Fifth-generation Montana rancher Michelle Fox remembers once reading a passage from the journals of Lewis and Clark. The explorers were describing a spot located near where her tribal reservation is today—the view, back then, was “black with buffalo,” Fox, a member of the Gros Ventre Tribe, recalls. “I was standing there, and it’s hard for me to envision how it was,” she says.
Of course, hunters long ago displaced the tens of millions of buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains. Now, by making a few important changes to property, Fox feels she is doing her part in an unprecedented effort to bring the buffalo (also called the American bison) back.
Fox’s ranch is near lands owned by the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a nonprofit with an ambitious vision to build “America’s Serengeti” in north-central Montana. The privately financed effort aims to connect and preserve 3.5 million acres of grassland where native wildlife, including purebred bison, coyotes, elk, and antelope, can roam—and tourists can visit. When finished, it would be bigger than any national park in the lower 48 U.S. states, about roughly the size of Connecticut.
The project is controversial locally. It rubs directly against the long history of tension between ranchers and conservationists over America’s frontier. In the long-term, APR plans to raise $500 million and hopes to slowly buy ranchers’ property in its project area to help cobble together the reserve through a combination of private and public lands. No one is forced to sell, but many in the region consider it at worst a “land grab” by outsiders and at best yet another threat to the way their way of life, according to a Bloomberg piece.
But Fox, whose land adjoins the APR area, is not an opponent, and neither are all ranchers. In 2013, APR launched an unlikely spin-off business, called Wild Sky, aimed at easing tensions: It started selling beef under a brand called Wild Sky.
“The push behind Wild Sky was to be proactive about setting up a path for both ranchers and conservationists to get along,” says Laura Huggins, Wild Sky’s manager of economic initiatives. “We thought the easiest way to do that was through a financial reward.”
Wild Sky is working to recruit ranchers, like Fox, to implement measures on their ranch so wildlife in the area can pass through. In exchange, the ranchers receive extra payments raised from the sale of Wild Sky’s beef—which is also grass-fed and drug- and hormone-free—in outlets across the country. As the label expands, the goal is that other profits will help fund the larger American Prairie Reserve initiative, which is currently about $71 million towards its $500 million fundraising goal.
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