Linda Poole can’t restrain herself when it comes to the most-polarizing topic in Montana: the reintroduction of purebred bison. As Poole sees it, the bison aren’t a cause. They’re cuddly fundraising mascots helping the American Prairie Reserve to raise money to advance its mission of land accumulation under the auspices of species preservation.
“If you can ignite people’s imaginations with free-roaming bison,” she says, “you get the bison to make your money.”
The bison in question are grazing about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away on ranch land owned by the nonprofit Prairie Reserve, which has attracted some $60 million from well-known Wall Street and Silicon Valley financiers, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Summer 2013 issue.
Its plan is to buy out Poole’s neighbors and assemble as much as 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares) of contiguous private and public land -- about a million acres more than Yellowstone National Park to the south -- in a bid to build an American Serengeti, where the deer and the antelope can again play free.
The organization’s donor roll reads like a who’s who of the ultrarich: billionaire candy heirs Forrest Mars Jr. and his brother, John (combined net worth: $44 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index); German retail baron Erivan Haub ($4.9 billion); the foundation of Swiss medical device mogul Hansjoerg Wyss ($12.4 billion); and Susan Packard Orr, daughter of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Co. and chairwoman of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, which has assets of $5.6 billion.
After cobbling the properties together, the group plans to populate the sparsely settled scrubland with up to 10,000 genetically pure bison, descendants of the original animals that last thundered across the American frontier of the 1800s (as opposed to today’s tamer descendants, which have been crossbred with cattle).
They’ll mingle with coyotes, prairie dogs and other scourges of the cattlemen with whom the Prairie Reserve is battling (when it isn’t buying them out). The group will then allow the public full run of the expanse, much like a national park.
“Think of it like an empty aquarium,” says Sean Gerrity, 54, president of and the driving force behind the Prairie Reserve and a former Silicon Valley management consultant. “What we sell is the possibility, and we sell ourselves as the people capable of bringing that vision to fruition.”
What especially galls some local ranchers is the presumption that they and their forebears have done little to preserve the environment.
“The way we’ve managed these properties, the wildlife numbers are as good as they’ve ever been, perhaps rivaling what Lewis and Clark saw -- other than bison,” says Leo Barthelmess Jr., who keeps 610 cattle and 700 sheep on 24,700 acres 32 miles southeast of Malta, the main town in Phillips County, where much of the Prairie Reserve’s land is located.
Bison, as far as Barthelmess is concerned, are furry, fence-busting, brucellosis-spreading tanks. (Brucellosis being a bacterial infection that causes abortion or premature calving in infected cattle.) “In order to build their 3-to-4-million-acre vision, I can’t live here,” he says.
Poole helped start the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, which promotes wildlife-friendly fences, the preservation of sage grouse habitat and other conservation efforts.
“This landscape was broken in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Poole says. “Ranchers and the Soil Conservation Service worked and brought this prairie back. It’s not pristine; it’s restored. It doesn’t need to be saved from ranchers; it was already saved by ranchers.”
Poole says she suspects the Prairie Reserve’s cash will prove too tempting for other ranchers to turn down.
“It’s really hard for some people to resist that much money,” she says. “Most of these people are land rich and cash poor.”
The organization doesn’t disclose how much it pays for property, but rancher Vicki Olson says it’s paid as much as $2,000 an acre, whereas the going rate is typically a quarter of that.
“They want it big, and we have to be gone if they want thousands of buffalo running free,” says Olson, who keeps 500 head of Black Angus cattle on 20,000 acres of private and government-leased land 30 miles south of Malta. “There ain’t room for the both of us.”
The barbs directed toward the Prairie Reserve echo many of the same complaints that accompanied the creation of some of America’s national parks and monuments. Former President Bill Clinton’s 2001 designation of the nearby 375,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, for instance -- which limits both cattle grazing and oil development -- is still bitterly resented in the region.
