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American Prairie Reserve
American Prairie Reserve.JPG
Overlooking the Missouri River from the American Prairie Reserve
Established 2005
Operator American Prairie Foundation

The American Prairie Reserve (APR) is a massive nature reserve in northeastern Montana being developed as a private project of the American Prairie Foundation. This independent non-profit organization is creating a wildlife conservation area that will ultimately be over 3 million contiguous acres (12,000 km2) through a combination of both private and public lands to establish a fully functioning mixed grass prairie ecosystem, complete with migration corridors and native wildlife.


Prairies are the dominant ecosystem of the Interior Plains of central North America. The main vegetation type is herbaceous plants like grasses, sedges, and other prairie plants, rather than woody vegetation like trees. Before the 1800s, bison were a keystone species for the native shortgrass prairie habitat as their grazing pressure altered the food web and landscapes in ways that improve biodiversity. The grasslands once included more than 1,500 species of plants, 350 birds, 220 butterflies, and 90 mammals. The bison coexisted with elk, deer, pronghorn, swift fox, black-footed ferrets, bears, wolves, and cougars. The bison scoring the trees with their horns kept them from taking over the open grasslands. As bison grazed, they dispersed seeds by excreting them. The heterogeneous or varied landscape created by the roaming bison helps birds and millions still arrive each year. Long-billed curlews are a migratory shorebirds that rely on three types of habitats on the prairie – areas with short grass, long grass and mud – for completing their breeding cycle each year. Mountain plovers use bison wallows as nesting sites. Bald eagles, ravens, and black-billed magpies consume the bison carcasses when they die.

The expanses of grass sustained migrations of an estimated 30 to 60 million American bison with the indigenous peoples of the Plains, who occupied the land and hunted bison and pronghorn. During the early expansion of the United States onto the frontier, the area was commonly known as the Great American Desert and was considered dry, inhospitable and hostile. From the 1830s, the population of the indigenous people and the bison were quickly decimated. Prairies were considered areas to be settled and farmed with millions of acres of prairie land being put to the plow during the era of westward expansion. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many national parks, national forests, and other federal lands were designated and protected. Prairies were generally overlooked as mountainous areas that were relatively unproductive for western settlement, or forest reserves that could provide the nation a steady supply of timber were recognized.

Eastern Montana's population has been falling since the 1930s. Nearly two-thirds of counties in the Great Plains declined in population between 1950 and 2007. Land is for sale as aging ranchers find it difficult for family members take over their spreads. Ranching is hard in this area with severe winter weather and hot summers. Rains can be heavy and hard or instead there might be an extended dry spell. Rural agriculture communities in Montana are challenged by trade policies, regulations and industry dynamics. Margins with cattle raising can be slim. Large spreads can be worth millions. Rural recreation counties with hiking, hunting and fishing opportunities are growing faster than counties without those amenities. In general, this region of the country is becoming less dependent on natural resource extraction and more focused on conservation, natural amenities, and recreation.

The upper Missouri River and its banks within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (Russell NWR) was designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1976. The Nature Conservancy determined in 1999 that the northern Great Plains were the most viable for restoring the region's habitats and conserving the existing diversity of plants and animals. The relatively pristine condition of the land and the diversity of wildlife species north of Russell NWR was identified as a top priority for grassland conservation. The adjacent 377,000-acre (589 sq mi; 1,526 km2) Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was created in 2001 with public lands that were mostly already managed by the federal government. The area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is series of badlands characterized by rock outcroppings, steep bluffs, and grassy plains; a topography referred to as "The Breaks" as the land appears to "break away" to the river. Shortly after The Nature Conservancy issued the report, the World Wildlife Fund decided to initiate a conservation effort in the Montana Glaciated Plains and determined that an independent entity was needed that would be capable of focusing all of its time and resources on the preservation effort.


In 2005, 16 bison from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota were released. A series of plains bison deliveries were also made from Elk Island National Park including 94 head in 2010 and 72 in 2012. As of 2020, the herds of 800 bison move freely throughout the Sun Prairie unit and portions of the Dry Fork and White Rock units of the reserve. In Montana, bison are legally classified as domestic livestock while APR manages them as a wild herd. Purchased from willing sellers, ranches come with associated grazing leases on vast expanses of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As of January 2020, 30 ranches have been acquired and the organization wants to buy about 20 more. As of October 2020 the Reserve manages 420,000 acres (170,000 ha) in northeastern Montana with about one-fourth owned and the remainder leased. While purchasing ranches has also retired 63,777 acres (25,810 ha) of leased-public land within the Russell NWR that was originally for cattle ranching and was returned to wildlife management purposes. One of the dominant plants is the invasive crested wheatgrass that was introduced by the US government in the 1930s for use as forage.

