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The American Great Plains rival the Serengeti
August 21, 2010 12:14 PM   Subscribe

The American Great Plains rival the Serengeti, according to National Geographic, but unlike in apparently more progressive Africa, the USA never protected the plains on a large scale. Now private interests under the The American Prairie Foundation are buying up land in Montana hoping to create a multi-million acre preserve that would be the largest privately funded conservation land venture on the planet, bigger than Yellowstone National Park, that one day may see the return of great migrating herds of bison, pronghorn antelope, deer and elk. Not all Montana ranchers are happy with the new Serengeti neighbor.
posted by stbalbach (33 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not all Montana ranchers are happy with the new Serengeti neighbor Great Plains... which is where they chose to live... and which was there long before they were... and which some people want to make sure still exists, at least on some scale, into the future.
posted by markkraft at 1:05 PM on August 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


Wide open spaces? Room for everyone? We once drove from Great Falls to Jordan without seeing another car, or a tree, or a cow. Will tourists be willing to make such a drive to stare at a prairie zoo? Montana requires a certain frame of mind.
posted by Cranberry at 1:06 PM on August 21, 2010


Montana ranchers also seem to think that they have the right to drive wolves to extinction, so as far as I'm concerned they can take off their pants and go sit on a fencepost.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:06 PM on August 21, 2010 [9 favorites]


This is where they can put the revived wooly mammoth population, once they've been cloned.
posted by Faze at 1:07 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


It'll be a private reserve, of course, further entrenching the majority ownership of the USA by a mere 1% of the ultra-wealthy. Maybe if you're lucky, they'll allow the poor to set up reservations on it.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:11 PM on August 21, 2010


Interesting topic. See also The Buffalo Commons and previously on Mefi. Proposals like this put me on guard because some in the past (not necessarily ones I'm linking to) have made it sound like we have to completely get the people out of the picture and have generally come off like jerks. But most conservation groups now are pretty thoughtful about this stuff. There are some great details in this post about ranchers working with conservationists ("Ranchers have gone barb-less on their bottom fence wire and raised it from 4 inches above ground to 18 inches in order to accommodate four-legged wildlife") and the APF being aware of their impact on the community ("Since its inception in 2001, APF’s expenditures in Phillips County total over $18.3 million"). I can't wait until the day that the ranchers vs. conservationists framing recedes into the past.

On preview, fff, you might want to read the links.
posted by salvia at 1:14 PM on August 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Within one human lifetime, the prairies have passed from wilderness to beome the most altered habitat in this country, and one of the most disturbed, ecologically simplified and overexploited regions in the world. The essence of what we risk losing when the grasslands are destroyed is not a species here or a species there, but a quality of life."

Dr. Adrian Forsyth, The End of Emptiness (1982).

Ranching is not incompatible with wildlife, but it is not a replacement for undisturbed habitat either.

"If we’re completely successful, more than 90 percent of northeast Montana will still be in livestock production, be it goats, sheep or cattle,” said Sean Garrity, president of the foundation." So while I can empathise with the need to provide land for human food production and for a particular way of life, I don't see this is an loss for ranching as a whole.

five fresh fish: It'll be a private reserve, of course, further entrenching the majority ownership of the USA by a mere 1% of the ultra-wealthy. Maybe if you're lucky, they'll allow the poor to set up reservations on it.

Huh?

Access:
• Much of the American Prairie Reserve is already open to visitors and in 2010 the organization will take a major step toward improving public access by opening the Reserve’s first public campground. A multi-use trail is also in the works, and efforts are underway to install interpretive signs at key points on the Reserve.

• Through its Educational Outreach Program, American Prairie Foundation partners with local schools to provide educational opportunities for students of all ages. Working with Montana Outdoor Science School (MOSS), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and area schools, APF holds field days and in-classroom lessons designed to provide hands-on science learning and outdoor education.

posted by faineant at 1:19 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ted Turner owns 2 million acres.

The Great Green Land Grab.

IMO, you're naïve if you think billionaires are going to share nicely. They cover their own asses first and foremost.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:25 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


IMO, you're naïve if you think billionaires are going to share nicely.

But they were so honest about the California beach!
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:33 PM on August 21, 2010


This is their Board of Directors. They're already sharing nicely. That doesn't require them to do so in the future, of course, but there doesn't, at yet, seem to be any reason to suspect they won't continue to do so.

Guess time will tell.
posted by faineant at 1:34 PM on August 21, 2010


Ranching is not incompatible with wildlife, but it is not a replacement for undisturbed habitat either.

