American Prairie Reserve
The American Prairie Reserve (APR) is an independent non-profit organization that has privately undertaken a project in northeastern Montana to create a wildlife conservation area of over three million contiguous acres through a combination of both private and public lands. APR’s goal is to acquire and manage approximately 500,000 private acres, which will serve to “glue together roughly three million acres of existing public land” to create a wildlife complex for conservation and public access. National Geographic has compared the project to the creation of an American Serengeti in a DVD it created about this region in 2010 (“American Serengeti”).  In a global assessment prepared for the Temperate Grasslands Conservation Initiative (TGCI), scientists identified the area of APR in northeastern Montana as one of only four remaining areas in the world that are viable options for landscape-scale grasslands conservation. To promote tourism and encourage donations, APR has opened a high-end safari lodge and it continues to operate low-cost campgrounds, recruit volunteers and acquire land.
History of APR
In 1999, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) published (“Ecoregional Planning in the Northern Great Plains Steppe”) and determined that the Northern Great Plains were the most viable for restoring the region’s habitats and conserving existing diversity of plants and animals. Soon after this report was published, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) decided to begin a conservation effort in this area in Montana identified by TNC. At the same time, the Northern Plains Conservation Network (a network of local and national organizations) also supported a conservation program in this region, including the development of a prairie reserve. To accomplish the goals of each of these organizations, APR was formed as an independent organization in June 2001. APR was charged with the responsibility of acquiring land and managing the reserve following scientific conservation principles.
The area of American Prairie Reserve is ideal for conservation because:
- Approximately 95% of the area has never been plowed.
- The area’s population is declining at a rate of about 10% per decade, providing greater land acquisition opportunities.
- There is already a tremendous amount of public land in the area, including Bureau of Land Management tracts and 1.1 million acres of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
Conservation, Science and Reserve Management
APR has partnered with organizations such as WWF, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Bureau of Land Management to participate in a range of field studies. Ongoing projects include bison reintroduction, noxious weed control, controlled fire systems, trials for restoring riparian areas, monitoring cougar and pronghorn range, restoring prairie dog communities and tracking endangered long-billed curlews nesting in the Reserve area. APR has developed and has begun using a 7-point scale to evaluate APR land based on ten ecological conditions including plant diversity, grazing, fire, hydrology and predators to measure the impact of APR management activities.
APR 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." Currently the Reserve area consists of 274,000 owned or leased acres in northeastern Montana. Once a piece of land is fully owned by the American Prairie Reserve, a conservation easement is placed on the property. The conservation easements prohibit plowing of native grasses and other activities such as development or fragmentation of the land that might destroy or alter the native habitat and helps to ensure public access.
Approximately ten percent of APR’s funding comes from private foundations supporting land conservation and the remaining ninety percent comes from individuals living in 46 different states and eight different countries. Approximately 20% of its donors reside in the state of Montana. As of December 2013, APR has raised $67.3 million in cash and pledges since 2002.
Major donors include Forrest Mars, Jr. and John Mars of the well-known 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.
American Prairie Reserve defines its mission as the following:
“to create and manage a prairie-based wildlife reserve that, when combined with public lands already devoted to wildlife, will protect a unique natural habitat, provide lasting economic benefits, and improve public access to and enjoyment of the prairie landscape.”
As written in APR’s current annual report, the philosophy of the Reserve is as follows:
“We believe that Montanans, the American public, and people everywhere value access to open spaces where plants and animals thrive in their natural environment. We feel the existence of an access to inspirational landscapes like the open prairie will be increasingly desired as world population rises further and land continues to be locked up for the benefit of only a select few. Also, we believe the rich natural heritage of North America’s native prairie is of immeasurable value and should be conserved for the enjoyment and benefit of future generations. We believe a prairie reserve and agricultural enterprise can thrive together.”