Cooperative programs

Native tribal nations

The organization prioritizes distributing bison to Native tribal nations with active and well-managed bison restoration programs. The organization's goal is to share with those who have a similar vision of moving bison conservation forward. These partnerships are with Native tribes who are working to restore a deeper cultural, spiritual and economic connection to bison.


Papers published include studies of beavers, cougars, upland game birds like the Greater sage-grouse, bison and pronghorn migration ecology, and research on the endangered swift fox. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is studying collective movement behavior of the bison on the 26,000-acre (11,000 ha) Sun Prairie unit. Using a lightweight, inexpensive, solar-powered GPS tracking unit attached to the ear, they are studying how groups make decisions and move together as a unit.

Wildlife-friendly ranch management

The plan for the reserve is clear that it will be amidst an area where the predominant economic activity will remain the raising of cattle and seeks to be a good neighbor.Ranchers have grazing leases for approximately 13,000 head of cattle on APR properties in Phillips, Valley, Fergus, Blaine and Petroleum counties. Ranchers in the region were also invited to adhere to certain wildlife-friendly standards and gain assistance in marketing meat at a premium through Wild Sky Beef, a for-profit company started by APR. The wildlife-friendly ranch management is contingent on continuing to leave the native prairie untilled. Nine other standards individually increase the premium: installing wildlife-friendly fences, rejuvenating native plant communities through prescribed burns, keeping cattle out of riparian areas, and agreeing not to harm predators. Enrolled landowners using motion-sensing camera traps set up on their properties can earn per-species payments for images captured of large carnivores such as cougar or black bear. The ranching community in Phillips County has had a more positive response to programs by the Nature Conservancy that include progressive efforts such as bird counts, managing their land to promote wildlife, and using rotational grazing techniques often referred to as “regenerative agriculture,” which emphasizes grassland health as much as beef sales.


The reception among the ranchers in the sparsely populated area has been mixed. Bison in Montana are a controversial topic. There has been a strong reaction from those who intend to continue grazing cattle. The designation of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in 2001 was viewed by some ranchers as a federal land grab that would ultimately displace them although it allowed for the continuation of existing grazing permits. The idea of free-ranging bison in the area raises concerns about disease with anything from anthrax and mad cow disease to the dreaded bovine brucellosis, competition for forage by elk and deer, public safety and damage to private property such as fencing. Ranching families are also losing their neighbors as cattle ranches are purchased for the reserve. The bison are sourced from certified brucellosis-free herds and are vaccinated and disease-tested like other livestock in the state. The reserve installs proper fencing to keep bison contained within the reserve, including a solar-powered electric wire strung across all exterior fences. Evidence of the continuing concerns can be seen in signs posted with the message "Save The Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve" and organized opposition such as the United Property Owners of Montana and the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance of South Phillips County. A longtime rancher and property owner, who is within the bounds of the planned reserve, says this is an assault on her business, culture and those living and working here. The area is good for growing production livestock which has been the highest purpose of the land for over 100 years. There is a sentiment that the reserve is threatening and lacks respect for a culture that for more than 150 years has preserved the unplowed prairie that now makes this the ideal location where the vision to return this landscape to what it was like before white settlers arrived can be fulfilled.

Bison are often the target of bills before the state Legislature. In 2019, the Montana House of Representatives passed a resolution asking the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to deny a bison grazing proposal from the American Prairie Reserve. APR was requesting a modification of the terms of the grazing permits it had acquired to allow for year-round grazing and a change of use from cattle to bison grazing. Bison under Montana law are classified as private livestock overseen by the Department of Livestock.


The reserve is remote with gateway towns providing lodging and dining options; Lewistown is south and Malta is north of the reserve.

Certain areas are open by permit for hunting of upland birds, migratory birds, deer, elk and antelope. The reserve also offers access points to public lands through all of its deeded lands. Drawings are held for the opportunity to harvest bison. The bison are not considered wildlife to be hunted but as livestock as they roam within the fenced 27,000 acres (11,000 ha) Sun Prairie unit.


The American Prairie Foundation (doing business as American Prairie Reserve) believes that, "By purchasing a relatively small number of acres from willing sellers in northeastern Montana, we hope to link together the millions of acres of public land already set aside for wildlife and visitor access in the region, thereby creating a seamless landscape reminiscent of that seen by Lewis and Clark." The American Prairie Foundation developed a 7-point scale to evaluate land based on ten ecological conditions including plant diversity, grazing, fire, hydrology and predators to measure the impact of reserve management activities.

Approximately ten percent of the funding comes from private foundations supporting land conservation and the remaining ninety percent comes from individuals living in 46 states and eight countries. Approximately 20% of its donors reside in the state of Montana. As of December 2013, they had raised $67.3 million in cash and pledges since 2002.

Major donors include Forrest Mars, Jr. and John Mars of the Mars family, Hansjoerg Wyss, and Susan Packard Orr. Current board members, Erivan and Helga Haub, Gib and Susan Myers and George and Susan Matelich, are also major donors.

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