The following provides answers to the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) about our project. Over time, we intend to add more information as we determine which additional topics are of most interest to our supporters and the general public. We welcome your comments; please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The goal of the American Prairie Reserve project is to create the largest and newest wildlife reserve in the lower forty-eight states, consisting of more than three million acres of both private and public lands. American Prairie Reserve intends to acquire and manage approximately 500,000 private acres, which will serve to glue together roughly three million acres of existing public land. Multi-jurisdictional management of the eventual wildlife complex will be conducted by the various entities with land ownership and wildlife management authority including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Montana Department of State Lands, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and American Prairie Reserve. Conservation biologists have determined that a mixed-grass prairie would need to be approximately 5,000 square miles (roughly 3.2 million acres) in size in order to be a fully functioning ecosystem that supports the full complement of native prairie biodiversity and provides room to endure episodic localized natural phenomena like fire, disease and winter ice events.
The region possesses unique characteristics that make it an ideal location for a fully functioning prairie reserve, including: • Public land – There are unusually large tracts of public land in the region. By buying small amounts of deeded land, APR can glue together existing public lands in order to create a seamlessly managed wildlife complex. • Intact grasslands – Due to good stewardship by local landowners, the native prairie of northeastern Montana holds one of the largest areas of intact prairie in the country. In fact, more than 95% of the region’s prairie has never been plowed. Wildlife habitat restoration is far easier here than in other parts of the Great Plains where much of the native sod has been plowed under. • Wildlife – In the 1800s, artists, explorers, fur trappers and resident Native Americans described scenes of wildlife bounty in this area – the landscape blackened by bison, vast herds of deer, elk and pronghorn antelope. Numerous scientific studies have also identified this region as having 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; large ungulates including elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn still inhabit the region. Small mammals, from badgers and prairie dogs to rare species like the black-footed ferret and the swift fox, are found here. Also, the region is known for its diversity of prairie birds, from golden eagles and ferruginous hawks to Sprague’s pipit and Baird’s sparrows.
APR purchases private land from willing sellers in the region at fair market value. The price is based on the appraised value of the subject property. The appraisal compares the property being offered to other similar properties in the region that have recently sold. An independent, third party, qualified appraiser who is familiar with the region’s real estate market conducts these appraisals. After the property is purchased, the intent is to connect private lands to existing public lands, which are already managed for wildlife and grazing, and slowly develop consistent management across the landscape for the benefit of the grassland ecosystem. Several of our properties lie adjacent to or within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This arrangement promotes consistent wildlife friendly management between APR lands and Refuge lands. Property taxes continue to be paid, by law, on all lands owned by APR. When working with local landowners our intent is to be as flexible as possible in order to meet the unique circumstances that many landowners face. APR utilizes different tools depending on the specific situation. These include, but are not limited to, long-term leasebacks and payouts, exchanges, tax and estate planning tools and other approaches that may benefit the seller.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement that limits the uses that can occur on a property. Many conservation projects utilize conservation easements to protect wildlife corridors and prevent further habitat loss. APR is slowly placing conservation easements on much of its deeded land. The main motivation for this is to ensure the long-term protection of grassland habitat by prohibiting plowing of native prairie, development, fragmentation and other activities that alter wildlife habitat. Some conservation easements also ensure public access. To date, APR has worked with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Montana Land Reliance on developing conservation easements on certain APR lands. We are often asked why we are buying land instead of just using conservation easements as a tool. The most effective way to fulfill the mission of creating a large prairie-based wildlife reserve is to own the land. It would be a much more difficult process to convince neighboring landowners to grant conservation easements in perpetuity, allow public access and refrain from conducting other management practices that are not compatible with a large area specifically devoted to a prairie-based wildlife reserve.
As a free-standing non-profit, American Prairie Reserve receives the vast majority of its funding from private contributors. About ten percent of our funding comes from private foundations interested in land conservation; about 90% comes from individuals. To date, we have received contributions from 46 states and eight different countries, and nearly 20% of our donors reside in Montana.
