American Prairie Reserve
|American Prairie Reserve|
|Operator||American Prairie Foundation|
The American Prairie Reserve (APR) is a massive prairie-based 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. APR is improving public access and enjoyment of this unique natural habitat while protecting it and providing lasting economic benefits to the local economy.
Rural recreation opportunities such as hiking, mountain biking, hunting and fishing are increasingly popular. APR provides public access to their land and adjacent government lands for these activities in this unique natural habitat. The predominant economic activity is the raising of cattle on homestead parcels along with adjacent rangeland leased from the federal government. Ranchers in the region are invited to adhere to wildlife-friendly standards on their ranches and required when grazing their cattle on APR's parcels. Within large but securely fenced areas, APR is developing a bison herd free from cattle genes. Any fencing allows the natural movement of wildlife such as pronghorn. Animals like prairie dogs are welcome amidst the native vegetation.
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. Grazing is important to soil, vegetation and overall ecological balance. The ecosystem was maintained by a pattern of disturbance caused by natural wildfire and grazing by bison, a pattern which is called pyric herbivory.
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 expanses of grass sustained migrations of an estimated 30 to 60 million American bison which could be found across much of North America. While they ranged from the eastern seaboard states to southeast Washington, eastern Oregon, and northeastern California, the greatest numbers were found within the great bison belt on the shortgrass plains east of the Rocky Mountains that stretched from Alberta to Texas.
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, white-tailed jackrabbits 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. Prairie dogs benefited from the tendency of the bison to graze areas around prairie dog towns. The bison enjoyed the regrowth of plants previously cropped by the rodents which reduced the grass cover, making it easier to spot predators. Bald eagles, ravens, black-billed magpies, swift foxes, golden eagles, grizzly bears, wolves, beetles, and nematodes benefited from bison carcasses.
The indigenous peoples of the Plains occupied the land, hunting bison and pronghorn. The great expansion of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the country's territory. This area was commonly known as the Great American Desert and was considered dry, inhospitable and hostile. The fur trade in Montana came to the upper Missouri River from about 1800 to the 1850s. From the 1830s, the population of the indigenous people and the bison were quickly decimated through the actions of the government and those who came to the frontier. Under the 1862 Homestead Act, the U.S. government issued the expropriated land for free to settlers under on the condition that they build homes and run farms or ranches. 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. Extensive unplowed grasslands remained in this portion of northeastern Montana as the soil and climate were not suitable for farming. While the homesteaded parcels were generally insufficient to support a family, the grazing of cattle that extended onto adjacent rangeland still owned by the federal government was viable. Invasive crested wheatgrass was introduced by the US government in the 1930s for use as forage for grazing cattle. The habitat for prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, bison, wolves and grizzly bears shrank dramatically. 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.
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 May 2021[update], 32 ranches have been acquired and the organization wants to buy about 18 more. As of May 2021[update] the Reserve manages 420,425 acres (170,140 ha) in northeastern Montana with about one-fourth owned and the remainder leased. Fences used to manage cattle or separate ranches are removed to allow the natural movement of wildlife. While purchasing ranches, APR has also retired 63,777 acres (25,810 ha) of leased-public land within the Russell NWR that was originally for cattle ranching by returning it to wildlife management purposes. Native vegetation is encouraged and animals like prairie dogs, wolves and grizzly bears are welcome.
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. Their herds are considered free of cattle gene introgression.: 29 As of 2020[update], the 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. APR manages the bison under applicable state laws while minimizing livestock handling techniques. 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 specific sites, including a solar-powered electric wire strung across all exterior wildlife friendly fencing.
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 began studies in 2018 on how grazing cattle and bison affect biodiversity and the biodiversity of prairie dogs. This will assist in designing a restoration program for black-footed ferrets. Another study involved the 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 also responded 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.
Bison and cattle ranching
Bison in Montana are a controversial topic. The reception among the ranchers in the sparsely populated area has been mixed to the plans for the reserve. There has been a strong reaction from many who intend to continue grazing cattle. 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. 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. 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. Ranching families are losing their neighbors as cattle ranches are purchased for the reserve. 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. 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 and that the area is good for growing production livestock which has been the highest purpose of the land for over 100 years.
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. Other bills have sought to limit APR’s activities as a nonprofit organization that acquires property.
The under-development National Discovery Center in Lewistown is a gateway facility for visitors and Montana residents. The reserve is in a remote area with gateway towns providing lodging and dining options; Lewistown and Winifred are south and Malta is north of the reserve.
APR is improving public access and enjoyment of this unique natural habitat.: 122 The reserve offers access points to public lands through all of its deeded lands. Various camping options are available on the Reserve.
Certain areas are open by permit for hunting of upland birds, migratory birds, deer, elk and antelope. Annual 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. APR uses the harvest as a bison management tool and to control the population size.
- List of protected grasslands of North America
- List of mammals of Montana
- Algonquin to Adirondacks Collaborative
- Buffalo Commons
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- Restoring America's Prairie The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
- Basic APR property map on Building the Reserve page; interactive ArcGIS map also available
- Citizen science platform iNaturalist APR species (mostly animal) observations