An ambitious plan to return grasslands to the wild splendor of the past faces impassioned resistance from the present.
National Geographic Magazine, February 2020
We bounce in the truck along a furrowed road, through a mud slick and up to a bluff that looks out to the curve of the Earth.
The plains glow emerald in this wet spring, rolling toward distant hills. Near an oxbow in the creek beneath us, a herd of buffalo graze. They are primeval creatures, bearded and huge, their winter fur peeling off in strips like old wallpaper.
In the days before horses and guns, Plains Indians chased buffalo off this steep embankment to their deaths. It’s late in May, late in the afternoon, and the light has taken on a rich, nostalgic cast. Damien Austin, a former zookeeper with rectangular glasses and a rectangular fringe of hair, extends his hand across the humped expanse of prairie. “Just imagine grizzly bears running around out there,” he says.
Austin oversees the herd of buffalo that graze below us, and the properties that contain them. He works for the American Prairie Reserve, a conservation organization seeking to create a massive protected area in central Montana and repopulate it with the wildlife of bygone days. Imagine: the plains as they looked in 1805, when explorer Meriwether Lewis climbed to the top of a similar bluff just east of here. “The whole face of the country was covered with herds of Buffaloes, Elk & Antelopes,” Lewis wrote in his journal.
And then, in outrageously short order, the animals were gone. Historians estimate there were tens of millions of bison—the term is interchangeable with buffalo—when Lewis and fellow explorer William Clark traversed the northern plains; by the mid-1880s, fewer than a thousand remained. Other prairie creatures—grizzlies, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, wolves, swift foxes, black-footed ferrets—saw similar declines as settlement spread west. The migrants slaughtered wildlife for cash and sport, built fences and roads that fractured the animals’ habitat, trailed livestock that competed for forage and spread disease, and broke the prairie with their plows in order to farm it. Once broken, it takes decades, even centuries, to fix.
But here on the plains’ western edge, where the climate is unforgiving and the boom-and-bust farming economy is equally remorseless, swaths of prairie remain largely unbroken. In 2000 a group of conservationists identified this region as critical for preserving grassland biodiversity. In 2001 one member of that group, a spare, soft-spoken biologist named Curt Freese, teamed up with a Montana native named Sean Gerrity to form the American Prairie Reserve, or APR. Gerrity, a kinetic former Silicon Valley consultant with an unruly mop of white hair, says the idea was to “move fast and be nimble,” in the manner of a high-tech start-up. The group would use private money to patch together 3.2 million acres, or 5,000 square miles, of private and public grassland along the Missouri River, acquiring ranches from “willing sellers” at market prices. It would remove the cattle that grazed the land, stock it with 10,000 or more bison, tear out interior fences, restore native vegetation, and create the conditions in which the region’s lost wildlife could return and thrive. Grassland biodiversity requires abundance, Freese says. “You’ve got to think big.” (see a video on APR by the National Geographic Society.)
In the 19 years since, the group has raised $160 million in private donations, much of it from high-tech and business entrepreneurs. It has acquired 30 properties, totaling 104,000 acres, and more than 300,000 acres of grazing leases on adjacent federal and state land. The properties are all strategically located near two federally protected areas: the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the 377,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Think of the refuge and monument as the trunk of a tree, Gerrity says. In buying nearby properties, “we’re trying to expand the girth of the tree,” adding branches to the trunk and enhancing the movement of wildlife between river systems and grasslands. Bison are an integral part of that restoration. APR now runs more than 800 on three of its properties.
Gerrity estimates the total cost to buy 500,000 acres of private land and endow it forever will be upwards of $500 million—half the price of a professional football stadium, which has a rough shelf life of 20 to 30 years. From 2009 to 2017 alone, more than a million acres of native prairie were converted to cropland in the seven counties surrounding APR.
“Species are blinking out,” he says. “Habitat is going away. There’s a really short period, maybe 20 to 30 years, to do some really big stuff, and then the opportunity is going to be gone. We’re swinging for the fences here.”
It’s an audacious vision. It is also a very contentious one.
