Life on the American Prairie Reserve

Ranchers and researchers collide in an ambitious effort to convert Montana ranchland to a 3 million-acre wildlife refuge

A pickup truck stops within a dozen feet of us. We are sitting at a round dining room table inside the house watching the truck through the sunlit window. Two men step out and take a few steps forward and I lunge down the carpeted stairs to meet them at the door. We say hello and are all in a jolly mood. The two men, like us in the house, have probably just finished work for the day. They asked whether the Holzheys were around and I realized they were looking for the family that used to live here. I had moved in about three weeks ago with a crew of five other young people to collect data on the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a private wildlife refuge that is buying out ranchers to aggregate more than 3 million acres of land and create a fully functioning prairie ecosystem. We were all, ranchers and researchers alike, on the front lines of the change that is happening in this sparsely populated and tree-less stretch of land in northeastern Montana. 

American Prairie ReservePhoto by Morgan Cardiff When fully realized, the American Prairie Reserve will include 3 million acres of land, making it significantly larger than Yellowstone National Park.

I think the two men may have known that the Holzheys had already sold their ranch, but perhaps the family had left more suddenly than anticipated. The men said they had come to talk a little shit to their friends (perhaps for selling out, now that I think about it), but instead found the family gone and the land silent and stripped of machinery. Six young scientists, sprawled comfortably in the family’s former residence, must have been a sight to them. One of the men asked what we were doing there, and when I told him that we were collecting data for the APR, his face lost all signs of the joking mood that he had come with. The men said goodbye and departed with a somber air.

When fully realized, the APR will be significantly larger than Yellowstone National Park and much more remote. The project has been described by National Geographic as an American Serengeti, and has been in the works in various forms, by various organizations, since the 1980s. With over 305,000 acres acquired so far, the APR is already incredibly vast and teaming with wildlife. A herd of 440 bison roams there and sage grouse erupt from the sagebrush and disappear over the horizon.

My crew and I work for a small organization that collaborates with the APR, collecting data on a 30,000-acre parcel of land called Sun Prairie that was recently added to the refuge. I arrived in Montana in early August to begin work. Almost immediately, I witnessed the intensity of weather and sky that the state is known for. My arrival coincided with the start of a storm that would hover overhead for the next several days, barring my crew from conducting any work or driving back to town. The dirt roads could no longer be driven and were flooded out in many sections. As we took refuge in an RV, over 6 inches of rain fell in a county where the average annual rainfall is just 12 inches. The walls of my tent buckled with the constant winds, and water crept inwards at its four corners. After the storm, the landscape burst into renewed life and the mosquitoes came so thickly that they produced a fur on my jeans beneath which you couldn’t see any fabric. The intensity of the insects led one crewmember to have a breakdown. We all wore head nets to protect our faces as we played card games in the RV, awarding extra points to those who killed the mosquitoes that seeped in from outside.

The conditions made collecting data more challenging, and upon hearing that we were camping, the locals were in awe. A month later, we moved to a recently purchased ranch — the Holzhey’s former home — on what the APR has named Sun Prairie North. The fact that we were living in a former rancher’s house seemed to change the way that locals viewed us, and it was hard not to feel as though we were occupying someone else’s territory. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which handles the grazing permits on the thousands of acres of public land surrounding the ranch we were staying in, calls the small pieces of private property associated with these federal lands “base properties.” Visible from several miles away, the ranch definitely looks like a base. There stand a half dozen large grey silos that will be sold or donated to other ranches as the land is converted to prairie, high fences surrounding the property, and more than twenty individual structures — including barns, machine-shops, and sheds — densely packed on a small rise. Left-behind cats hide in abandoned RVs from hungry coyotes. A great big western school bus is parked forever in the front yard.

Since 2004, the APR has purchased 14 ranches. These ranches have been erased from the landscape to varying degrees. The APR bought the Holzhey’s property and the associated BLM permits in 2014, acquiring 22,000 acres and bringing its holdings past the 300,000-acre mark. It will likely take years to remove the internal fencing, the numerous rusted and crumpled vehicles, and cut down the non-native Russian olive trees that guard the north side of the ranch from the wind, but this is perhaps a small matter considering the beautiful and extensive land to the east.

American Prairie ReservePhoto by Morgan Cardiff A heard of 440 bison roams on the 305,000 acres that currently make up the American Prairie Reserve.

There has been considerable protest from the local population regarding these purchases, in part due to concern that traditional ranching lifestyles will be jeopardized by environmental efforts in the region. But it should be said that the change that these acquisitions bring is not necessarily rapid. For example, the agreement regarding the APR’s largest holding, known as Timber Creek, allows ranchers to graze livestock on the roughly 150,000 acres for another 12 years.

