A park in Montana takes a revolutionary, businesslike approach to protecting one of the world’s last remaining grasslands.

The American Prairie Reserve is a public-private partnership that is bringing back bison, antelope, bears, elk and other iconic American wildlife to the Montana prairie.

This group buys private ranches from willing sellers and also relies on private donations. The reserve hopes to stitch together a sea of grass that visitors and native wildlife can explore.

Pronghorn herd in grassland (Dennis Lingohr/APR)
Pronghorn herd (Dennis Lingohr/APR)

By combining private and public land, American Prairie Reserve hopes to grow 50 percent bigger than Yellowstone National Park, the United States’ first national park and one of its biggest.

What makes the American Prairie Reserve different from other parks in the U.S. is that it doesn’t rely solely on federal and state involvement. Instead, the reserve describes itself as a hybrid, combining existing public lands with private resources and a “businesslike approach” to securing land and improving the park.

Canoes sitting on the bank of river (Dennis Lingohr/APR)
Canoes along the Missouri River (Dennis Lingohr/APR)

Land, wildlife and people

While the reserve is nonprofit, its approach is evident in the for-profit beef company, called Wild Sky, that the reserve operates on the outskirts of the park.

Ranchers at Wild Sky agree to modify their operations in certain ways — for instance, they protect prairie dogs or install “wildlife-friendly” fencing. Profits from Wild Sky beef sales are shared among ranchers and the reserve.

Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson, a Republican who represented Wyoming for 18 years, said earlier in 2017, “Preserving the prairie is about more than protecting an endangered ecosystem; it’s about protecting a disappearing way of life.”

Brown and white bird standing on ground; orange and black butterfly on plant; bison looking into camera (APR)
Sage grouse, butterfly, bison (APR)

Ranchers in the past have not wanted predators near their livestock, but mountain lions, bears and other predators signify healthy ecosystems.To help wildlife thrive in the park, while at the same time helping nearby ranchers, the reserve pays ranchers to install cameras on their land and capture photos of animals. The park rangers gain photographic data, and ranchers and farmers become more interested in making their grazing land available to wildlife.

The compensation scheme is modeled on similar programs that help protect snow leopards in Nepal and cheetahs in Namibia.

Bird's-eye view of a group of tents on open prairie at sunset (Gib Myers/APR)
American Safari at Kestrel Camp (Gib Myers/APR)

David Crasco, a fifth-generation rancher and a member of the Assiniboine American Indian tribe, said he is proud that cougars and bears make homes on his ranch. “My people have always had a relationship with the landscape,” he said. “It just feels right.”

The reserve is hoping the work it does will ultimately restore the entire prairie ecosystem, including wolves, bighorn sheep, snakes and swift foxes.

Hilary Parker of American Prairie Reserve said that in some places, you can look out for 100 miles and not see a building. The wilderness attracts hikers, campers and hunters seeking to experience unspoiled beauty.

The vastness of Montana made Alison Fox, the reserve’s president, fall in love with the prairie. “The way the complexity of the landscape reveals itself over time is a constant source of inspiration,” she said.