Prarie Dreaming – A bold initiative is underway to buy a huge swath of Montana…and turn it over to Mother Nature. The American Prarie Foundation
MALTA, MONTANA, the largest town for seventy miles in any direction, is home to nineteen hundred people. It sits upon glaciated plains that were once buried in hundreds of feet of scouring ice, plains with soils too shallow and fragile for farming in the face of drought and extreme temperatures. Far to the southeast rise the Larb Hills, a dark-blue upwelling in a quiet sea of duns and silvers. Beyond them the land drops away into the breaks of the Missouri River. To the southwest the Little Rockies stand like a jumble of black stones against the sky. It is a world that seems made for the raptor’s vision, and raptors are everywhere, harriers and prairie falcons, ferruginous hawks and golden eagles, red-tails and kestrels. Unfolding below them is an austere land, made more so by a century’s worth of livestock grazing, and the myriad absences it produces and requires.
Biologists will tell you that there are plenty of wild animals and natural processes that do not mesh well with cattle ranching—grizzly bears, wolves, prairie dog towns. If you need the land primarily for cattle, then the dog towns have to be reduced. And if you reduce the dog towns, you reduce the swift fox, the ferruginous hawk, the mountain plover, the prairie rattlesnake, the badger, the complex web of plants and animals that evolved with them. You reduce the black-footed ferret to extinction. You have made the most common trade in our world today, an ecosystem in exchange for what you hope will be profitable land use.
Since 1990, one in ten people has left Malta and surrounding Phillips County for someplace else. Their exodus is the result of a failed 130-year-long experiment in grazing cattle in eastern Montana. A square mile of this land can support no more than six or eight cows, and that, evidently, isn’t enough.
The American Prarie Foundation: http://www.americanprarie.org
Summer on the high plains can be alternately hot, dry and punctuated with violent thunderstorms, high winds and brief but exciting rains. With numerous site visits planned, habit restoration ongoing and more buffalo from Wind Cave National Park on their way, work on the growing American Prairie reserve goes on despite the often harsh late summer weather. Following are some of the happenings for the month of August.
As our first 19 bison continue to get settled in their new home, APF ranch manager Bill Willcutt is already busily preparing for the next group of 20 animals which will make the 700 mile trip from Wind Cave National Park to the reserve in mid October. When the current and newly arriving animals are combined with the anticipated calve crop in spring 2007, the herd should number close to 50 animals. Check out pictures of this year’s calves at http://www.americanprairie.org/page.php?link_id=52.
Hundreds of trees where planted this spring along a section of Telegraph Creek by visiting children and their parents. With the dry summer heat Bill has been keeping busy watering the new saplings to make sure they stay healthy heading into the winter. Bill recently teamed with neighboring ranchers to squelch a lightening-started prairie fire north of the American Prairie property. Such fires are not uncommon this late in the season and it often requires many neighbors pooling sufficient equipment and people in order to get the upper hand. Bill also reports that more elk than ever have moved in to the area. Just the other morning seven young bull elk gazed at him and World Wildlife Fund riparian specialist Martha Kauffman as they made their way across a hillside towards a current water project, a rewarding sight as WWF and APF work steadily year after year to improve habitat for growing numbers of prairie birds and animals.
Historic preservation efforts are moving forward with the next round of APF’s renovation to Prairie Union School, a one room school house attended by many of our local neighbors between 1923 and 1949. Last year Harry Howard of Yellowstone Traditions http://www.yellowstonetraditions.com/ teamed with APF supporters Larry and Maggie Biehl to restore the main structure of the school. As next step Bill Willcutt has convened a group of past students to gather and install original students desks, wall maps, oil stove, teacher’s desk and other authentic furnishings. Outside landscaping and interpretative plaques will eventually be in place leaving only a local celebration/barbeque with past students, teachers and neighbors to complete the project.
Our event based efforts to educate and inform people about our goals, visitation opportunities and ways to become involved are increasing dramatically. In just the next four months we are holding presentation events in Bozeman, Great Falls, San Francisco, and New York City. In addition we are conducting numerous small- group site visits and one large group safari in the project area itself. We hope to see you at an event or in the project area sometime soon. Please contact Meg Hogan at [email protected] for specific event dates and visitation opportunities.
The project continues to receive attention from various conservation organizations and media outlets. The most recent Wildlife Conservation Society magazine featured an article citing our efforts as it relates to WCS’s goals of widespread bison restoration http://www.wildlifeconservation.org/wcm-home/wcm-article/29108953. Our key partner, World Wildlife Fund, http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildplaces/ngp/projects/prairie.cfm is mentioned in WCS article as well. In addition, the September issue of the Orion Magazine also featured an article describing our efforts http://www.orionsociety.org/pages/om/06-5om/Herring.html .
I hope you are enjoying the last few weeks of summer and that we might have a chance to visit with you soon and talk with you about the steady progress of this extraordinary endeavor.
American Prairie Foundation
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