Unless you are restoring bison or some other grazing herds, you really may need ranching. These weren't historically "undisturbed." Ungulates churned the soil and redistributed nutrients. The quote below is from a very different climate, but (I don't want to spend all day looking for links and) I've heard the same thing from a biologist working on the Great Plains:
The grazing of cattle at the Porter Ranch is an example of a disturbance regime designed to mimic the grazing patterns of wild herds and thus benefit native bunch grasses and grassland-dependant species such as badgers, gopher snakes, white-tailed kites, western bluebirds, bobcats, and burrowing owls.
It's a delicate balance because overgrazing and having large stationary cattle populations are definitely not good. I'm not as informed as I'd like to be here, so maybe in the last five years this has been figured out definitively, but from what I've heard, disturbance regimes are a topic area where the science is still advancing and people of honor can disagree. Maybe a grasslands ecologist will show up with some more details.
posted by salvia at 1:37 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not disagreeing, at all salvia; I should have been a smidge more specific re: undisturbed.

I have seen some of the cattle distribution regimes designed to mimic bison grazing patterns, and as far as I know, the jury is still out on the results. I would venture a guess that they help, for sure, but it is really tough to create artificial patterns that echo natural ones in any ecosystem, and prairies are fragile.
posted by faineant at 1:44 PM on August 21, 2010


Sounds like we're on the same page, faineant (and that you see more of this up-close than I do). I have also heard a number of environmentalists grumbling about conservation projects that allow grazing.

IMO, you're naïve if you think billionaires are going to share nicely

What makes you think that ranchers who own thousands of acres and whose main concern may be just staying in business or turning a profit are public-spirited? I can only imagine how opposed most would be to letting members of the public hike and camp on their land. Even if it concentrates the ownership slightly, it seems like a net improvement to me. Also, it's really not a dualistic ranchers vs. conservationists thing here. Per the links above, the Nature Conservancy gives cheap leases to ranchers, much like the Bureau of Land Management does. In fact, from the fences I've seen on leased-out BLM land, even though it is publicly-owned, it is less "public" than this privately-owned land described above.

I agree that concentration of wealth sucks. I just don't think that this is Exhibit A. Even if you want to criticize conservation groups that acquire land, I don't think this is Exhibit A.
posted by salvia at 1:58 PM on August 21, 2010


See also the Yellowstone To Yukon Conservation Initiative.
posted by homunculus at 2:03 PM on August 21, 2010


Climate change makes "restoring the lands" a rather fruitless endeavor. They're gonna go back to nature, but it'll never be the one that was there 200 years ago.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:15 PM on August 21, 2010


And, yes, time will tell. I'd prefer it were public lands.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:16 PM on August 21, 2010


I'd prefer it were public lands.

It probably will be eventually. That's how Nature Conservancy and others work, they step in with immediate cash to buy up and organize a large parcel of contiguous land, often under duress and time constraints, hold it for a while until it becomes established, then sell it to the Federal or State governments as a park, and use the money to start the process over somewhere else. If it wasn't for private money doing this, it probably would never happen with public money. But once the thing exists and is accepted, it's much easier to turn over to the state.
posted by stbalbach at 4:46 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ted Turner owns 2 million acres.

2 million acres is a lot of land, but it's not a vast amount of land in the context of the west. If that was a contiguous parcel, it'd be a roughly 56-mile square. In the 1870s, there were Bonanza farms in North Dakota with 40,000+ contiguous acres under till (imagine a single wheat field that spans from horizon to horizon). Some of the larger companies owned multiple farms with a combined acreage of over 100,000.

You still see entire townships (36 square miles) in private ownership. There are still 200,00 acre ranches in parts of the west. The west is BIG.
posted by nathan_teske at 4:50 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'll admit I'm a cynical bastard. Sorry, y'all, for having threadshat.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:23 PM on August 21, 2010


I like the idea of one day this turning into public owned land, but then, when it comes to government land in the West, it's amazing what a high bidder can get the rights to exploit and then barely pay a dime of royalty for.
posted by Atreides at 5:48 PM on August 21, 2010


Which isn't a problem with public ownership, but disconnect between the people and government. Or to much connection between government and private interests. Should fix the latter.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:56 PM on August 21, 2010


Re: bison - damn fine meat. Harvesting buffalo to support conservation is a good idea, IMO.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:58 PM on August 21, 2010


I love it! They complain when the govt does it (seriously just had someone complain that the Nat'l Parks service is an abuse of Federal Powers). So private use should be fine, right? Wrong!
posted by Eideteker at 7:04 PM on August 21, 2010


Re: bison - damn fine meat. Harvesting buffalo to support conservation is a good idea, IMO.

95% of the bison in existence are being grown for meat. Farmers choose for animals that are docile and big and meaty - they are being quickly domesticated. In addition almost all of these animals contain some bovine genes that entered the pool a long time ago, some more than others. Some have so much cow in them it's almost a joke to sell them as Bison. I've eaten a lot of Bison meat, and only a few times can I say it was really real bison, most of the time it tastes like cow - fatty and without the strong game flavor.

The only fully wild herd of Bison are in Yellowstone, a few thousand animals. Actually the small herd at The American Prairie Foundation is also pretty "pure" as well, since they could hand-pick the animals from the start.
posted by stbalbach at 7:46 PM on August 21, 2010


Climate change makes "restoring the lands" a rather fruitless endeavor. They're gonna go back to nature, but it'll never be the one that was there 200 years ago.