Few national parks can match the history of rancor that accompanied the creation of the now-hallowed Grand Teton National Park in neighboring Wyoming. Smitten by the scenery after visits to a small precursor to the park in 1924 and 1926, Standard Oil Co. heir John D. Rockefeller Jr. created Snake River Land Co. as a purchasing agent to mask his involvement and keep land prices down.
“Local park supporters often faced hostilities and boycotts of their businesses throughout these turbulent years,” according to a U.S. National Park Service history.
Even after Rockefeller bought 35,000 acres for $1.4 million and offered to donate the land to the park service, it took more than two decades before Congress officially expanded the park in 1950.
Fear that the Prairie Reserve will obtain similar federal protection is evident in the bright-green signs posted around the area, with “Don’t Buffalo Me, No Federal Land Grab!” painted on one side and “Monument Wildlands Reserve” inside a circle with a slash through it on the other.
Prairie Reserve President Gerrity characterizes the ranchers’ complaints as a response to a diminishing way of life. “There was a dream of a pastoral existence and tight communities and that together we would have a very honorable lifestyle,” he says. “Well, that dream began to come apart right around World War I, and since then, the population decline has been 10 percent per decade in these areas. That is just how things are.”
The population of Phillips County fell 21 percent to 4,267 from 1970 to 2010 and dropped by another 139 people as of 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We’re not responsible for the underlying changes,” says Pete Geddes, a Prairie Reserve managing director. “But we are responsible for being at the forefront of environmental change. We have a different idea of what this land should be used for.”
What motivates many of the Prairie Reserve’s most ardent supporters is the chance to get in on the ground floor of something as lasting and majestic as a national park. George Matelich, a managing director of New York-based private-equity firm Kelso & Co., joined the cause and then the board after hearing Gerrity speak at a 2006 fundraising dinner at auction house Sotheby’s headquarters in New York.
“I would boil it down to a single line,” says Matelich, 56, who owns a vacation retreat in Montana. “How would you like to have had the opportunity to be a co-founder of Yellowstone National Park? This is an opportunity that is personally attractive both because of the scale and the chance to do something for all time -- not for the credit but for the satisfaction of doing it.”
F. Gibson “Gib” Myers Jr., a former partner of the $3 billion Mayfield Fund in Menlo Park, California, equates his mission with that of Theodore Roosevelt’s. The rough-riding, big game-hunting 26th president of the U.S. established five national parks and signed the powerful Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to unilaterally designate historic monuments.
Myers, 71, was so taken with the project after an early, rain-soaked visit in 2002 that he agreed to go on the board, and then become chairman, even before the Prairie Reserve had bought any land.
“I can’t think of anything better than being a Teddy Roosevelt, the founder of a great park,” Myers says. “Companies come and go, but the thought of being involved in something of such grandeur that will last forever is one of my dreams.”
Wealthy individuals replacing government as the primary protectors of sensitive land has become popular in recent years, with hedge-fund managers, broadcast and cable billionaires, and Europeans in love with the wide-open American West pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into acquisitions.
Billionaire hedge-fund manager Louis Moore Bacon has spent more than $400 million on 200,000-plus acres of land in the U.S., including the 172,000-acre former Forbes family ranch in Colorado in 2007. Bacon is preserving much of the land -- which includes three 14,000-foot (4,300-meter) peaks -- in its native condition and donated 167,000 acres to the federal government for conservation easements.
Bacon’s efforts in Colorado and on additional properties in New York and North Carolina earned him the prestigious Audubon Medal in January, when he was feted at a party featuring five women dressed in only bras and undies and painted and feathered to look like birds, according to a Bloomberg News account of the New York City soiree.
Another billionaire hedge-fund manager, Paul Tudor Jones, of Greenwich, Connecticut, has purchased at least three plots of land around the country, including the 25,000-acre Blue Valley Ranch in Colorado, where he’s restored a section of a river known among anglers as a prime trout-fishing habitat.
Media mogul Ted Turner’s 2 million acres in 12 states (and Argentina) make him the second-largest individual landowner in the U.S. -- after media baron John Malone, who owns 2.2 million acres in six states.
