This week National Public Radio dropped a fantastic story about the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded effort to create the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Lower 48. Backed by hedge fund billionaires and Silicon Valley venture capitalists, the nonprofit has been buying up private ranches and accompanying grazing leases adjacent to existing public reserves. The investors are well on their way to stitching together a vast, rewilded grassland encompassing about 3.2 million acres in northeastern Montana. That’s slightly larger than the state of Connecticut, and just about the bare minimum for a fully functioning mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, complete with migration corridors and native wildlife.
The reaction from local folks has been mixed, at best. Most are opposed to what they see as an invasion of moneyed outsiders hell-bent on destroying their way of life. “On the ground, the reserve finds support among nearby tribes and with those who see economic potential in tourism,” writes Nate Hegyi. “But the pushback is louder. It comes from a close-knit community of ranching families who view the reserve as an existential threat, removing them from the land they’ve worked for generations.”
Hegyi’s 6,500-word story is a deep and nuanced dive into the complex issues surrounding conservation in the American west: Ranching as a proud and threatened way of life, the economic value of tourism, even religion—touching on the Christian ideal of land stewardship and the role of the buffalo in Native religion. But mostly, it turns on the influence of outside money.
American Prairie Reserve and Conservation Philanthropy
Since its founding in 2001, the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve has purchased 29 private properties in northeast Montana, encompassing 104,000 acres of private land and 315,000 acres of public grazing leases. It sounds like a lot, but on a map of the area the private holdings appear like splotches of blue paint on a canvas of green public lands, including the 377,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Reserve.
On that map there’s also a smattering of ranches that haven’t sold out. The reserve’s land-shopping list includes about half a million acres in some 50 parcels, each of which will sell for millions—if they sell at all. American Prairie’s founder, Montana-born Silicon Valley veteran Sean Gerrity, makes no apologies for the coalition of well-heeled benefactors he’s lined up behind the cause. They include big-city investment bankers, a Swiss-born billionaire, and candy heirs John and Adrienne Mars, who have given more than $20 million to the cause. As Gerrity told Hegyi, “It’s gonna cost a lot of money. Where else do you go?”
Conservation and philanthropy have long walked hand-in-hand. In the late 1920s, oil baron John D. Rockefeller Jr. quietly bought up 33,000 acres of Wyoming ranchland and transferred it to the feds. That land eventually became part of Grand Teton National Park, but not without controversy. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the parcel a national monument in 1943, a Wyoming senator called the action a “foul, sneaking Pearl Harbor blow” and a newspaper columnist compared it to Hitler’s annexation of Austria. This, at the height of World War II.
Wealthy philanthropists donated parts of Yosemite, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and dozens of other national parks and monuments. In 2016, Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby gave 87,000 acres of Maine woodlands to the feds. President Barack Obama declared it the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument the next day.
The Prairie Reserve is different, in that there are no plans to transfer the land to public ownership. In fact, the dynamic is rather the opposite. The national monument and wildlife reserve already protect more than 1.5 million acres. Most of the surrounding land is also publicly owned and leased to adjacent landowners for cattle grazing. That means whoever owns the ranches controls the public land too.
Eventually, they can move out the cattle and bring in bison, beginning the process of restoring an ecosystem that once stretched from the Mississippi to the Rockies and has been celebrated as America’s Serengeti. The American Prairie Reserve has been snapping up private land for nearly 20 years, knitting together a sweeping landscape it describes as “a patchwork of ownership, but seamless as a prairie ecosystem.”
It’s the oldest play on Wall Street: Gaining control of an entity without shelling out the full price of ownership. A sort of leveraged buyout, if you will. Not vulture capitalism exactly, but capitalism for the vultures—and the bison, elk, groundhogs, and sage grouse, too.
The high-flying capitalists have simply figured out what many of us who live and play in the American west already knew—that the best place to find wild-ness and solitude isn’t the national parks at all, but the vast and un-hyped public lands administered by the BLM, Forest Service, National Wildlife Service, and other state and federal agencies.
Attracting Crowds to a Wildlife Sanctuary
Visitors to the American Prairie Reserve aren’t likely to encounter crowds. The two campgrounds on reserve-owned land—one that opened in 2011 and another still under construction—have just 35 tent and RV sites and four rustic cabins between them. There’s also a pair of huts (actually conjoined yurts) the first of 10 planned structures designed to draw visitors like a “trail of breadcrumbs across a less-traveled landscape,” the reserve’s Mike Quist Kautz told the Great Falls Tribune.
A handful of luxury yurts await those willing to spend $2,400 apiece for a two-night stay, complete with a chef from California’s Chez Panisse and guided wildlife viewing excursions in Mercedes Sprinter vans. The self-styled American safari camp was designed to woo donors, and until recently it was reserved exclusively for them.
The rest of us are probably best off visiting the reserve the same way we’d stake out a camp on BLM land anywhere—with a full tank of gas, plenty of water, and a rig that won’t easily get stuck. There’s paddling on the Missouri River, biking, hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing. You can horse-pack or hunt, too, if that’s your thing. Such free-form wandering is central to the reserve’s attraction, says American Prairie’s chief wildlife ecologist, Danny Kinka.
“The idea is that 22-year-old Danny can come out here in his two-door Toyota Tercel and get lost in the middle of the prairie reserve and discover wildness for himself with, you know, only a few pennies to pinch together; that’s deeply important to me,” he told Hegyi. “That’s why I work here.”
The reserve is five hours from Bozeman, eight hours from Missoula. It snakes about 100 miles from west to east on both banks of the Missouri River. The roads are mostly dirt, mud when it rains. The prairie has a subtle beauty. There are no grandiose landscapes to ogle, no Going-to-the-Sun Road like there is across the state in Glacier, with traffic bumper-to-bumper from the valley to the continental divide. The reserve’s travel brochure reminds drivers to move to the right when they crest a ridge, because on roads so empty it’s easy to forget about oncoming traffic.
The idea of the American Prairie Reserve as a kind of privately funded Yellowstone doesn’t hold up if you think in terms of bucket-list landscapes and park amenities. But as an ecological backstop, the analogy is a good one.
Bringing Back the Bison
Temperate grasslands are the least-protected biome on Earth, and Montana’s northern plain is one of only four regions left in the world where landscape-scale conservation of such grasslands is still possible, according to American Prairie. For starters, there’s all that public land, including large tracts of intact prairie. That makes habitat restoration far less daunting than it is in other parts of the Great Plains, where much of the native sod has been plowed under. Finally, northeast Montana is blessed with some of the greatest plant and animal diversity anywhere in the Great Plains. Most animal species that Lewis and Clark encountered when they traveled up the Missouri more than 200 years ago are still there, albeit in reduced numbers.
Bringing them back—repopulating the American Serengeti with sustainable numbers of buffalo and dozens of other species—is largely a matter of scale. “Conservation biologists have determined that a mixed-grass prairie would need to be approximately 5,000 square miles (roughly 3.2 million acres) in size in order to be a fully functioning ecosystem that supports the full complement of native prairie biodiversity and provides room to endure episodic localized natural phenomena like fire, disease and severe winter storms,” according to the Prairie Reserve.
American Prairie is getting closer to achieving that critical mass. The nonprofit now owns or leases 419,000 acres, which when combined with the national monument and wildlife reserve brings the project’s total acreage to nearly 2 million. The reserve has built its herd of wild bison to 800, toward a goal of 10,000. For now they still share the range with cattle. It’s a big project, facing spirited opposition. But Gerrity has been at it nearly 20 years, and has no plans to back off. “The plan for the reserve is built 200 to 300 years out,” he said. “Time is on our side.”