No it won't, but then even if Europeans hadn't settled it it wouldn't be the same. Hell even if people hadn't wondered over from Siberia 10-30k years ago it wouldn't be the same. Nature changes all on its own, and whose to say they way it was 200 years ago was some kind of perfect ideal? The inhabits when Europeans started colonizing (probably Sioux, but I really don't know for sure)had huge effects on the land-by fire mostly but the archeological record points to several extinctions that can be laid at the feet of stone age hunters of one tribe or another, and even before homo-sapiens came to be there extinctions and changes.

BTW-I am not saying that modern man isn't causing a huge impact on the land. I spent a lot of my youth appraising land with my dad all over New Mexico and seeing the unmistakable harm that poorly managed ranches have on the land-and in this sense the ranchers have really screwed up. I also saw some ranches run right and some even repairing damage caused by their parents or predecessors who really didn't know better. Modern Ranching techniques are pretty damn good. But I really had the attitude that the world was in some kind of perfect state just before western industrial civilization showed up.

And the public probably has a better chance of access under this conservation group than it does if it was all privately held by ranchers. Not only did i learn about how to judge the health of the soil and grass and I learned to REALLY dislike most ranchers.
posted by bartonlong at 9:42 PM on August 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


But I really Hate (not had) the attitude that the world was in some kind of perfect state just before western industrial civilization showed up. *dammit*
posted by bartonlong at 9:44 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Which isn't a problem with public ownership, but disconnect between the people and government. Or to much connection between government and private interests. Should fix the latter.

No, it IS a problem with public ownership. It is the very reason that groups who care about wildlife buy land. You think they didn't try to change how public land was managed first?
posted by salvia at 10:45 PM on August 21, 2010


The inhabits when Europeans started colonizing (probably Sioux..

The plains indians are known as Buffalo hunters.. but this only became a permanent lifestyle after the introduction of the horse around 1650. Prior to that Indians had no way to keep up with the migrating herds and only hunted them seasonally, they were not as central to their culture. If there was a time when the Great Plains began to die, one might say it was when the Indians got the horse and became migrant bands following and killing the Buffalo, sometime after 1650 or so.
posted by stbalbach at 12:29 AM on August 22, 2010


Shame about your bison meat experience. My local bison ranch has, IMO, great meat. Way better than beef.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:12 AM on August 22, 2010


Ted Turner owns 2 million acres.

2 million acres is a lot of land, but it's not a vast amount of land in the context of the west.


The Flying D ranch is bordered on the east by the Gallatin and on the west by Madison (Bear Trap canyon), two of the three rivers that make up the the headwaters of the Missouri. It's only a couple hundred thousand acres, but it's in an important spot (prime wintering for elk from Yellowstone, etc).
posted by 445supermag at 10:55 AM on August 22, 2010


I spent a week in June on a birdwatching tour in the Charles M. Russell N.W.R. area, Malta, Zortman, and over towards Fort Peck, Montana. A common theme we heard, that is creating a feeding frenzy for land purchases amongst the competing conservation organizations in the area (World Wildlife Fund, American Prairie Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy) is the sudden availability of vast tracts of grazing land because the next generation doesn't want to follow in the ranching footsteps of their parents. Ranchers with no interested heirs are increasingly more open to selling to or cooperating with conservationists. It's a golden time for these groups (and the BLM and USF&W) who for decades have been like isolated evangelical missionaries preaching a preservationist message in lonely outposts to disbelieving, disinterested and often hostile cattlemen and sod-busters who now in order to cash out are 'getting religion' and approaching these groups with open arms and hands out. Their conversion will come at a high price. More ranchers and farmers are open to a sale but they aren't giving the land away. And decades of abusive practices such as overgrazing or monoculture farming have rendered many of the tracts nearly barren and eroded. Native prairie grasses can never be re-established on tilled soil. Still, acquiring the land and establishing such areas as the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor is a hopeful sign for friends of wildlife and the earth.
posted by birdwatcher at 5:01 AM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


OMG! Private parties are buying up land, depriving poor, hard-working ranchers of their rightful place in land ownership! This can not be allowed!

Seriously, can there be any more blatant and bald example of these supposedly oh, so "libertarian" and "self-reliant" people being entirely without integrity? They don't want all that self-reliant crap. They simply want what they want, and that's what they (and/or their predecessors) had. They'll quite happy demanding the GOVERNMENT step to make sure things remain the way they "were intended".

Private property reins supreme? Only if it works to their advantage. Otherwise, hell no! The government MUST regulate! We can't have outsiders coming in and buying up the land at good prices! We can't have ranchers choosing to voluntarily sell out their ranches! It must stop! It's UNAMERICAN!

Fuck the romantic image of tough self-reliant ranchers right to hell. It's bullshit. They're just another group of self-interested folks willing to take on any coloration so long as it's to their advantage. Yee fucking ha.
posted by Goofyy at 6:55 AM on August 23, 2010 [2 favorites]




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