And in addition to his efforts on behalf of the Prairie Reserve, Wyss, who sold his Synthes Inc. in 2011 for $21.3 billion to Johnson & Johnson, gave $35 million toward a $490 million joint initiative by the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land to buy 310,586 acres of forest land from Plum Creek Timber Co. in northwestern Montana.
Few land buyers can equal the ambition -- and controversy - - of the Prairie Reserve, which is taking advantage of ample adjoining federal land to stitch together its goal of a massive prairie park.
When the Prairie Reserve acquired the 18,177-acre South Ranch on the northern border of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in August, for instance, the tract came with state and federal leases on an additional 131,711 acres, doubling the reserve’s footprint overnight to 274,000-plus acres.
Gerrity says he and his colleagues are trying their best to be good neighbors. They buy supplies in Malta and let the ranchers continue to raise cattle for a period after the Prairie Reserve has bought their land. In the works is a wildlife-friendly labeling program for local cattlemen who agree not to shoot prairie dogs or coyotes.
In theory, APR beef -- like dolphin-free tuna before it -- would command a higher price from ecoconscious consumers in New York and San Francisco. “Small steps to a better world,” Geddes says during an extended drive through the property.
Take a trip to the Prairie Reserve’s expanding empire, and you may wonder what all of the fuss is about. This isn’t the land of snowcapped mountains and icy clear streams jumping with trout that Brad Pitt romped through in 1992’s “A River Runs Through It,” based on the Norman Maclean novella about life in 1930s Montana.
Much of it consists of flat prairie dotted with scrub for as far as the eye can see, broken only by the occasional herd of cattle or sheep or by the swarming box elder bugs that can darken a ranch house window.
The logistics of reaching the area alone may put off all but the most diehard of travelers. First, you drive three hours from Billings or four from Bozeman -- the two closest airports with regular service -- to where the paved road ends. From there, it’s another hour or so to the American Prairie Reserve headquarters along a network of dirt roads that the occasional precipitation turns into what locals refer to as “gumbo” -- a sticky mess than can quickly swallow a truck’s tires.
“We’ll be making liberal use of helicopters,” Gerrity says of his organization’s plans to navigate the area.
Bryce Christensen, the barrel-chested on-site manager for the Prairie Reserve and a 33-year veteran of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, navigates the wet sections of road by barreling his four-wheel-drive pickup truck through the muck, shellacking its body with mud.
The attractions of the land blend the subtle with the historic. Just over the border of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is a buffalo jump, a small cliff where Native Americans herded bison to their death. Prairie dog towns are scattered across the landscape, distinguished by their grassless mounds and their frantic chirping when an intruder approaches.
The Prairie Reserve also rebuilt a one-room log schoolhouse that was used from 1942 to 1957, with four desks for the nonexistent students. And everywhere are the ubiquitous barbed-wire fences that Gerrity and his staff are either planning to tear down or make more wildlife-friendly by raising the bottom wire and removing the barbs to allow antelope to scamper through.
Accommodations until now have been Spartan. Prior options included pitching a tent at a campground within whiffing distance of the bison herd or staying in a converted ranch house guarded by a friendly black cat.
Lodging options are soon to improve, however, once the Prairie Reserve puts the finishing touches on a so-called safari camp consisting of eight yurts -- the Western name for the circular dwellings known in their native Mongolia as gers -- with heating and air conditioning, running water and sweeping prairie views.
While the view from the yurts still looks remote and windswept, Christensen and his colleagues and benefactors at the American Prairie Reserve envision a time when the scenery will be dotted with leaping antelope, thundering plains bison, chirping prairie dogs and the endangered black-footed ferrets whose favorite meal consists of prairie dog.
What’s not included in that distant view are the sheep herds, grazing cattle and the long line of ranchers who tamed the land in the first place.
“This is gonna be nice,” Christensen says, as an electrician strings wire through one of the yurts.