When it rains in central Montana, the dirt roads turn into what the locals call “gumbo,” a slick clay-mud that often is impassable. It is, mercifully, drying out as Leah LaTray steers her pickup down a track snaked with deep ruts, clods of mud winging out from the wheels. LaTray’s great-grandfather, Mose LaTreille, was a cowboy of French and Native American heritage who came with the cattle to northern Montana in the 1870s. LaTray, 47, wears a long black braid over her shoulder, silver hoop earrings, vest and kerchief, and square-toed cowboy boots. Her parents lost their ranch when she was a girl; she left Montana in the 1990s to study microbiology in Seattle and then to train horses in Texas. “It took me 20 years to come back,” she says, “but I did,” buying 250 acres that remained in her family’s hands. LaTray makes her living running cattle on her partner’s property now. “If you sell your land, you sell your future,” she says.
We’re winding along a ridge on one of APR’s newest properties, the 46,000-acre Two Crow Ranch, which abuts the Charles M. Russell refuge on the south side of the Missouri River. I ride shotgun; Two Crow’s former manager Danny Maag sits in the back. There are no bison here yet, only cattle. They look up dimly as we pass; they seem small and tame when compared with APR’s bison across the river. Two Crow extends as far as the eye can see along the wrinkled, coulee-slashed hills of the Missouri Breaks that border the river. They look as if you took the plains and crumpled them, like a car in a pileup. It’s rough country.
“I can show you where a horse closed my eye,” Maag says. “I can show you where I almost got shot.” We pass a tumbledown homestead tucked into a ridge. Local lore holds that the owner used to hire ex-convicts to help at the ranch, but that some went back to jail because it was nicer.
All this to say, there have been generations of people who made a life on this land in the years since Lewis and Clark first traveled up the river. On fences all along the roads near APR, locals have strung up banners printed with the image of a father and son clad in cowboy garb, silhouetted against a sunset: “Save the Cowboy, Stop American Prairie Reserve.” LaTray has placed many of these signs herself. “I think the prairie reserve’s endgame is to depopulate this area,” she says. APR’s efforts to restore ecological resilience, she fears, threaten the cultural resilience of the people who live here. “There’s a lot at risk,” she says.
In 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act, which gave settlers title to 160 acres of federal land if they were able to “prove up” on the property by building a house and planting crops. But 160 acres weren’t enough in the short-grass prairies, so Congress doubled it, then doubled it again to 640 acres for livestock. Today many ranchers feel they need to own thousands of acres and lease thousands more on nearby public land to make ends meet, and keeping the “home place” in the family can require King Lear–like decisions about succession planning. Ranches are big, or they’re gone. In that context, land set aside for conservation is land unavailable for ranching families to expand. “It worries me more than water, wind, drought, prices,” says rancher Craig French, whose family is involved with the anti-APR movement in Phillips County, across the Missouri River from LaTray.
French is standing in a corral on a cloudy morning in a pasture just north of APR, where his parents, Bill and Corky French, have convened four generations of family and neighbors to brand their calves. Their forebears settled nearby more than a century ago; the couple run more than a thousand head of cattle on 60,000 public and private acres.
Brandings here are chaotic, cooperative affairs, with families traveling from ranch to ranch to help each other out. They mill around coolers of sodas and Tupperwares of baked goods laid out in the bed of a pickup until the riders trail the cattle into the corral. Then they get to work: sorting, roping and dragging, wrestling and branding, vaccinating and castrating, calves squealing wild-eyed in rebuke (“Some are kind of theatrical,” Craig French says). We associate this part of the world with rugged individualism, but brandings are remarkably communitarian rituals, willing exchanges of time and labor.
“We don’t always agree with all our neighbors,” says Craig’s wife, Conni, “but we always help each other out.”
That neighborliness, however, does not extend to APR, which bought its first property in 2004 just south of here. Twice since then, the French family has pitched in to buy ranches that APR was interested in purchasing. “A neighbor wants to help you out, not buy you out,” Bill French says.
This resistance is based on real concerns about the future. Phillips County has lost more than half its population since its peak of nearly 10,000 people in 1920. Other nearby counties—APR spans six now—have seen similar declines. More and more property is being bought up by wealthy, out-of-state owners. The average age of the principal operator of a farm or ranch these days is 58. It’s a demographic spiral that rural Americans fear: fewer kids in the schools, fewer tractors, balers, swathers, post pounders, cars, pickups, semis, trailers, tires bought at local dealers. APR buys those things too, of course: “We’ve brought more households in to work for APR than have left as a result of selling to us,” says APR senior land acquisition manager Betty Holder. “We believe we are helping to diversify the economy.”
