The American Prairie Reserve: Why Conserve?

The American Prairie Reserve is one of the largest conservation projects being undertaken in the United States today: it seeks to reconnect and restore a land area of 3 million contiguous acres in Montana in an effort to reestablish a healthy prairie ecosystem in the region. Currently, much of the land in this area is publicly owned, including the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, and other Bureau of Land Management land that is disconnected and interrupted by private ranches. As a private nonprofit organization, the Reserve operates under the model of purchasing ranches when they appear on the market to patch together the plots of public land and create an open area free of fences and agriculture. A large, connected Reserve will be able to support large herds of bison, and will hopefully bring back native wolves and grizzly bears that have been long excluded from the region. Last summer, a group of Princeton Conservation Society students visited the Prairie Reserve to learn not only about the Reserve’s conservation efforts, but also how these play into the local economy, social justice issues, and business incentives.

During U.S. colonization, land was seized from Native American tribes and bison were killed on huge scales as a means of suppressing Native Americans economically and culturally. With the support of local reservations such as Fort Belknap, the American Prairie Reserve is working to reconcile these major atrocities by restoring the natural state of the land and spiritually significant bison populations. Additionally, they plan to reopen the private land to the public, including Native American communities. However, as tribes were forced out, ranching became more prominent, and cattle ranching is now the major industry in this area. Local ranchers have been less open to the growth of the Prairie Reserve: although the Reserve doesn’t take any land until it goes up for sale independently, they see the project as a threat to their way of life and economic opportunities. The reintroduction of large predators such as wolves puts ranchers at the risk of having cattle be eaten which can cause significant financial loss.

In an effort to resolve this issue, the American Prairie Reserve also operates a for-profit wing called Wild Sky Beef, which serves not only to provide economic incentives to local ranchers and promote conservation, but also generates revenues that can be used to support the Reserve. When ranchers join the program, they receive monetary compensation for utilizing different wildlife-friendly practices. Using fences that allow elk and pronghorn to pass through and roam freely without getting caught or installing non-lethal predator deterrents (not killing wolves or bears on the property) are just some examples of practices supported by the program. Additional rewards are provided if wolves, bears, raptors, owls, or any other threatened wildlife are caught on camera on a ranch’s property. This not only discourages ranchers from harming wildlife, but also involves them in the efforts to actively promote wildlife restoration. Finally, cows from these wildlife-friendly ranches are purchased by Wild Sky Beef at high prices: because consumers know they are supporting these positive practices, they are willing to pay a premium. So far, these efforts have been relatively successful—Wild Sky Beef generated 3.3 million dollars in 2015.

Wild Sky Beef and the American Prairie Reserve are an exciting example how business can work hand in hand with conservation efforts. It will be interesting to see whether this program continues to succeed, and what the long-term impacts will be for the promotion of wildlife. With similar conflicts between wildlife and agriculture happening around the world it will be important to further investigate how these models can be adapted and applied to different landscapes and communities.