Herd mentality 

220 pure bison already roam free in Montana–sort of.

Weeks before the Sioux and Assiniboine people of Fort Peck gathered to welcome the first herd of wild Yellowstone bison to their reservation, on March 19, a quieter celebration was taking place 100 miles away. Workers on a private wildlife reserve south of Malta turned loose 71 wild bison from Canada's Elk Island National Park March 8, adding to a herd already 149 strong.

There was none of the controversy surrounding the Fort Peck relocation—no restraining orders, no secretive transport arrangements, no hot newspaper headlines the following morning. Only cattle cars and buffalo.

Welcome to the American Prairie Reserve, a 123,000-acre grassland sanctuary billed as the Serengeti of North America.

click to enlarge Missoula news
  • Photo courtesy of Dennis Linghor
  • One of the 71 bison recently brought from Canada to Montana‚Äôs American Prairie Reserve

The bison released by APR marked the fifth shipment to the reserve since 2005. What started as a modest herd of 16 has grown steadily by means of transplants from Elk Island and South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park. Roughly 220 bison now roam an APR pasture of 14,000 acres. APR President Sean Gerrity says that within the next few years, that pasture will increase to more than 30,000 acres. It's all about "letting them do what bison do," he explains.

APR's broader mission is ambitious: restore a diverse, fully functioning grassland ecosystem to rival the West's 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park, complete with unfenced populations of birds, prairie dogs, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep and, of course, bison. APR has already made significant strides over the past 10 years, largely thanks to the deep pockets of boosters such as candy and pet food heir John Mars—ranked 20th on Forbes's list of richest Americans, alongside his brother Forrest and sister Jacqueline.

That Fort Peck's relocation last month ruffled more feathers publicly than the arrival of APR's new residents doesn't surprise Gerrity. Locals have grown accustomed to the reserve's presence after six and a half years, he says. When it comes to bison reintroduction, Fort Peck is now where APR was in 2005. It'll take time for the consternation and skepticism to cool. "What you have in front of you is eight or 10 years to prove yourself," Gerrity says, referring to the state's efforts.

There are those who would argue Gerrity is getting ahead of himself, that APR itself isn't there yet. Locals have criticized the nonprofit's motives since APR floated the idea of housing eight bison in 2003. The nonprofit has bought up vast tracts of land from local ranchers, augmenting those private holdings with public land leased from the Bureau of Land Management. Some cattlemen continue to decry APR's land purchases, claiming the reserve is eroding the ranching industry and supplanting a Montana way of life.

"I don't think anybody's very comfortable," says Dale Veseth, a rancher deeply involved in other conservation efforts in the area. He knows several ranch families who have sold to APR. "We feel our days are limited. We've put lifetimes into these ranches and really hate to give them up."

For Kerry White, director of the Bozeman-based group Citizens for Balanced Use, the mere idea of free-roaming bison in eastern Montana threatens to "destroy private property."

"How can you expect livestock producers to allow free-roaming bison across eastern Montana?" White asks. "How would you even consider that a possibility? These bison have to be fed, they have to be contained, they have to be taken care of, they have to be managed."

Gerrity questions those concerns, particularly when it comes to the possibility of bison breaking out of APR and grazing on neighboring property. The reserve has only had one such incident. Gerrity calls it a "walkabout." Two years ago, heavy snows covered a portion of the fence around the bison pasture, he says. APR quickly located the bison and had them back inside their enclosure within two days.

"That kind of stuff happens," Gerrity continues. "There's also thousands of head of cattle that got out for the exact same reason, and people spent weeks, neighbors helping neighbors, getting their livestock back. We were just part of that mix."

Citizens for Balanced Use was one of several plaintiffs seeking a restraining order against the Fort Peck bison shipment last month. The group is also a strong participant in a lawsuit against Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the same issue. Yet APR has mostly managed to fly under the group's radar. That's because the reserve's bison—thoroughly quarantined and tested by Canadian and U.S. officials en route to Montana—are technically classified as livestock.

"Those are domestic bison," White says. "Those are livestock." Citizens for Balanced Use has no argument against domesticated bison.

Dig into APR's emphasis on genetics and you get a different story. Gerrity says the nonprofit has gone to great lengths to ensure genetic diversity and purity among its bison. Two years ago, APR tested every animal in its herd for cattle genes using the latest scientific methods available. The test is called single nucleotide polymorphism genotyping. The APR herd is currently the only one in North America where every animal has been tested; 92 bison showed signs of cattle genetics, Gerrity says, and were promptly shipped elsewhere.

For Gerrity, there's no question about the wildness of APR's herd. And he has no doubt that, one day, bison will roam free across Montana. "All roads are leading in that direction," he says.

The big question is, where can they go?

"American Prairie Reserve," Gerrity says, "is going to emerge as one spot—a very big spot—that is bison friendly."

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