APR is a freestanding, Montana-based nonprofit that leads the effort to assemble the Reserve’s landscape. APR’s three primary tasks are 1) to raise an estimated $450-500 million for land purchases, management costs and a permanent endowment, 2) to acquire 500,000 acres of private land, which will serve to glue together approximately three million acres of public land, and 3) to oversee the management of APR’s deeded lands, leased public lands and relationships with neighboring public agencies. We maintain working relationships with other like-minded conservation organizations, including World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which was instrumental in developing the concept of a thriving wildlife reserve on Montana’s Great Plains in the early phases of the project. Today, World Wildlife Fund – Northern Great Plains (WWF NGP) leads the research and partners with APR in the restoration of American Prairie Reserve’s growing wildlife and grassland ecosystem in order to maintain and restore thriving prairie wildlife. The WWF NGP program is a Montana-based field program of World Wildlife Fund working throughout the Northern Great Plains on large-scale prairie conservation.
As a private non-profit organization APR does not have the authority to reintroduce species to the area, even if those species were historically present. Species reintroduction falls under the jurisdiction of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and/or the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and any decisions regarding the reintroduction of wolves or grizzlies in the region will need to be made by these agencies augmented by the will of the general public.
The current situation in Montana, in which bison are considered livestock by the Montana Department of Livestock, is working fine for APR. APR is required by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to pay the same Animal Unit Month (AUM) fees as any other producer to graze its livestock on public lands. If Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks was to someday, even decades from now, succeed in reestablishing free roaming wild bison in some areas of Montana, including in the six-county area around American Prairie Reserve, APR would be fine with that arrangement as well. If it doesn’t happen, APR will continue to operate under the current conditions described above.
APR is a private non-profit whose mission is to assemble enough land to create a fully functioning wildlife reserve. We are not an advocacy group and therefore do not advocate for or against any new National Monuments.
Our analysis of real estate trends shows that APR’s presence has had no effect. Land prices increase at a fairly predictable rate (about 3-6 percent per year on average) and have for the past 40 years. In compliance with industry standards and best practices, all APR land acquisitions are advised by independent professional appraisal of fair market value and have been very close to or right at appraised values.
People are often surprised to learn that every seller with whom APR has done business is still in the ranching business and 95% of them still reside in the local area. No displacement of ranching has occurred to date. Like any neighborhood, land ownership in the region is constantly shifting. Many of the properties we’ve purchased have been bought and sold three or four times in the past two decades. Ranchers may sell their land for a variety of reasons, such as a desire to purchase new grazing pastures, a need to consolidate their herds, or a decision to move their cattle operation to another part of Montana or out of state. In the six-county area in which we are working, there are recorded 441,000 head of cattle. In just Phillips County alone, where APR has most of its land holdings, cattle numbers have increased from 80,000 head to 88,000 head in the six years since APR has owned land. When complete, American Prairie Reserve will likely be a relatively small island in a vast sea of agriculture in northeastern Montana.
We expect over time that the assembly of American Prairie Reserve will significantly increase expenditures on outdoor recreation, education programs and science research in the region. This will result in an influx of revenues for motels, restaurants, caterers, sporting goods stores, gas stations, outfitters and others who service these visitors and programs. As demonstrated elsewhere in the American West and many other places around the world, restoration of large natural areas and the resulting recreational opportunities help local communities attract and retain people, from retirees to young business professionals and entrepreneurs. APR is already contributing significantly to the regional economy through its daily operations. Since our inception in 2001, APR’s expenditures in the six-county region total more than $19 million, including land purchases, wages paid to local staff, tourism activities, equipment and supply purchases, payments to local contractors and real estate taxes.
APR pays real estate property taxes on all of its deeded lands, which currently comprise about 59,000 acres, like any other private landowner. Public charities in the state of Montana, like APR, can apply for exemption from paying real estate property taxes on no more than 160 acres and are required to pay real estate property taxes on all lands owned in excess of that acreage. APR has not applied for that exemption. APR also pays taxes on personal property including our bison and other taxable personal property.
American Prairie Reserve is open to the public for a variety of activities, including bike touring, bird and wildlife watching, hunting, photography, hiking, horseback riding, walking and enjoying historical sites like the Prairie Union School. Our first public campground was opened May 15, 2011 and will be open each year from May 15th to November 1st. We are also building a network of trails for visitors to add to the existing network of two-track roads.
Yes. For five years now, we have been participants in the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Block Management Program. Block Management is a cooperative program that creates public access on private lands by opening them up to hunting. In 2010, we enrolled 17,386 acres of our property, in 2011 we committed to enrolling 28,000 acres for the next decade, and in 2012 we purchased an additional 18,000 acres that will remain open to public hunting. We also intend to continue to increase acreage over time. On average we provide more than 1,200 hunter days of recreation each year. Hunting is also available on the 215,000 acres of public land on which APR has grazing privileges. This area is cooperatively managed for public hunting by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Bureau of Land Management. For more information about hunting on our properties, please see the Region 6 FWP Block Management Book.
