what it wants.”

Deep-pocketed donors appear to agree with Manning’s assessment that grasslands need more protection. And those donors seem to like American Prairie Reserve’s bold approach to landscape-level conservation.

George Matelich, a managing director of New York-based private equity firm Kelso & Co., summed up his longtime support for the reserve to Bloomberg News:

I would boil it down to a single line,” says Matelich, 56, who owns a vacation retreat in Montana. “How would you like to have had the opportunity to be a co-founder of Yellowstone National Park? This is an opportunity that is personally attractive both because of the scale and the chance to do something for all time — not for the credit but for the satisfaction of doing it.”

In addition the large donors like Matelich, American Prairie Reserve points out it has supporters in all 50 states and from 12 foreign countries. While major gifts are important to reaching the organization’s goals, says Parker, they are just as interested in the $5 or $10 member contribution.

“We are very fortunate that our mission has connected with people of great capacity to give, as this ambitious project needs patrons at all levels. But we’re all really excited to have recently formalized a membership program so that all supporters can say they had a role in preserving this ecosystem. And on the ground, I’ve found the prairie to be a great equalizer — her weather extremes and her deafening quiet have a way of removing the labels of the world until we are all just seekers in the expanse.”

Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve
Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

The size and scope of the reserve, though, have made it a target of some critics. Several ranchers in the area have expressed worries about a perceived rise in the cost of land access, as well the portrayal of existing cattle producers as “damaging” to the local ecology. Critics also note the possibility of disease transferring between bison and cattle, and the possibilities of increased cattle and sheep damage from predators.

Parker said the reserve is mindful of these challenges and has taken steps to address the project’s impact on residents.

“We founded, and are the owner of, our Wild Sky beef brand so local ranchers could also benefit” from APR’s conservation efforts, Parker said. “Ranchers who participate get paid an annual premium for conservation practices, modeled on the same conservation impact score we use on our own lands.”

The conservation organization also subleases grazing allotments on government-owned lands to cattle ranchers that practice wildlife-friendly practices.

The reserve “tries hard to be the best neighbor” it can, according to Parker. The organization pays full real estate and property taxes, hires and pays local staf,f and promotes tourism through visits to the reserve.

Parker is eager to invite visitors. “One of our biggest priorities is public access, public enjoyment.” The reserve welcomes campers, hikers, bikers, fishers. And hunters are not only welcome but are part of the reserve’s wildlife management approach.

“We are planning for a day where we can invite people to have the most Western experience possible, and that’s going on a bison hunt,” Parker said.

“We don’t have any sacred cows around here,” Parker said. “We’re going to keep moving ahead, optimistically and pragmatically. That’s who we are.”

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