Conservation group buys 4,500 acres in Phillips County for reserve
A view of a road leading toward the 4,500-acre Phillips County ranch, purchased by the American Prairie Foundation.
The recent purchase of a ranch in Phillips County is the first step in a conservation group’s vision of re-establishing a prairie grassland rich with bison, prairie dog towns and black-footed ferrets.
By SONJA LEE
Tribune Staff Writer
The American Prairie Foundation bought the 4,500 acres south of Malta as a step toward restoring a chunk of Montana’s high plains to its presettlement condition.
It’s a dream supported by a handful of conservation organizations — and one that makes locals nervous.
Butch Matovich, who ranches immediately west of the project, is concerned about the long-term impact of the plan.
"I hate to look over the fence and question what our neighbors are doing," Matovich said. "I don’t have much faith in them keeping their buffalo on their property. And we’ve already got more prairie dogs than we can handle here."
But Sean Gerrity, president of the Bozeman-based American Prairie Foundation, promises the prairie project will be in harmony with neighboring ranches.
Foundation members realize that their vision of owning more property and adding prairie dogs or ferrets is a long-term goal that won’t happen without community acceptance, Gerrity said.
"Our overall purpose as an organization is to use private land out in this area on the high plains to emphasize wildlife values," the Great Falls native said. "We want to do that in conjunction with other uses out there, and we think it can happen side by side."
Buying the ranch
The foundation purchased the ranch earlier this year from Ross and Dan Wiederrick. Smaller properties also were bought that link up the original acreage with the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, said Tom Lalley, senior communications officer with the World Wildlife Fund.
WWF is lending its expertise to wildlife research on the property. As their work is completed, the land is being leased back to the Wiederricks, who continue to run their Charolais cattle and work the ranch.
The family didn’t sell for financial reasons, Dan Wiederrick said. He and his brother were getting older, and it was just time.
Besides, it was starting to feel like government was closing in on all sides, Wiederrick said. Black-footed ferrets were introduced on a slice of government property inside the ranch, and the Endangered Species Act, mandating the protection of piping plovers and, potentially, the sage grouse, was creating management issues.
About two-thirds of the ranch is part of the wildlife and game refuges in the area. "So there wasn’t anybody to buy it except a group like the Prairie Foundation," Wiederrick said.
"Things are changing. When we got the chance, we took it."
Next year, the foundation hopes to bring eight bison onto the ranch.
The Bureau of Land Management is reviewing the request to change the property’s livestock classification from cattle to bison, and the district manager in Malta will make a decision late this winter or early next spring, said Rich Adams, a BLM assistant field manager.
"First, we are trying to get more information about the impacts of bison on the vegetation," Adams said. "We also are looking at what type of fences need to be constructed to keep them where they belong, and what impacts those fences could have on wildlife."
The request isn’t precedent-setting. A few years ago, the Matador Ranch east of the Prairie Foundation’s property brought in buffalo. Some broke out of fences, adding to ranchers’ worries.
The BLM will consider neighboring ranchers’ concerns when making its decision, Adams said.
Phillips County Commissioner Troy Blunt, who ranches about 15 miles from the project, isn’t certain bison are a good idea.
"I don’t think they understand what they are dealing with, and the logistics of operating a ranch," he said of the foundation.
The organization is doing research to make sure the bison are not a problem, the WWF’s Lalley said. A manager also will stay on the ranch to handle potential problems.
Prairie dogs, ferrets
Establishing prairie dog towns, which could set the stage for bringing in more endangered black-footed ferrets, is another possibility down the road, the foundation said.
Gerrity realizes prairie dogs, which compete for the often-sparse forage that dots the prairie, are a volatile issue.
The foundation is not in the business of saving the prairie dog, Gerrity stressed. But because they are prey for a variety of grassland species. they do play a role in the organization’s overall goal to emphasize wildlife.
"Prairie dogs are very similar to plankton in the ocean," he said. In addition to black-footed ferrets, snakes, burrowing owls, swift foxes and golden eagles all feed on them.
There will be controls, and prairie dog levels will not be allowed to grow and impede neighboring ranches, he said.
"We have to go slow and learn from our neighbors how to be a good neighbor," Gerrity said.
The foundation’s purchase creates some unique opportunities, said Mike Hedrick, manager of the Russell wildlife refuge.
The refuge already works with the foundation on some riparian restoration, he said, and the prairie dog issue also is of mutual interest because of their attempts to bring black-footed ferret populations back to the Russell.