But the antipathy is also cultural. The organization, with roughly 50 employees, is headquartered in Bozeman, a trendy college town of fly fishermen and mountaineers, artisanal coffee and avocado toast, four hours’ drive southwest of APR’s nearest property. Most of APR’s large donors hail from even farther away—Silicon Valley, New York City, Germany. Some fly by helicopter to stay at APR’s luxury yurts equipped with leather furniture, chandeliers, and linen tablecloths. “Big fancy East Coast people coming in and telling us how to live,” LaTray says.
Scientists speak of a landscape’s “ecological carrying capacity”: habitat, forage, prey, and other factors that determine how much wildlife the land can support. But for ambitious conservation projects, “social carrying capacity”—the community’s tolerance for change—is also a limiting factor.
“The constraint on wildlife populations is not what the habitat will support, but what humans will support,” says Daniel Kinka, an APR restoration ecologist.
The group has always sought to engage its neighbors, keeping properties open to the public for hunting, camping, hiking, fishing. But in the face of implacable opposition, it also has made some adjustments. “The end goal is still a 5,000-square-mile wildlife reserve,” says Alison Fox, who took over as APR’s CEO in 2018. “But how we’re going to get there, we’re really open to new and innovative ideas.”
One of those ideas is APR’s Wild Sky program, which pays ranchers to adopt habitat- and predator-friendly practices, such as installing wildlife-friendly fences and not removing prairie dog colonies, in order to create “soft boundaries” that allow wildlife to move safely back to their historic habitat. Since 2014, the Wild Sky program has paid more than $230,000 in incentives to a handful of local ranchers, including Lance Johnson, whose cattle also graze on one of APR’s properties. A few neighbors have hassled him for working with the conservation group, but he appreciates the help. “I think they have an idea and a real lofty goal for the future,” he says.
APR has also built new campgrounds and a hut system on its properties, donated beef and bison meat to local Native American communities and food banks, sponsored rodeo athletes, donated buffalo-hunting opportunities for local fund-raisers, and organized a “Living With Wildlife” conference (sponsored by the National Geographic Society) for ranching neighbors concerned about the arrival of more predators on the prairies. The group also has purchased a long-empty department store in nearby Lewistown as a new home for a planned National Discovery Center. There are, indeed, people in the town who welcome APR’s economic impact and support the reserve.
“We need to have a voice for the salamander, the plover, the buffalo,” says Lewistown City Commissioner Clint Loomis, an artist and retired teacher.
Last winter Montana’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a joint resolution asking the federal Bureau of Land Management to deny APR’s petition to modify 18 BLM grazing allotments, covering 250,000 public acres, to replace cattle with bison. In September, responding to local opposition, the reserve scaled back the request to 48,000 acres.
Bison restoration is, without doubt, among the most controversial aspects of APR’s vision. Bison are also central to it: Scientists regard them as “ecosystem engineers” that can fix much of what has gone wrong, ecologically speaking, on the plains. Bison graze selectively over long distances, moving quickly and creating a mosaic of heterogeneous habitat that supports hundreds of native plant, insect, bird, and small mammal species. They wallow—rolling to shed biting insects and loose fur—creating moist depressions in the grass where certain species thrive. Their waste spreads nutrients across the landscape.
After bison are introduced to an APR property, the staff works with volunteers to pull up fences left over from cattle ranching, which uses fencing to separate and rotate stock from pasture to pasture. Bison don’t require the same grazing rotations. If barbed wire tamed the West, removing those fences restores landscape connectivity, making it a little bit wilder again.
APR’s first batch of bison arrived in 2005 from a herd in South Dakota. In 2011 a DNA test found that those bison carried genes from interbreeding with cattle many years before, and APR imported a new, genetically purer batch from Canada. This was important to the reserve’s managers because bison handle extreme cold better than cattle, and because APR wanted to minimize management interventions and retain the creatures’ wildness. “Our goal,” Austin says, “is the largest, most genetically diverse bison herd in North America.”
But it is this very wildness that alarms cattle ranchers. Bison are large and unpredictable, and can be difficult to contain. In 2011 APR’s entire herd—240 animals, then—escaped when a snowdrift froze across a fence; they were herded back with a helicopter. Lone bulls get out more frequently, and the reserve has a three-person team to ride and maintain the fence perimeter, Austin says. For all their “wildness,” APR’s bison are, in fact, intensively managed.
Another concern ranchers have with bison is a disease called brucellosis, which causes miscarriages and infertility in livestock, and can be transmitted to humans. APR’s bison are tested and vaccinated against the disease, which has been found in wild bison and elk farther west in Yellowstone National Park but not on APR land. Nonetheless, ranchers fear that bison from APR could transmit the disease to their herds.