APR intends to hold title to its private lands, possibly as much as five hundred thousand acres, in perpetuity. In order for American Prairie Reserve to last hundreds of years into the future, we believe the best system of management will be a public-private collaboration. The land management agencies involved in the area are the Bureau of Land Management, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Montana Department of State Lands. We think owning our lands and cooperatively managing the habitat with these agencies will create a unique system of accountability, and checks and balances. Management of private lands by a private entity like APR has advantages over publicly managed lands, if, as in the case of APR, the land management is constrained by a clear mission and by conservation easements. For instance, we can make and carry out decisions on our private lands that improve habitat and encourage public access much quicker than a public agency can. We are also free to focus our land management decisions exclusively on benefiting wildlife and the public’s enjoyment of it. We think this management focus will complement the management on surrounding public lands. We also believe there will be benefits to having a well-endowed private entity (APR) as the owner of hundreds of thousands of acres marbled through the Reserve’s millions of acres of public lands. From time-to-time governments struggle to fully fund large-scale parks and recreation areas, sometimes even needing to close them temporarily due to insufficient operational funds. APR’s endowment is intended to help keep at least APR’s private acres in strong financial shape well into the future, helping to maintain the wildlife habitat, and its enjoyment by the public, at a very high quality.
Tens of millions of bison roamed North America when Europeans first arrived. As the continent’s largest land mammal (bulls can weigh more than a ton), bison were crucial in shaping the prairie ecosystem. Grazing by vast herds helped create prairie habitats that in turn supported a diversity of wildlife. Their massive size made them an attractive—but extremely formidable—prey for prairie wolves, grizzly bears and Native Americans. Their carcasses offered nourishment to smaller animals and plants. Not only did the bison nearly vanish from over-hunting in the late 1800s, but also gone were the far-reaching effects they had on the prairie ecosystem. The bison’s recovery has been slow and is far from complete. Only about 20,000 now exist in herds managed primarily for conservation purposes, far fewer than are needed for them to even partially fulfill their former ecological role on the prairie. (The vast majority of herds are owned by private producers and managed primarily for meat production, though if well-managed some of these herds can also have conservation value.) Moreover, most conservation herds are very small, numbering in the dozens to a few hundred, and are confined to small, fenced-in areas. These conditions threaten the genetic health of bison and greatly hinder their ability to roam widely and display natural behaviors. This combination of genetic, ecological and behavioral concerns makes bison restoration a high priority for wildlife conservation in North America.
Before answering this question, we should clarify a common misconception that American Prairie Reserve is primarily a bison conservation project. While certainly crucial in building the reserve, bison restoration is just part of a much broader set of goals to restore the vast and fascinating diversity of plants, animals and habitats that are native to Montana’s prairies. That said, we want to set the gold standard for bison conservation in North America. The management of our bison herd should be exemplary for how to restore and conserve the genetic, ecological and behavioral features of wild bison. In doing so, and by sharing our research and experience with others, we hope to inspire and support others who wish to restore bison elsewhere in North America, from Canada through the United States to Mexico. To achieve this, our four main goals are that the American Prairie Reserve herd: (1) have high genetic diversity; (2) be free of detectable cattle genes; (3) fulfill its crucial ecological role in shaping the prairie ecosystem; (4) display natural behavior. In addition to these biological goals, we want the Reserve’s bison herd to be enjoyed, with diverse cultural and economic benefits, by local communities and the public. All of these goals require that the Reserve’s herd grow to number in the thousands that are free to roam over millions of acres.
Genetic diversity is important for keeping the herd healthy and adaptable. Low genetic diversity can cause abnormalities, low birth rates and reduced resistance to diseases. Good genetic diversity enables the herd to adapt to changes in their environment. Meeting this goal requires that we begin by using the best science there is to determine where we obtain bison for building our herd from and how to manage them. According to the latest genetic research, we need to build the herd, in the short term, to more than 1,000 animals to avoid genetic problems like inbreeding, and in the early stages we need to introduce animals that bring new genes into the herd. It also means that we must avoid management actions that, over the long run, might reduce diversity and breed wildness out of the herd, such as removing cantankerous bulls. A key requirement for maintaining the genetic health of the herd is to allow the animals to interact naturally with their environment. We therefore practice “hands-off” management as much as possible, which, in simplest terms, means allowing the weak to die and the strong to survive and pass on their genes. Bison have adapted and evolved according to the forces of natural selection over thousands of years and we want to ensure that they will continue to do so into the future.
