Grasslands get little respect. So easily are they converted to agriculture that grasslands are the least protected biome on Earth. The opportunities for landscape-scale (large enough for full ecosystem function) grassland conservation are few.
Conservation biologists tell us that about 5,000 square miles (~3.2 million acres) of grassland, properly placed and with adequate migration corridors (and no fences), is what is minimally necessary to retain the full complement of native wildlife across the landscape and over time. One such reserve is now being established on the Great Plains of Montana along the Missouri River and adjacent to or near the Charles M. Russell (CMR) National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
The American Prairie Reserve is big, bold, beautiful, and outside the box. It is being assembled by the eponymous conservation organization in a generally inside-the-box way. The organization is buying ranches from willing sellers and continuing to pay the property taxes. It is continuing to lease state and federal lands for grazing and paying the grazing fees. It is part of the community and contributes economically to it in terms of jobs and other economic activity. It is cutting-edge conservation, and it seems to be working.
The American Prairie Reserve Vision
American Prairie Reserve (APR) is on its way to creating what the organization claims will be the “largest nature reserve in the continental United States” (Map 1; download additional APR maps here). APR is doing it by acquiring—from willing sellers—private ranch lands in eastern Montana. Not only do these ranch lands often have critical habitat, often because they include significant sources of water, but these ranches are also—in the vernacular of domestic livestock grazing on federal public lands—“base properties.”
Attached to these base properties are one or more grazing permits or leases on federal or state public lands, often encompassing acreages that are multiple times larger than the base ranch.
If you peruse the western ranch real-estate market online, you’ll see for sale “ranches” that may be hundreds of thousands of acres—or even sometimes more than a million. In the fine print, you’ll see something like “X deeded acres,” where X may be from the low three digits to the low-to-mid five digits. “Deeded” is vernacular for private ranch land. The rest of the “ranch” acreage is public land. The federal and state governments routinely transfers grazing permits and leases to a new owner of a base property, thereby giving a premium to the private ranch land value.
Since 2004, American Prairie Reserve has secured a habitat base of 399,379 acres. Of these, 91,588 acres are deeded private lands owned by APR and 307,791 acres are federal and state public lands leased by APR. APR is aiming for ~3.5 million acres, ~0.5 million of which will be private lands that “serve to glue together” the public acreage it will continue to lease.
On top of this acreage, 63,777 acres of cattle grazing leases in the adjacent CMR NWR were acquired by APR and retired by the Fish and Wildlife Service. This means the CMR, at least on those acres, can actually be a refuge for wildlife.
Bringing Bison Back and Restoring the Prairie
The prairie reserve is home to many species of native wildlife, but the largest creature, if not the most iconic, is the American bison or buffalo. The American bison is most closely related to the European bison, and is distantly related to the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo.
I favor the term bisonover buffalo, save for when I’m singing “Home on the Range.” While this popular folk song is associated with cowboys, it does not contain a single reference to domestic livestock. Instead, it extols the natural richness of the western range, mentioning a number of species now in decline. Perhaps conservationists will reclaim this folk song, sing it in camp, and teach it to their children.
Tens of millions of bison once roamed the Great Plains of North America, but most were wiped out by overhunting and habitat destruction. Although the bison is now the national mammal of the United States, the number of American bison fell to a low of 541 in the late 1800s. In 2016 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found the population of American bison to be "stable," with a population of between 11,248 and 13,123 mature animals. A total of ~31,000 bison were counted in sixty-eight conservation herds (managed by public or private conservation entities) in North America. In addition, 9,523 bison were held in captivity but nonetheless had conservation value.
While APR is all over bison conservation, the prairie reserve is home to many other species of native wildlife (listed here) as well. Another keystone species is the prairie dog. Many kinds of birds live in the reserve, including the greater sage-grouse.
APR’s restoration program is comprehensive. While not a great deal of land in the area has been plowed (one of the reasons it was chosen), APR is restoring native grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers to plowed acreage. Bringing back fire and taking out fences are other critical restoration activities.
Balancing APR’s efforts to protect the landscape by taking out cattle ranching where possible, the organization has developed a side gig known as Wild Sky. The venture compensates local ranchers that surround the reserve to ranch in a more wildlife-friendly manner and also to produce grass-fed beef that is never “finished” (fattened) in a feedlot, with no added hormones, antibiotics, or the like. Four New York strip steaks can be had by mail order for ~$44/pound—not cheap, but perhaps closer to the true cost of beef.
The annual audit criteria for ranchers to qualify appear substantial, better than for the run-of-the-mill “conservation” program offered by the US Department of Agriculture. However, as beneficial as wildlife-friendly ranching may be compared to the traditional form, the most wildlife-friendly beef remains no beef at all. In advancing their products, advocates of Wild Sky beef have waxed hyperbolic, as in the claim that this beef “eliminate[s] greenhouse gases from the atmosphere more effectively than forested land.” Only in a cowboy’s dreams. From a climate standpoint, wildlife-friendly beef—like all beef—is a major contributor of greenhouse gases.
Bison: Native Wildlife or Livestock?
When their population was at a low ebb, some bison were bred with domestic cattle in an attempt to breed “cattalo,” today called “beefalo.” Today bison carry some small percentage of domestic cattle genes, but they are basically still quite wild. In Montana, bison are both wildlife in fact and livestock in law. At the moment this is both a curse and a potential blessing.
It’s a curse because the Montana Department of Livestock (Really, a whole department of government just for livestock? A department of agriculture won’t handle it?) would just as soon kill off every native bison. They’re trying (with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks doing the dirty work), because of fears that the native bison carry a disease that very very rarely fatal to domestic cattle (and can be avoided with proper livestock management). Science and evidence do not convince cattle interests that they have other real problems.
It’s a potential blessing in that the BLM might go along with the legal fiction and allow APR to swap out domestic livestock and swap in native bison and still keep their government livestock grazing permits and leases. BLM is now considering the proposed swap. BLM has the legal authority to do so. Will BLM have the will? Let us pray.
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