"As a wildlife agency, we are interested in maintaining prairie dogs on the landscape, and CMR is not going to be able to maintain them if they are only on the refuge," Hedrick said. "It’s an opportunity for us to work with a private landowner who doesn’t view prairie dogs negatively."
A separate organization, the Conservation Fund, also bought about 477 acres near the refuge and is working with federal and state land management agencies on similar goals.
The fund acquires land that is critical to adjacent public land, then sells those in-holdings to the federal or state agency as money becomes available, Hedrick said.
American Prairie Foundation wants to keep its land open to the public. With an emphasis on wildlife, hunters and tourists could be drawn to the area.
"We hope that it is a place people will come visit," Lalley said.
In 2005, the property will be in block management, a state program that pays landowners to keep property open to hunters.
There may be some restrictions, perhaps on the days open for hunting or on the use of high-powered rifles. But no decisions have been made, Gerrity said.
They’ll hold discussions with hunting organizations to come up with a balance, he said.
"How do we make this a spectacular place as far as a hunting opportunity, as well as a wildlife viewing area?" he said. "We think we can certainly find answers that are more favorable than what we have seen in some other parts of the state."
There won’t be a charge for using the land, and guides, and others will be able to profit from the project, Gerrity said.
It isn’t the first time a conservation organization has bought a wedge of land in Phillips County.
Four years ago, the Nature Conservancy purchased the 60,000-acre Matador Ranch.
The Matador and the American Prairie project are not adjoined, and the two agencies are working in different areas of land management.
The conservancy is working out grazing agreements to protect conservation and ranchers’ interests. The foundation is focused on wildlife values.
"We feel our work is complimentary to what the Nature Conservancy is doing," Gerrity said. "But we are headed to 100 percent wildlife over time."
Phillips County Commission Chairwoman Carol Kienenberger said there is skepticism about the shifting focus, from ranching to wildlife protection and tourism.
About 49 percent of Phillips County is under public ownership.
"The Big Open concept has been out there for years," Kienenberger said. "These purchases are opening up a lot of land, both private and federal, maybe to more historical use, but it’s not the traditional use."
In 1986, Robert B. Scott, an engineer with ties to Montana ranching, pitched a proposal for restoration of about 12.8 million acres in central Montana known as the Big Open.
His plan, in a nutshell, would create private-public land ownership that would slowly replace cattle, sheep and farming with elk, buffalo and other prairie critters.
The notion infuriated many people in central Montana, who said it would destroy the agricultural economy.
It’s an economy already hurting. Between 1990 and 2000, Phillips County lost nearly 11 percent of its residents, and is now down to about 4,600.
Ranchers there always have struggled against the elements — the area gets only about 12 inches of precipitation a year and is known to be on the receiving end of bitter cold winters. And younger generations aren’t following in the family footsteps.
American Prairie Foundation members believe projects like theirs are a way to keep those agricultural communities alive.
"We think there is a unique opportunity on the plains, particularly the grasslands, to secure a certain amount of private land that also has grazing lands, and make that more available to the public than what might otherwise happen," Gerrity said.
Many large working ranches that go up for sale aren’t being sold to other ranchers, they’re being locked up and turned into private hunting grounds, he said.
The 4,500-acre chunk of ranch land owned by the Wiederricks had been on the market for nearly two years.
The foundation is dedicated to hiring locally, paying county taxes, banking at a local institution, buying supplies in Malta stores and securing insurance from local offices, he said.
Still, some in the community are leery.
"We know they have ambitions of buying up other places," said Matovich, who has run Black Angus for the last 35 years.
He wonders what the changes might mean for property values.
Anne Boothe, executive director of the PhillCo Economic Growth Council, said the community is approaching the project "with caution."
"They say tourism will bring in more, but we don’t believe that. We don’t see that with CMR (wildlife refuge)," Kienenberger said.
Many ranchers still view the land purchases as a threat, Blunt said, and he questions the organization’s motives.
"It seems like they think they want to save us, or save the great open prairie," he said. "But the only reason the prairie is what it is, is because of the ranches that have been there for years."
Gerrity would agree.
"We do see the ranchers as an asset, because they prevented the land from being tilled. The natural landscape is still out there," he said.
There is room for ranchers and the American Prairie Foundation to coexist, he said.
"The best way to do that is to prove ourselves through our actions, to show that we are not just a tolerable neighbor, but a valuable neighbor," Gerrity said.
"We will listen a lot and be open to the fact that every one of our ideas may not work out. And I see people being quite open to the possibilities."
Lee can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], or by phone at (406) 791-1471 or (800) 438-6600.
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