Montana reserve doubles land holdings

Aug 24, 2012

Last week, the American Prairie Reserve (APR) announced the purchase of a 150,000-acre Montana ranch, which doubled the conservation group’s current land holdings, and put the group one step closer to their quest to build a privately-funded, national park-like wildlife preserve. The land which sits just north of the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is about 60 miles from the Canadian border.

Supporters claim the unpopulated area is the perfect place to recreate a native prairie, complete with native animals, on 3-million acres of private and public land. To put it in perspective, Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres.

But while the human population may be somewhat scarce, the land the group has targeted is full of BLM grazing leases. According to reports, the recent purchase of 150,000 acres was only 10 percent deeded land, which has some local ranchers wondering what’s going to happen to the leases.

Local resident and rancher Vicki Olson voiced her concerns about the possibility of them creating a national monument area, pointing out flaws in APR’s plan and her concerns for not only her community, but for local ranchers.

“They keep saying they’re preserving it, but the ranchers have already been doing that, in addition to using the land for production. They’re not saving anything,” said Olson.

APR did tell reporters that they are neither advocating for nor against a future national monument, and that legally, they can’t reintroduce free-roaming wildlife. But their longterm goal is to have freeroaming, genetically-pure wild bison. Currently the group does have about 250 bison in a fenced enclosure, but the end result for the group is to have up to 10,000 bison roaming the private and public lands.

APR is diligently buying up land from willing sellers. The recent purchase of the South Ranch, from owner Steve Page, makes it the 13th. Page, with Page Whitham Land and Cattle, says the century-old ranch was sold for an undisclosed sum to the reserve. Page says restrictions on public grazing and higher fees made ranching on the land no longer viable.

Private money supporting the plan has helped the project along. Among the largest donors, John and Adrienne Mars, candy industry billionaires, according to reports, have given at least $5 million of the $48 million the group has raised.

According to APR’s website, 10 percent of its funding comes from private foundations interested in land conservation; about 90 percent comes from individuals. They have received contributions from 46 states and eight different countries, and nearly 20 percent of their donors reside in Montana.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer told reporters that the South Ranch sale is just a business transaction and as long as the bison stay within the reserve, it’s no different than cattle on a ranch.

Page will continue ranching under a lease with the option to renew at the reserve’s discretion. In a lengthy letter, written by Steve Page to explain the decision, he writes, “The Etchart Ranch and later, Page Whitham have dealt with numerous land-use issues over a long period of time and we have concluded that traditional ranching operations on public land in South Valley and South Phillips counties are in jeopardy of becoming history in the not so distant future.”

After sharing some history of the ranch, he adds, “Bottom line; we bought and paid for a grazing allotment, funded considerable investment in range improvements, participated in development of habitat-friendly rotational grazing systems, spent a lot of money in litigation to protect our rights, lost in Federal Court, and have lost considerable property and property value.”

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, APR president, Sean Gerrity said, “We can co-opt a lot of public land and change the use from livestock production to wildlife.”

“What’s really great about the public lands is they’re really malleable in terms of what they’re used for. You can use them for commercial purposes like forestry, for livestock grazing. You can also, if you have a lot of public leases, use them for wildlife value as the number one priority. That was very exciting, that we could co-opt a lot of public land and change the use from livestock production to wildlife emphasis, for essentially no cost. That means putting together millions of acres of public land and converting it to our vision,” Gerrity told reporter Hillary Rosner. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor