There is a lonely stretch of two-lane highway that runs 200 miles from Billings to Malta, MT. I get the pleasure of driving this remote stretch several times a year in heading to sales and events. Though sparsely populated, this stretch of highway is lined with some of the best grassland, ranches and wildlife in all the country. Plastered along the roadside, at the entrance to ranches, on bumper stickers, and all throughout the small rural towns in this area there is a grassroots campaign that is hard not to notice.

Their motto: “Save the Cowboy, Stop the American Prairie Reserve!”

What is the American Prairie Reserve (APR)? From their website, the APR is “an independent nonprofit organization whose goal is to control over 3 million acres of prairie ground in Montana that would support several thousand or more bison.” If achieved, that would be a chunk of ground larger than Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park combined! To do this they have to remove working farms and ranches and “retire” the acres.

Again, according to their website: “Since 2004, American Prairie Reserve has completed 29 transactions to build our habitat base to 419,291 acres.” Of that total, 104,244 acres are privately owned, and 315,047 acres are public lands (federal and state). They proudly note that acquisitions have resulted in the retirement of 63,777 acres of cattle grazing leases on the neighboring Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. In short, the APR has been ferociously gobbling up working ranches since 2004.

There is no doubt that by utilizing their donors’ large checkbooks they have put together an impressive land mass in just 15 short years. But that’s not to say it’s been entirely smooth sailing for them. A major hurdle APR encountered was with their 2004 Bison Reintroduction Plan. They have so far missed their five- and 10-year plans and appear to only have a herd of 833 as of the winter of 2018. Many of these roadblocks have been caused by the legal definition of bison and the high risk of disease to livestock and damage to neighboring property. Currently, the APR is paying fees on their bison, which qualifies them as livestock and are overseen and subject to the rules of the Montana Department of Livestock (MTDOL). APR’s goal is to have bison on their property classified as wildlife and allowed to roam like deer, elk, antelope, etc.

Beyond attempts in the state legislature to prevent this goal—a bill was passed in the 2019 Montana legislature that would have, in essence, classified all bison as livestock, but was vetoed by the governor for example—now the APR is taking matters into its own hands. In a Petition for Variance from the Phillips County Conservation District Bison Grazing Ordinance, the APR is trying to become exempt from two key points. First, “all bison/buffalo must be tested and certified by a state veterinarian to be disease free,” and second “bison/buffalo must be branded, tattooed, tagged, or otherwise identified to track its health status.”

The petition raises some key fairness and safety issues. For example, many local ranchers are rightly concerned about disease, and pointed out the Designated Surveillance Areas where brucellosis is known put more restrictions on them. There are also human health risks that could come from disease-infected animals and many noted management practices that ranchers adhere to for their domestic livestock. Despite this, press coverage from public hearings on this petition makes it obvious to me that the APR is well represented by its attorney, and if the ruling on the petition isn’t in their favor, they will go higher up the legal chain.

Ranching and agriculture are the lifeblood to many of the small communities surrounding the APR. There is no doubt in my mind that if the APR achieves its goal it will spell the end for small communities like Malta. I also worry about what kind of precedence this will set for other Western landscapes. It’s concerning that one group can have such a large impact on the use of public lands. There is no doubt that the fundraising capabilities groups like APR have are beyond the scope that most of us can fathom in production agriculture.

I think this is an issue we in agriculture can all come together and agree on—we must “save the cowboy” and prevent this from happening throughout the West. — DEVIN MURNIN

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