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American Prairie: Creating a huge new nature reserve in Montana

American Prairie's nature reserve
American Prairie: Restoring bison to northern Montana with a patchwork nature reserve | 60 Minutes 13:16

The United States has national parks devoted to canyons and deserts, glaciers and geysers; even underwater coral reefs. 63 national parks in all.

But somehow, we skipped the American prairie. The grasslands that once stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rockies played a vital role in the lives of Native Americans, White settlers, and an endless variety of wildlife. They inspired explorers and artists, but apparently not park planners.

Nearly 20 years ago, a nonprofit organization began trying to fix that, not with a new national park but rather a huge privately-operated nature reserve on the great plains, one that would be open to the public, but also a place where buffalo can roam once again.  

Through a vast stretch of open – and for the moment, empty – grassland, Alison Fox is taking us up a muddy two-track path in search of buffalo.

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Bison in Montana

Fox is the CEO of American Prairie, which has as just one of many audacious goals the restoration of bison to a landscape they once ruled.

Bill Whitaker: Oh, there. There.

Alison Fox: Oh, there they are.

Bill Whitaker: Look at them. Wow. There they are.

Alison Fox: Oh, look at the babies.

Bill Whitaker: Look at them. (LAUGH)

We found part of what American Prairie calls its "conservation herd" of about 800 buffalo. This group is mainly mothers with new calves, which are a distinctive shade of red. 

Alison Fox: Trying to do a count of the babies but now they've kind of moved the babies into the middle of the group. 

Bill Whitaker: This land is like this, as far as the eye can see?

Alison Fox: As far as the eye can see.

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  Alison Fox speaks with correspondent Bill Whitaker

That's not a bad description of the scale of American Prairie's ambition: to create the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States. The nonprofit has more than 50 employees, from fundraisers to buffalo wranglers. Alison Fox has worked there for 15 years and has been in charge for the last four. 

Bill Whitaker: Overall, the goal is to have how many acres in this reserve?

Alison Fox: Yeah, the overall goal is about 5,000 square miles, 3.2 million acres of intact grasslands. Comparable to the size of the state of Connecticut and also comparable to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks combined.

Bill Whitaker: That's big.

Alison Fox: It is big.

The big chunk of land is mostly north of the Missouri River in north central Montana, one of the most remote parts of the country. It's a patchwork of privately-owned cattle ranches and land owned by the government, including a huge existing national wildlife refuge named after the famous "cowboy painter," Charles M. Russell.

Alison Fox: And that 1.1 million acres serves as the-- anchor of American Prairie's 3.2 million acre vision.

Bill Whitaker: And so you've got these big chunks of federal land. And you're buying land in between to try to piece it all together?

Alison Fox: Exactly.

So just about every time a private ranch comes up for sale inside its desired "footprint" American Prairie tries to buy it, to add another piece to its puzzle and preserve more grassland.

Bill Whitaker: How many ranches have you purchased? 

Alison Fox: We have -- purchased 34 ranches.

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To buy all those ranches, American Prairie has raised nearly $200 million from more than 4,000 donors, including Wall Street financiers and technology moguls. It says it will take hundreds of millions more – and decades more – to complete the patchwork. 

Bill Whitaker: So this is a long game?

Alison Fox: This is a long game. And it's a long game for land acquisition. It's a probably even longer game for the restoration of habitats and species. This area was America's Serengeti, truly America's Serengeti with tens of thousands of bison, prong-horn, elk, deer, grizzly bears, wolves. 

Bill Whitaker: Is that the goal or is that a goal to restore that?

Alison Fox: Yes, to have the, the ecosystem function fully as it once did.

Charles russell's paintings portray a romanticized version of what the prairie ecosystem used to look like. Teeming herds of buffalo. Native americans hunting and living alongside the buffalo, at least until they both were displaced by white settlers and hundreds of thousands of cattle.

Conni French: It's amazing to think of the people that lived here before us, people and other things. So, over this direction there's quite a cluster of tepee rings. So the Native Americans used to use this.

Conni French operates this cattle ranch with her husband craig, and they are proud of their collaboration with conservation groups. In fact, they graze some of their cattle on a ranch that's been owned by the nature conservancy for more than 20 years. 

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  Conni French

But when American Prairie's early leaders came in talking about "saving" the land, it really rubbed her wrong. 

Conni French: So saving it, yes. But not just tromping over people. 

Bill Whitaker: Is that what it feels like?

Conni French: It does feel like that sometimes. Yes So. 

Bill Whitaker: They came in like, "We know better."

Conni French: Uh-huh.

Bill Whitaker: You have said that for their vision to become a reality, you and what you do, that you're gone.

Conni French: Uh-huh. I guess I can say, yes, that's how it feels to us. To me. 

Along the few roads slicing through the grasslands here, the signs are everywhere: "Save the cowboy. Stop American Prairie reserve." they make it clear that a lot of Conni French's ranching neighbors share her concern.

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A sign in Montana saying, "Save the cowboy. Stop American Prairie reserve."

Bill Whitaker: What some ranchers have told us is that when you say you want to save the land, what they hear is that you want to save the land from them. 

Alison Fox: Yeah. No, we are well aware that that word "save" hit a nerve. And that was not at all our intention. Many of our ranching neighbors are committed to conservation. So if I could pull back that word "save", I absolutely would.