It’s not just old buildings and abandoned cars that remain on the landscape. Despite the fact that the majority of land here has never been tilled or otherwise severely altered, Sun Prairie, like much of the land in the region, is covered with earthen dams that were built to trap water. These water features, which alter the flow of the precious water here, were constructed to take advantage of natural gullies in the landscape, trapping water to form stock ponds for the cattle. In Phillips County, where the Sun Prairie parcel of the APR is located, there is, on average, one stock pond for every square mile in Phillips County. The APR has never actively removed these dams, but is passively letting the infrastructure run its course and allowing the land to return to its natural state. The torrential rain that brought the mosquitoes in the beginning of August also tore through a 20-foot earthen dam on the northeastern side of Sun Prairie, freeing the water once again and bringing change to the landscape.

To see the landscape at the detail required for our research, one has to walk, and I can honestly say that I have never walked this much in my life as I did on the reserve. Walking long distances seems to be a fundamental part of gathering data here. My legs are strong and the sharp spikes of the prickly pear cactuses have worn strange perforations in the rubber soles of my boots. I have come to realize not only that I am fully capable of walking up to 12 miles a day for five or six days a week, but that doing so makes me feel happy and strong. It is through the hundreds of miles of walking that I came to see nearly all corners of the 30,000-acre parcel from which we are collecting data. After just two or three weeks I was able to readily orient myself in the prairie landscape. And it has been through walking that I have come to grasp the shear size of what the APR proposes.

The fences of the Sun Prairie parcel are, in effect, training wheels for my imagination as I attempt to grasp the vastness of this incredible conservation project and understand how the wildlife inhabits such places. Fences have a long history on the prairie, and they are a hugely important technology for both ranching and the re-wilding being done by the APR. In his book, Rewilding the West, Richard Manning argues that it is the invention of barbed wire that readily allowed homesteaders to fence land in Montana in the first place, bringing to an end the era of roaming cowboys and their long-horn cattle freely grazing on federal grasses. By 1902, writes Manning, Montanans had illegally fenced 3.5 million acres of federal land in anticipation of new land use policy and a new way of life. Today, fences are one of the most important types of infrastructure on the reserve. Without them, the management of a herd of bison would not be possible, as free roaming bison are illegal and are perceived by cattle ranchers as additional foraging competition for cattle, not to mention a source of disease.  

The fences that the APR uses are advanced. They contain a lower smooth wire and two barbed wires sandwiching an electrified wire. The design allows pronghorn — whose legs can carry them faster than any other land mammal on our continent, but are too delicate to jump with — to duck beneath the fences. They also keep the bison in while keeping the neighboring cattle out. In my final weeks on the prairie, black and white plastic tags were hung between the barbs on the top strand of wire to deter low-flying sage grouse from colliding with them. A series of camera traps mounted on the fences allows us to study how wildlife interacts with the fence line, with the hopes of further improving the design of these fences in the years to come.

For now, the fences constitute strict boundaries. In October, a bison bull escaped. We heard about the escape from APR management staff over the radio, and asked if they needed our help in rounding the animal back into the reserve. They had chased the animal for hours on four-wheelers and on foot, and the bison had charged one staff member. In the end, the bull, which probably never understood the difference between one side of the fence and the other, was shot and butchered. A week later we received four or five pounds of meat for the freezer. 

Whether the herd will ever be free roaming depends a lot on the project’s political future and the desire of the people of Montana.  Like the herd in Yellowstone, the bison on the APR will likely never be completely free roaming. If the reserve ever expands towards population centers, such as Malta to the north, the animals will likely be actively herded away. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that the herd will always be as enclosed as it is now within 30,000 acres of Sun Prairie, though it is not infeasible that a perimeter fence could be built to enclose the fully formed 3 million-acre reserve.

The bison sometimes walk along the fences that contain them, making long, grey, dusty tracks. Perhaps it is because the pronghorn, elk, coyotes, and many birds all pass through the fences with ease that I consider the bison and I different from the other species. We are in some sense the residents of Sun Prairie, here by hire, or in the case of the bison, by a very strange twist of fate. It is simply incredible to share space with such beautiful and large creatures. In my mind, the bison, the ranches, and the local people here are the seed that will germinate into the greater reserve, and I often imagine how magnificent it will feel to stand in the tall grasses of a 3 million-acre, uninhabited, new American landscape.

Clarifications: The original version of this story inaccurately named the former owners of the ranch the author was staying in as the “Jacobs” instead of the “Holzheys.” Also, Phillips County has an average of one stock pond for every square mile, not every acre of land.


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