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Joe and LeAnne Delaney at home in Grass Range. Joe sold the Lazy 4J part of his operation to a third party LLC only to learn later it had flipped to the reserve. “I didn’t realize how big their idea was and, if I had, I wouldn’t have sold at all. At least trophy buyers eventually age and sell back out into the market. But now, there’s never going to be local people raising kids and growing cattle, never to take up that place. I should’a just kept it.” Photos by Dave Skinner

A special-interest group, funded by a handful of Forbes-listed billionaires, is aggressively pursuing a project that not only jeopardizes Montana’s economy and culture, but human health. The American Prairie Reserve (APR) is working to gather enough land, money and grazing rights to establish a 3.5-million-acre reserve housing a free-roaming herd of 10,000 bison.

RANGE magazine previously reported on the reserve, in 2012. The goal then was to buy up private ranches and then convert associated federal grazing leases from cattle to buffalo, eventually creating a reserve larger than Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million acres. The current special report in 2019 updates what has, and hasn’t, happened since.

While APR is already claiming victory, affected Montanans are pushing back on an idea they consider dangerous, promoted by an organization with more money than sense. If the proposed bison herds become a reality, look for the reserve concept to spill over to other states, an idea articulated by the Obama Administration’s Department of Interior in 2014.

The Fall 2019 issue of RANGE magazine presents a special report by investigative writer Dave Skinner, profiling the APR, historical high-finance precedents, Montana’s reliance on livestock production, and introducing some multi-generational Montana ranch families whose heritage of productive stewardship would be wiped off the map by APR.

A winner of multiple press awards, Skinner documents the often-toxic mix of politics, personalities and policies impacting America’s food producers. Skinner has established himself as a tireless and aggressive researcher who sniffs out the money, backroom deals, pet relationships and special interests that combined to drive hidden agendas. He believes that identifying who is dumping money into electoral campaigns or social causes reveals more about the real issues in play than any political ad or statement. Skinner’s well-documented investigations show facts and figures don’t lie, but people and their organizations do.

RANGE magazine has followed the bison story and other issues confronting food producers and has received six consecutive Freedom of the Press Awards.

According to Skinner, American Prairie Reserve depends on enormous, tax-sheltered-but-secret donations from a tiny “Billionaires Club.” However, the APR chose to partly reveal their best friends: German arts patron Erivan Haub (range from $1-2.5 million); soda executive Roger Enrico (range from $2.5-$10 million); Jacqueline Badger Mars (range from $2.5-$10 million); John and Adrienne Mars ($20 million-plus until 2014); and Forrest (Jr.) and Jacomien Mars (ranges from $1-2.5 million). Other $2.5-$10 million givers include board chairman and private–equity baron George Matelich and his wife, Susan, and Silicon Valley venture capitalists Gib and Susan Myers.  

Making You Physically Sick

Potential placement sites for free-roaming buffalo herds have been proposed all across the West, despite the fact bison must be first quarantined to be sure they are not infected with brucellosis, a disease that is on the Center for Disease Control’s bioterrorism list because it causes undulant fever in humans. Brucellosis is transmitted through contaminated milk and milk products and by direct contact with infected animals (wild elk and bison) and animal carcasses.

For now, Montana has a carefully controlled quarantine system, focused on controlling the spread of brucellosis from Yellowstone Park, where bison and elk are known to be infected. If just one bison of 10,000 slips quarantine, there is an immediate risk of a new brucellosis hot zone across millions of acres. Furthermore, as Skinner was multiply reminded in interviews, bison freely mate with cattle, increasing the likelihood the disease could spread.

It is safe to say that APR wants to permanently eliminate agriculture from the landscape, in favor of native flora and fauna, including predators, writes Skinner. APR public communications mention only a “reserve,” never overtly discussing whether the final product will be a privately supported reserve open to the public, donated to become a national park, or sold to the government at “free market value” for a national park.

In Grass Range, LeAnne Delaney notes: “We ranchers invest, too. APR’s backers are going to want some return on their investment. I just don’t know what. I think they will try to flip it to the federal government, take the cash, and target someplace else to save. We should know that before APR goes any further.”

Besides money, what about on the ground? State representative Dan Bartel (R-Lewiston) also asks a question on many minds. “Let’s say APR gets 10,000 bison out there. What happens if the fences break? If the range is overgrazed? If the money dries up and the whole scheme fails? What happens with 10,000 buffalo? If APR falls apart, who will be responsible? The state of Montana? The counties? The Feds?”

Whatever the results, both success and failure will set a precedent, writes Skinner. If the investors get a return, they may “re-invest” elsewhere in America. If APR falls apart, that’s another precedent.

A digital version of the 2019 investigation, “Buffalo Special Report: Critical Mass,” can be accessed by visiting www.rangemagazine.com. Fall 2019.    

A digital version of the 2012 special report, “Buffaloed,” can be viewed by visiting www.rangemagazine.com.  Back Issues/Fall 2012.