American Prairie is now working hard to mend fences with skeptical neighbors. It has a program called "Wild Sky," run by a wildlife biologist on its staff, Daniel Kinka.

Daniel Kinka: Wild Sky ranchers are THE best at what they do, in terms of sustainable ranching.

Wild Sky will pay a rancher up to $15,000 a year for things like modifying fences to make them easier for wildlife to get over or through, while still keeping cattle contained. It also pays ranchers to install cameras on their property. 

Bill Whitaker: The rancher gets paid for every animal that crosses the path of this camera?

Daniel Kinka: That's correct. You get a coyote, that's 25 bucks. A black bear comes behind it, that's 300 bucks. Four or five elk come behind it, that's 50 bucks. The biggest payouts are for wolves and grizzly bears, $500 per picture per camera per day.

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  Daniel Kinka

Wolves and grizzly bears aren't on this part of the prairie at the moment; the idea of Wild Sky is that as they and other wildlife do return, payments will help cattle ranchers tolerate them. 

Lance Johnson, a 4th generation Montanan who runs a cattle ranch with his wife and two daughters, is one of 15 Wild Sky ranchers. The cameras on his property have captured enough pictures this year to earn him $6,000, the annual maximum American Prairie will pay for photos of wildlife.

Lance Johnson: These ranches are so hard to make profitable that if you can figure out any way to supplement your income, then that's probably necessary right now.

Johnson also leases grass and grazes cattle on a ranch owned by American Prairie. So while some of his neighbors see it as a threat, he says that working with it helps ensure his family's future.

Bill Whitaker: You see a place for you and your daughters and your cattle on this land for the foreseeable future--

Lance Johnson: We hope so. We hope for the rest of our lives that we're there. I wanna do everything I can to give our girls that opportunity to have ranching in the future.

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  Lance Johnson

American Prairie says it intends to work alongside cattle ranchers for decades to come and it does have some natural allies in the neighborhood. 

Bill Whitaker: The rancher and the wild space, can those two coexist?

Mark Azure: Yeah, they can and they are. Happening right now.

Mark Azure was born and raised on the Fort Belknap Reservation, which is adjacent to where American Prairie is assembling its reserve. He's a former president of the reservation's tribal council, made up of members of two tribes, the Nakoda and the Aaniiih.

Bill Whitaker: Is there any recollection of what this land was like before the white settlers came? Like, the wildlife.

Mark Azure: Yes. It-- it was plentiful. Millions and millions of buffalo, and-- and antelope, and deer, and-- prairie dogs, black footed ferrets-- elk. 

The tribes at Fort Belknap began building their bison herd nearly a half century ago and it's now more than a thousand animals. Mark Azure took us out to see part of the herd, which roams across a huge pasture on the reservation.

Mark Azure: So they're just scattered out doing what buffalo do, and that's eat the grass and right now enjoy the weather.

The tribes benefit economically from selling some buffalo meat, but you can see in the symbols used during native ceremonies that their value is much greater than money.

Mark Azure: We know the history of the tribes and the buffalo. And they were one and the same. To come out here and get on the prairie, and see a herd of buffalo, You can kind of leave that world for a little bit, and reconnect  with that lifestyle that my ancestors lived years ago. Might be just a little bit, but it's there.

Some ranchers fear that the tribes and American Prairie will let their buffalo roam free as they once did.

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Correspondent Bill Whitaker and Mark Azure

Mark Azure: You used the term, "free." And I always argued that point. Because there's a fence somewhere. There has to be a fence somewhere. But as much room as we can give them to roam -- then within that context, they'll be free. But not like it was 200 years ago. And we understand that.

Bill Whitaker: Still be a place where you can come to see the buffalo roam.

Mark Azure: Absolutely.

American Prairie encourages people to visit the land it owns. It operates campgrounds and has built huts and yurts that anyone can reserve. It allows hunting on many properties, which helps to build support among Montanans.

Alison Fox:  Across the West, you see more and more "No Trespassing" signs. We've talked a lot about -- wildlife and wildlife habitat, but certainly providing access for people to -- appreciate, learn from, recreate on this land is a really important part of what we're doing as well.

Rebuilding an ecosystem in America's grasslands | 60 Minutes 03:49

The debate over American Prairie is often framed as an "either-or." Either there are cattle or buffalo. If preservationists win, ranchers lose. What we found across these wide expanses of grass were much more subtle shades of green.

Conni French: You know, when a new group comes in, new folks, new neighbors -- it takes some time to learn if it's legit. 

Bill Whitaker: What I think I hear you saying is they have to earn your trust.

Conni French: Uh-huh.

Bill Whitaker: And so far, they have not.

Conni French: No. That trust isn't given lightly.

Mark Azure: With the size of the state of Montana, and the-- the herds of cattle, hundreds of thousands of animals in this state -- I don't think buffalo will ever compete, and that's not what we're trying to do. We're trying, with American Prairie, take a section of land in the state, and-- return it back as best we can to what it was 200 years ago.

Bill Whitaker: It's a huge section of land. 

Mark Azure: Still not bigger than Montana. I think there's room here for both.

Produced by Rome Hartman. Associate producer, Sara Kuzmarov. Edited by Michael Mongulla.

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