These fears aren’t necessarily based in data. But the fact is, we don’t have much data. Part of APR’s mission is to study the effect that bison restoration can have on an ecosystem. How far must buffalo roam to fulfill their ecological role? APR’s pastures range in size from 6,000 to 27,000 acres. Is that enough? Is 3.2 million acres enough? How many bison do you need? How many are too many? How long will it take?
To help answer these questions, APR has partnered with the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society, both of which fund research at the reserve. To track bison movements and grazing patterns, scientists have attached tracking collars to the reserve’s bison. To measure ecological benefit, they are surveying vegetation, mammals, and birds before and after bison introduction. “We don’t know if it’s incremental or if there’s some tipping point,” says Smithsonian conservation ecologist Andy Boyce. “It may be 30 to 40 years,” he says, before we understand the long-term effect of large-scale bison restoration on the land.
In the meantime, the return of the bison to the Montana prairie has brought more poignant, if less quantifiable, impacts. George Horse Capture, Jr., stands in thick-soled shoes on a rise overlooking a sweeping stretch of prairie. He’s a prominent member of the Aaniiih tribe from the nearby Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, tall and slender, with ruddy cheeks and intense eyes, his long black hair threaded with gray. He runs two fingers along a waist-high, truck-chassis-size rock in the grass. The stone is etched with ancient carvings and inscriptions. “There’s things that just baffle us,” he says, pointing at the symbols—lines and circles, human figures, horse and buffalo tracks. “This represents stories that we don’t even know anymore.”
The silence on the prairie is striking. Stop to listen and you’ll realize how much there is to hear: the stringy call of a chorus frog, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, grass rattling against itself in the breeze. Bison edge along a slough nearby as Horse Capture speaks; cloudbursts circle. The Plains tribes depended on bison for food, clothing, tools, teepee skins. In 1888, soon after the last buffalo were driven from the plains, his tribe was removed to its current reservation. The Aaniiih once numbered more than 10,000 people. By 1904, only around 500 members remained. “We shared such a destiny, us and the buffalo together,” Horse Capture says—headlong in the path of Manifest Destiny. The first time Horse Capture watched a herd of bison released onto APR’s property, he found himself reduced to tears. Since the last days of conquest, the Plains Indians had prayed for the buffalo to come back. “And when that gate opened, I witnessed a prayer,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a long time for prayers to come true.”
The Missouri is running fast and muddy, brimful with snowmelt and sediment, driftwood and old leaves. I’m camped with Wayne Fairchild, a Missoula-based guide and prodigious student of the river’s history. Two hundred and fourteen years ago—to the day—Lewis and Clark passed this spot, fighting water and gravity as they hauled their loads upstream from eddy to eddy. Fairchild knows every landmark of their journey—those that remain, anyway. Many have been swept away in the river’s frequent changes of course.
We’ve built a fire using driftwood that washed up earlier this spring after an ice jam broke up-stream on the Judith River. Lewis wanted to call it Big Horn River, after the sheep on its shores, but Clark named it instead after his future wife. So many old names have washed away in the Missouri’s flood of change: The “river that scolds all others” became the Milk; Sacagawea changed to Crooked Creek, then changed back again. APR bought land at Antelope Creek and now calls it Mars Vista, after the Mars confectionery family, a major donor. Through naming, through owning, we impose our visions on the landscape.
Even five feet above its normal banks, the Missouri is soundless. We watch it slip past as the last light dies upriver. “Imagine going down this river and seeing buffalo on the shore,” Fairchild says.
APR offers one vision of the future, its neighbors another. Both are born of a deep love of the landscape. Both also lean on a fleeting past. Which moment do we wish to recapture? The past of 1805: bison and grizzlies on the shore? Or 1905: cattle and fences and 160-acre homesteads? It is a flickering target, our history—a racing river, driftwood and foam, past and present rushing eagerly into the future.
“I don’t know if we can return to times that are gone,” rancher Lance Johnson had told me earlier that afternoon on his deck overlooking the Judith Mountains. Most of his neighbors are out-of-town landowners now; he signed a grazing lease with APR after billionaires from Texas bought a nearby ranch and kicked Johnson’s cattle off their land. So he knows that, even if APR disappears, he’s going to have to try new things to survive.
“I understand,” he says, “that this world is changing.”