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 American Prairie Reserve (APR) is to create the largest wildlife reserve in the lower forty-eight states, consisting of approximately 3.5 million acres of both private and public lands. APR 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 Reserve currently spans
more than 305,000 acres of deeded private land and leased public land.
The region possesses unique characteristics that make it an ideal location for a fully functioning prairie reserve. First, there are unusually large tracts of public land in the region, and by buying small amounts of deeded land, APR can glue together existing public lands in order to create a seamlessly managed wildlife complex. Second, due to good stewardship by local landowners, northeastern Montana holds one of the largest areas of intact prairie in the country. Habitat restoration is far easier here than in other parts of the Great Plains where much of the native sod has been plowed under. Third, numerous scientific studies have 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, and the region is known for its diversity of prairie birds, from golden eagles and ferruginous hawks to Sprague’s pipit and Baird’s sparrows.
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 50 states and 12 countries, and 17% of our donors reside in Montana.
Management of private lands by a private entity like APR has advantages over publicly managed lands. 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.
APR is a private non-profit whose mission is to assemble enough land to create a fully functioning wildlife reserve. We do not have a position on new national monuments.
American Prairie Reserve 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. APR pays property taxes on all lands owned by the organization. When working with local landowners our intent is to be as flexible as possible in order to meet the unique circumstances that each landowner may face, and APR utilizes different tools depending on the specific situation. These include, but are not limited to, livestock leases and contract purchase, 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 habitat, scenic vistas, and other natural and historic values. 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.
APR intends to hold title to its private lands, eventually 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.
Yes. APR pays real estate property taxes on all of its deeded lands, which currently comprise about 65,000 acres, like any other private landowner. We are among the top 20 taxpayers in Phillips County. 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.
Our analysis of real estate trends shows that APR’s presence has had no effect on the regional market. As with agricultural properties elsewhere in eastern Montana, prices increase and decrease based on regional and national economic conditions, regional and national demand, property productivity, and cattle and grain prices, which can vary from year to year. In compliance with industry standards and best practices, all APR land acquisitions are advised by independent professional appraisals.
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. People are often surprised to learn that most sellers with whom APR has done business are still in the ranching business and 95% of them still reside in the local area. 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.
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 86,000 head in the seven years that APR has owned land, increasing 5% since 2007. 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 $24 million, including land purchases, wages paid to local staff, tourism activities, equipment and supply purchases, payments to local contractors and real estate taxes. We also host a range of commercial tour operators that bring groups to the Reserve and nearby communities and contract with naturalist guides. In 2013, we launched Wild Sky Beef, a program designed to provide an economic benefit to neighboring ranches that raise cattle according to wildlife-friendly practices.
Wild Sky LLC is a company created and owned by American Prairie Reserve. Wild Sky exists to get great tasting, grass fed, natural Angus beef to consumers with profits returned to American Prairie Reserve and neighboring ranchers who raise their cattle in conservation-oriented ways. The beef we sell is not yet wildlife-friendly itself – rather, proceeds from the sale of our high quality beef from established sources provide the economic incentive for ranchers in the APR region to agree to wildlife-friendly practices. Over time, the beef from these ranchers will meet the Wild Sky criteria of grass fed and hormone and antibiotic free and can be sold directly to Wild Sky. Our eventual goal is to sell as much beef from the Reserve region as possible.
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. Buffalo Camp, our first public campground, was opened in 2011 and is open year-round. This primitive campground has 7-camper and 4-tent sites for $10/site per night and includes vault toilets, non-potable water, picnic tables, fire rings, and a group amphitheater. We are also building a network of trails for visitors to add to the existing network of two-track roads.
Yes. For seven 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. 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.
American Prairie Reserve is free and open to the public for recreation and ecotourism. Information about camping, directions, points of interest, recreation, nearby communities and safety is located in the Visit section
of our website. We also encourage you to contact us for a free visitor map that was recently created by National Geographic. In addition to visiting the Reserve independently, commercial tour operators often conduct guided tours of the Reserve during summer months, and APR hosts volunteer safaris in the fall as well as through the Landmark citizen science program. While the Reserve currently lacks the capacity and facilities to provide additional group programs in many cases, we are happy to work with you to see what might be possible for your recreation, volunteering and educational goals. Please note that the Reserve is located in a remote area and visitors will not have access to potable water, Internet, and cell service. Unlike a national park, American Prairie Reserve does not employ “rangers” and is not able to provide emergency care or vehicle repair.
Science and Wildlife
American Prairie Reserve hopes to be a catalyst in the effort to bring many wildlife populations, such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, big horn sheep, elk, cougars, and grassland birds, back to significantly larger populations than currently exist in the region. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) manage all wildlife species in the region with input from the general public and from citizen advisory groups. APR hopes to be a positive influence in the effort to increase populations. Overtime, APR actions will include (1) providing input to FWP when population targets are being set, (2) offering up to date scientific data about wildlife on Reserve lands, (3) actively assisting our neighbors to thrive in the presence of increased wildlife, and, most importantly, (4) assembling habitat acreages capable of supporting something close to the well-documented historic populations of these diverse grassland species.
Thanks to the help of science partners, graduate students, and BioBlitz volunteers, we have been able to inventory plant and wildlife species over time. A comprehensive animal species list is available for viewing and download on the Biodiversity page
, and the 2011 BioBlitz report (including a directory of plants and animals identified during the event) is available on the Reports page
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 overarching goal of American Prairie Reserve is to restore and conserve the species, habitats and ecological processes that were native to this region. To guide our management and restoration efforts, we have worked with experts to develop a 7-point scale, the Freese Scale for Grassland Restoration
, that evaluates Reserve lands based on ten ecological conditions. These conditions include a range of topics like plant diversity, grazing, fire, hydrology, and predators. You can download the complete background summary on the Reports page
, and additional information on the scale will soon be available in the Science section
of the website.
In early 2014, we launched a three-year collaboration with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a unique organization that matches outdoor enthusiasts with conservation efforts needing to collect data in remote and wild places. Through the Landmark program, ASC recruits and trains volunteers that are stationed on American Prairie Reserve for a month or more to help with a number of studies and wildlife counts and maintaining camera traps across the Sun Prairie Region. Over time, this information will help guide our management decisions and help set priorities for science and restoration in accordance with the Freese Scale for Grassland Restoration (see above). Learn more about how to apply, current crew members, and stories from the field on our Landmark page
APR collaborates with organizations and entities with expertise that complements our mission. To date, we’ve worked with a number of partners that advance our wildlife, education, and economic impact goals including National Geographic, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, Absolute Travel, and World Wildlife Fund. Learn more on our Collaborations page
Yes. As a growing grassland reserve, APR is a living laboratory that is open to research and study by universities and other institutions. The first step is to submit a preliminary research application form
to our staff for review.
Tens of millions of bison roamed North America when Europeans first arrived. As the continent’s largest land mammal, bison were crucial in shaping the prairie ecosystem. 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. 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.
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.
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. Learn more about our goals and progress in our annual bison report
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. Over the past five years, SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphism
) analysis has been shown to be far more effective at detecting cattle gene introgression compared to older mitochondrial tests. 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 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 have 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. Those animals are controlled under the jurisdiction of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Assuming quarantined bison were certified by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) as disease-free as well as determined to be free of cattle gene introgression by means of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphism) testing, APR would consider incorporating them into the Reserve population. Their inclusion with APR’s herd would be welcome since the addition of Yellowstone’s unique genetics would increase the APR herd’s hereditary variations, making the APR population even stronger and more resilient.