APR collaborates and works closely with a number of organizations that have common interests. National Geographic endorses APR and has helped bring attention to the grasslands of the Northern Great Plains. It has called APR “one of the most ambitious conservation projects in American history.” In 2012, National Geographic named Sean Gerrity, APR’s President, a National Geographic Fellow. Friends of American Serengeti, based in Frankfort, is the German sister organization of APR. It shares APR’s vision with the European community and assists in securing donations to support APR. World Wildlife Fund – Northern Great Plains has been an important science contributor to APR and has helped develop the concept of a thriving wildlife reserve. The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge works with APR to promote consistent wildlife and natural resource management and riparian restoration. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been granted two conservation easements on APR land. APR participates in FWP’s Block Management program that provides public access to APR’s land for hunting purposes. The Wildlife Conservation Society engages in research, scientific surveys and other projects with APR and on APR land, including the development and restoration of grasslands. Montana Land Reliance has been granted a conservation easement on APR. The Conservation Fund has partnered with APR on several occasions in the acquisition and disposition of APR lands. Wild Things Unlimited has conducted surveys of bird species in the APR region and provides natural history guided tours on APR land. The Mars Ambassador Program provides volunteer employees of Mars, Inc. to assist in building trails on APR. The Chicago Zoological Society has partnered with APR to connect organizations that conserve wildlife and habitats. In summer 2015, Defenders of Wildlife announced a collaboration to expand prairie dog reintroduction to the reserve.
Wildlife of the Northern Montana Plains
APR plans to reintroduce the natural wildlife that was once present in Montana, including natural free ranging wild bison. The reserve initially brought in 93 purebred plains bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. As of 2012, there were over 200 bison on over 300,000 private acres adjacent to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The area within APR currently contains some of the greatest plant and animal diversity anywhere in the Great Plains. Most animal species that existed here two hundred years ago are still here including: large mammals such as Rocky Mountain elk, mule and white-tailed deer, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain lion and pronghorn. Small mammals, from badgers, muskrat, beaver, mink, raccoons, red fox, coyote and prairie dogs to rare species like the black-footed ferret and the swift fox are also present. Also, the region is known for its diversity of prairie birds, containing more than 250 species of birds from golden eagles and hawks to sandpipers, sharp-tailed grouses, long-billed curlews, Sprague’s pipit and Baird’s sparrows. There are also over nineteen species of amphibians and reptiles in this region. Black-tailed prairie dogs are a species of concern and are recognized as a key species for the Great Plains. They are prey for other species such as the endangered black-footed ferret, raptors, badgers, bobcats, coyotes and rattlesnakes, and they dig burrows used as rest sites and shelter for other animals.
With increasingly restored native habitat, the reserve also hopes to lure to their safe haven species that once were part of the ecosystem, including such controversial ones as wolves and grizzly bear.
History of the Region
Life on this land was first recorded in part through notes, drawings and log entries of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that passed through this region between May and June 1805. Captain Clark wrote about this area saying, “This country may with propriety, I think, be termed the Deserts of America, as I do not conceive any part can ever be settled, as it is deficient in water, timber, and too steep to be tilled.” The men experienced several near disasters and life-threatening run-ins with bears and snakes while passing through the region and the rugged conditions were seen as beautiful, but inhospitable.
APR is located on land originally populated by several Native American tribes including the Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Crow, Gros Ventre (Atsina), Northern Cheyene, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe and Sioux. The Blackfoot Indians prevented penetration of the territory by trappers until 1831. The first Fort in the area, Fort Piegan, was built that year at the mouth of the Marias River. This fort was later moved and renamed several times and ultimately became Fort Benton in 1847. Two important peace councils were also held at the confluence of the Judith and Missouri Rivers. In 1846, Catholic missionaries celebrated mass for the Flathead and Blackfoot tribes in an attempt to ease tensions. In 1855, Washington Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens conducted a treaty council with the Blackfeet, Flathead, Gros Ventre and Nez Perce tribes. The Lame Bull Treaty established boundaries and provided for railroads, roads, telegraph lines and military posts across what is now northern Montana.