Years ago there were many attempts to crossbreed bison and cattle with the goal of producing heartier domestic cattle or meatier and easier-to-handle bison. Neither worked very well. However, the result is that most bison today harbor some domestic cattle genes in their DNA, a condition that scientists call “cattle-gene introgression.” Although the amount of cattle genes is generally very low—less than two percent in most conservation herds—and bison with low levels look like wild bison, little research has been conducted to assess what, if any, effects cattle genes may have on bison. Some cattle genes, for example, might affect the metabolism of bison, which, unlike cattle, slows down significantly in winter. This might compromise their ability to survive severe winter weather in places like American Prairie Reserve. Our bison herd is one of only a handful of herds in North America that, based on the best genetic research available, shows no signs of cattle genes. We therefore have taken a precautionary approach by working to avoid cattle-gene introgression. This includes occasionally culling animals with cattle genes from the herd. We do this not only to avert any potentially deleterious effects of cattle genes, but also because non-introgressed bison herds are rare and represent a distinct genetic resource for bison conservation. Another reason for this management policy is that we want to make sure that our bison meet any standard for cattle-gene introgression that state or federal wildlife agencies might impose if, some day, they want to use our bison to establish a wild herd in or around American Prairie Reserve. Importantly, our bison management follows the recommendations of leading geneticists and bison managers recently convened by the American Bison Society who confirmed the importance of conserving bison herds without signs of cattle-gene introgression. That said, conservation herds with very low levels of cattle-gene introgression are also important because they also conserve genetic diversity and can fulfill the ecological role of bison.
The bison’s historic ecological role depended on enormous numbers of free-roaming animals. Thus, our goal over the long term is to let the bison population grow to thousands of animals that are allowed to roam over vast areas of unfenced, native prairie. This will permit bison to graze the prairie according to their natural instincts, which generally results in some areas being grazed hard and others not grazed for years. This grazing pattern, especially when combined with fire that historically occurred on the prairies, results in a diversity of habitats (scientists call this “habitat heterogeneity”), which, in turn, supports a great diversity of wildlife. For example, areas that are grazed hard have short vegetation that some bird species such as McCown’s Longspur and the Ferruginous Hawk prefer, whereas ungrazed areas with tall vegetation are used by other bird species, such as Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow. Bison also affect habitat by repeatedly rolling in the dust or mud in selected spots, a behavior called wallowing. The resulting shallow depressions, called wallows, may fill with water in the spring and become mini-wetlands with distinctive vegetation. And, because of their large size, bison are an important protein source for scores of predators and scavengers and their decomposing bones create rich patches of nitrogen and phosphorus for plant growth. These and many other interactions between bison and their environment are central to creating the diverse, abundant, and fascinating life of the prairie ecosystem. Meeting this goal requires that we continue to build both the herd size and the reserve’s land base over which they roam.
We follow the very same guidelines for disease control that cattle ranchers do, as required by the Montana Department of Livestock (MDL). There is no brucellosis in our bison herd and, to ensure it stays that way, when importing animals we first make sure they come from brucellosis-free stock, as is the case with the bison from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park that we recently introduced. In all cases, we strictly follow MDL regulations regarding any disease testing and vaccinations.
The relocation of bison from Yellowstone National Park is a complex issue. Bison that leave the park, if they are not slaughtered, are sent to a quarantine facility where they are held for five years to ensure that they are disease-free before they leave the area. From there, once the bison are moved to a new location, there are still strict requirements about creating a separate fenced area for the Yellowstone bison and keeping them in that area for an additional five years. We do not have the capacity to do this on the Reserve, nor do we want to create a separate bison herd. Also, to date, only a few of the Yellowstone bison have been tested for cattle gene introgression with the latest genetic test, so it is not certain that they are the best genetic herd out there. American Prairie Reserve aims to create a herd that is as genetically similar to the region’s original bison as possible. We’ve found a source, Elk Island National Park in Canada, which has tested free of cattle genes in great numbers.