Outside interests: Montanans worry about American Prairie Reserve buying another | TSLN.com

Outside interests: Montanans worry about American Prairie Reserve buying another

Rebecca Colnar
for Tri-State Livestock News

The latest news the American Prairie Reserve has purchased an additional 14,122 acres to make their holdings 419,000 was met with derision and concern from some ranchers in close proximity to the nature reserve’s holdings. The American Prairie Reserve is an independent non-profit organization that has privately undertaken a project in northeastern Montana to create a wildlife conservation area of over three million contiguous acres through a combination of both private and public land.

The new acquisition is about five miles southeast of Craig and Conni French’s ranch. “Although the new parcel isn’t anything we border, at one time we leased that land and ran cattle there,” said Craig French. Some of their land butts up next to some of APR’s land.

French explained that the person who sold the land was not a rancher, but a businessman who had purchased it from a local rancher who used to outfit it. The owner had used it as a recreational getaway.

“We admit to being disappointed that he sold to the APR. We were hoping there was someone in his private circles who wanted to buy it as their hunting ground and private getaway,” Craig added. The house had a large lode, so was considered more of a recreational property.

One of the concerns of local ranchers is that the APR has deeper pockets and therefore is driving up the cost of land in the area.

“The fact is some families are leaving, as they can’t afford to expand because prices are out of kilter because of the APR,” Conni French noted. “I will say there are some good things happening. Because of the APR, there are several conservation groups who are starting to try to provide incentives for ranchers to keep ranching. They have grants for projects such as water lines and permanent electrical fence. The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance encourages us to improve our property to make our grazing more profitable so we can keep our land in ranching. If you have a successful, thriving business, your kids will want to come back to it and you won’t want to sell. I like to look at the bright side and I see some positives that because of the APR, people are banding together and realizing that because of this threat, people are realizing how precious our community is.”

Conni admits she’d love to turn back the clock 20 years when ranchers could quietly get their work done, taking care of their animals, the land and the water; however, it’s not the case so being involved and getting the word out about ranching is important

“You need to be political. You need to join groups like the Montana Farm Bureau, the Montana Stockgrowers, the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, to ally yourself. I know different community members have different ideas,” noted Conni.

The one thing that worries the Frenches is that when land comes up for sale, local ranchers will try to buy it so the APR doesn’t snap it up; yet that might stretch those ranchers too thin. “I’ve seen the stress of it taking a toll on people’s health. People will try too hard to stop the APR, stretch themselves too thin, and go under.”

Craig worried about the mission of the APR is not only to bring in buffalo and remove all of the interior fences, but then the predator species will come with wolves, grizzly bears and others.

“Our community, our friends and our neighborhood will be displaced if APR’s goals are met,” said Craig.

“For them to be successful, we have to be gone,” said Conni. “I’ve heard the term ‘Cultural genocide.’ The more I’ve learned and what’s happening, I don’t think it’s too strong of a term. We are a unique community and have a lot of people all over the world visit us here. They come from South Africa, Germany, Alaska and come here and they say, ‘I have never seen people like you!’ It’s a unique place. Hardships and distance forge a different kind of community. I feel our culture and community is what is most endangered. People are what make this place work. The land is in the good condition it’s in because generations have been taking care of it for 100 years.”

Craig believes that the APR taking out interior fences is going backwards in grass management. “I don’t see that as management at all. I see that as abandonment of land that they bought. Large grazing animals will be lazy, buffalo or cow. It’s been tried by Ted Turner and to his credit, he realized it wasn’t working and he put fences back in.”

“What ranchers can do is see this as a challenge to step up our game and talk about what we do in a professional, respectful manner,” Conni added. “We might have to step up and put more time into our business planning, and come up with new methods in business management. We need to make our businesses viable and so nobody wants to sell and make it so our young people can get involved in ranching.”

Perri Jacobs, Jacobs Ranch voices concerns, too.

Jacobs’ ranch has been in the family for 102 years, and is on the fourth generation running cows, calves and yearlings. Jacobs completely understands the value of a generational agricultural enterprise and is concerned about the APR changing the way of life in this special community of Montana. The latest APR acquisition lies about 20 miles east of the Jacobs Ranch, but they own property that is contiguous to the APR.

“Although they don’t have any buffalo against us at this point, we do own property that is contiguous,” said Jacobs. “My experience is that the APR is not a very good neighbor. The APR isn’t into maintaining fences. Right now, we share a BLM allotment in common. Last spring, this allotment is one of those that APR is trying to change to bison through the EIS process. If what they’ve requested gets approved, it will take AUMs away from the Jacobs Ranch, through the allottment in common.”

She feels APR isn’t invested in the community, noting the person in charge of the land decisions doesn’t live in Phillips County. “In fact, a lot of their decision makers don’t live in Phillips County. I know only a few of the folks who work for APR live in Phillips County, and some make an effort to be a part of the community

Jacobs lamented the APR mission is all about making a large buffalo reserve. “They are not concerned about the community of Malta or Phillips county, rural economics or our farmer and ranchers. If they follow through with their goal of 3.5 million acres of a reserve, what happens to the local economy and local communities? They will wither away and die. APR’s big claim is that tourism will save our community, but it won’t if there is no community to save. Their visitors don’t support our furniture stores, our banks, our accountants, schools, and nothing for the tax base.”

The rancher pointed out the APR mission doesn’t say anything about conservation, ranching or community. It’s strictly about being a wildlife preserve. “Their mission is not compatible with the rural community lifestyle,” Jacobs concluded. I’m an active opponent and I don’t agree with them.”

Another worry is the APR is driving up land prices. “We can’t verify they are paying outlandish prices other than when they make a big announcement what they paid, but I’m sure there were other incentives that don’t include cash. They hide what they do and you can’t get a real picture or what it’s doing to land prices. I do believe it’s raising prices beyond what a typical rancher could afford. We’ve worked too hard to keep our family ranch as a viable ranching operation instead of becoming America’s largest nature preserve.”

Jacobs noted that by driving up land prices, young farmers won’t be able to get into ranching. “This is a private property transaction that has every legal right to happen, but at $14.5 million you can’t make a go of it as a ranching operation. To me, the challenge is how do we keep young people in the ranching business if this is the kind of money they have to pay?” F