The Railroad reached Fort Benton in 1887 and by 1890 buffalo had disappeared and the plains were restocked with cattle. Homesteaders came in large numbers by 1910 under the Stockraising and Desert Land Acts.
A significant portion of APR consists of public lands known as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This Refuge (initially known as the Fort Peck Game Range) was created by President Roosevelt in 1936 and was renamed for renowned western artist Charles M. Russell in 1963. The 1,100,00 acre refuge (including the Fort Peck Reservoir) is now managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and runs 125 miles along the Missouri River.
APR is also bordered on the west by 375,000 acres of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, which was created by a proclamation signed by President Clinton in January 2001 to protect the Missouri Breaks. “The Breaks,” as it is known by locals in Montana, is a series of bluffs, rock formations and grasslands on the northern ridge of the Missouri River.
Opposition to APR
The majority of the opposition to the American Prairie Reserve stems from ranchers whose land the reserve is attempting to purchase. As the ranching lifestyle dies out and the next generations acquire the land from their parents, many people are tempted to sell the land for a good price to the reserve. Because of their need for money, the ranchers find it difficult to turn down the market-price (or higher) offers from the reserve. Ranchers who are able to keep their land are upset that they are trapped on all sides by the reserve. These ranchers believe that they have done a good job restoring/maintaining the prairie and that they deserve the right to keep their land and raise cattle if they choose. One fear is that the reintroduction of bison to the area will bring disease and will threaten existing cattle livestock. APR points to the fact that cattle numbers have increased, not decreased, since they have been acquiring property in the area. In addition, many ranchers are also scared that the bison will destroy fences that would then lead to the disruption of their own land and grazing. However, APR intends to tear down the fences once they purchase the land so that their animals are free to roam and in order for the land to return to its natural state. Some ranchers are also opposed to the revival of the prairie dog population because they fear that the prairie dogs will spread to their land and burrow holes and spread disease to their animals. Another fear is that APR’s work will cause the area to be turned into a national monument and that the Federal Government will then force landowners to eventually sell. APR argues that it does not advocate for or against any new national monuments.
- "FAQs". Americanprairie.org. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- Bob Peart, Life in a Working Landscape: Towards a Conservation Strategy for the World’s Temperate Grasslands”, World Temperate Grasslands Conservation Initiative Workshop report, p3, 2008-06-28 – pdf 
- "Ecoregional Planning in the Northern Great Plains Steppe - Ecoregional Assessment Status Tool (EAST)", The Nature Conservancy, 1999 - pdf "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-10-24. Retrieved 2013-10-19.
- " American Prairie Reserve: 2013 Fall Gathering", American Prairie Reserve, p4-5, 2013
- " American Prairie Reserve: 2013 Fall Gathering", American Prairie Reserve, p5, 2013
- "Expanding the Reserve". Americanprairie.org. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- "Financial Activities (PDF)". Americanprairie.org. 2014. Retrieved 2015-10-06.
- Seth Lubove (2013-05-21). "Bison-Loving Billionaires Rile Ranchers With Land Grab in American West.". Bloomberg. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- American Prairie Reserve, IRS Form 990, 2011 Archived 2013-10-20 at the Wayback Machine. (pdf)
- "Missions and Values". Americanprairie.org. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- "Missions and Values". Americanprairie.org. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- " American Prairie Reserve: 2013 Fall Gathering", American Prairie Reserve, p18-20, 2013
- MSNBC Staff (2012-03-11). "Home on the Range: Bison Make It to Montana Reserve - via Canada.". U.S. News. NBC News. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement: Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, p203-215, 2010 (pdf)
- Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. "The Definitive Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition 4 (2002)", Gary E. Moulton, ed. Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press
- "Bureau of Land Management: Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument- History". blm.gov. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- Matthew Brown (2012-08-22). "For Sale: A Way of Life.". The Durango Herald. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- Basic APR property map on Building the Reserve page; interactive ArcGIS map also available
- Citizen science platform iNaturalist APR species (mostly animal) observations