The Great Plains is a landscape that has been valued by humans for centuries, from the Native Americans who inhabited it to the artists, explorers and fur trappers who marveled at its wildlife bounty. Since the 19th century, a variety of efforts have been undertaken to ensure that America’s Great Plains remains intact for future generations.
Homesteaders, and now ranchers, have worked to make a living raising livestock while preserving wildlife species that could live in harmony with ranching operations. Numerous hunting groups have fought to conserve critical wildlife habitat and have pushed for legislation to ensure viable populations of game animals. And conservation and science-based organizations have worked to restore many native species of plants and animals.
In 1999, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) published Ecoregional Planning in the Northern Great Plains Steppe, which, for the first time, pinpointed specific, critical areas of the Northern Great Plains that were the most viable for conserving the existing diversity of plants and animals. The region just north of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana was identified as a top priority for grassland conservation, owing to the relatively pristine condition of the land and the diversity of wildlife species in the area.
Shortly after TNC published its findings, World Wildlife Fund decided to initiate a conservation effort in the Montana Glaciated Plains, one of the key areas identified by TNC. They determined that an independent entity, capable of focusing all of its time and resources on the preservation of Montana’s Northern Great Plains, would be the best vehicle through which to initiate a large-scale conservation effort. In June 2001, The Prairie Foundation was officially formed as an independent non-profit organization, later named American Prairie Foundation and now simply American Prairie Reserve.
Today, American Prairie Reserve is a freestanding Montana-based nonprofit that started to assemble land in 2004. Their main focus is to purchase and permanently hold title to private lands that glue together a vast mosaic of existing public lands so that the region is managed thoughtfully and collaboratively with state and federal agencies for wildlife conservation and public access.
The idea of preserving a unique area of the American prairie, to be enjoyed forever and by all walks of life, has been worked on diligently, and in a variety of ways, for well over one hundred years. At American Prairie Reserve, they view thier work as continuing the legacy of a long line of talented people and committed organizations as well as honoring a landscape that has helped shaped the vitality and character of our country.
Restoring the Prairie
Prairies were one of the ecologically richest landscapes on earth but are now one of the most globally impacted and threatened biomes. Across the world, less than two percent have been permanently conserved. Numerous species and ecological functions have been dramatically reduced and are imperiled.
American Prairie Reserve aims to restore a complete and fully functioning prairie ecosystem, the largest of its kind in North America. This is critical to securing long-term conservation of our grasslands. They also aim to restore the natural abundance of species in the region by relying on sound science. Their approach is rigorous, collaborative and action-oriented.
The Reserve’s approach to land management and biodiversity restoration is built around the Freese Scale for Grassland Restoration. Developed by conservation biologist Dr. Curt Freese with Dr. Kyran Kunkel and Dr. Sam Fuhlendorf, the Freese Scale identifies the ten major ecological drivers for restoring and conserving biodiversity on temperate grasslands. This scale can be used by land managers trying to achieve a balance between agricultural production and biodiversity as well as those, like the Reserve, which are solely focused on maximizing native prairie biodiversity.
Each year, Reserve staff, along with input and data from experts, partners, and the Landmark program, rate the regions of American Prairie Reserve according to the Freese Scale. The total score for a particular area is recorded and retained, allowing for annual comparisons. Armed with this information, they decide what approaches in management could lead to an improved score for a particular area of the Reserve.
Rebuilding wildlife populations means providing resilient and rich habitats where animals can move and thrive.
Restoring Plowed Land → For the disturbed areas that are now owned by the Reserve, they are actively working to improve the soil and native vegetation
Fence Removal and Modification → Fence removal and modification is one of the Reserve’s ongoing effort to increase connectivity and ease the movement of animals like pronghorn
Prescribed Fire → Historically, fire was a critical component of the prairie ecosystem, but it is no longer a player in the ecology of the northern Great Plains
Stream and Riparian Restoration → Prairie streams once supported a diverse array of plants and wildlife but much of this habitat been lost and the Reserve is working on restoration
Although this region was once known for its abundance of wildlife, current wildlife populations are greatly diminished. American Prairie Reserve works to rebuild wildlife populations in three strategic ways:
- Collaborating with state and federal agencies, who oversee all wildlife management decisions, on their population targets for at-risk species such as swift fox
- Partnering with ranching operations around the Reserve’s edges to increase tolerance for wildlife reducing the amount of kills and the region’s habitat fragmentation
- Restoring the habitat they own to create conditions that help animals move, eat, and thrive
Bison Restoration → The Reserve reintroduced bison in 2005 after a 120-year absence
At-Risk Animals → The Reserve is deep in research and action taking place to help prairie dogs, grassland birds, cougars, swift fox, pronghorn, and black-footed ferrets
Wild Sky Ranches → Ranchers enrolled in their Wild Sky program receive financial incentives to manage their properties in alignment with the Reserve’s goals for biodiversity
Building the Reserve
The innovative model for building American Prairie Reserve calls for stitching together three million acres of existing public lands using private lands purchased from willing sellers. When these fragmented public and private lands are connected, the Reserve will provide a continuous land area collaboratively managed for wildlife and recreation, the largest of its kind in the Lower 48 states.
Since 2004, American Prairie Reserve has completed 26 transactions to build their habitat base of 399,379 acres. Of this total:
- 91,588 acres are private lands owned by the Reserve
- 307,791 acres are public lands (federal and state) leased by the Reserve most iconic protected areas, the Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems.
Impact on Leases in the C.M.R. National Wildlife Refuge
American Prairie Reserve’s acquisitions have also resulted in the retirement of 63,777 acres of cattle grazing leases in the neighboring Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Some ranches purchased by the Reserve historically held grazing privileges on the refuge that do not transfer to new owners, meaning that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can now restore the habitat primarily for wildlife use.
The American Prairie Reserve is located on the legendary high plains surrounding the Missouri River in northeastern Montana.
In 2016, the Reserve launched the Land of Legacy campaign, the most ambitious era in their 15-year journey to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States. The multi-year campaign is centered on several major initiatives, including:
- Accelerating land acquisition to expand the size of the Reserve
- Building a National Discovery Center, Campground & Welcome Center in Lewistown, Montana
- Establishing a Hut-to-Hut Trail System
- Creating a National Prize awarded annually to a distinguished American
- Transforming their giving programs to inspire donors from all walks of life
American Prairie Reserve is a freestanding Montana-based nonprofit. Its main focus is to purchase and permanently hold title to private lands that glue together a vast mosaic of existing public lands so that the region is managed thoughtfully and collaboratively with state and federal agencies for wildlife conservation and public access. Visit AmericanPrairie.org to discover more about the programs and impact the American Prairie Reserve is creating on behalf of future generations.