A conservation group’s efforts to establish a large prairie-based wildlife reserve in northeast Montana took a giant step forward this week. The American Prairie Reserve (APR) announced the purchase of the 150,000-acre South Ranch near Glasgow, which more than doubles the group’s holdings in the area.

APR’s goals are to “assemble a multi-million acre wildlife park that will conserve the species-rich grasslands of Montana’s legendary Great Plains for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Many local ranchers are critical of APR’s plans and believe the trend of outside money buying Montana ranch land is a detriment to the community and endangers a way of life.

 Conservation group buys Montana’s South Ranch

The Bozeman-based APR has raised $48 million through contributions and pledges, and says it hopes to spend $500 million on land acquisition over the next 20 to 30 years. The group targets land adjacent to Montana’s C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge for acquisition in an effort to maximize the scope of a large grasslands wildlife preserve. Prior to the purchase of the South Ranch, APR claimed to own or lease 123,000 acres in the area.

Specifically, APR’s mission is to “create and manage a prairie-based wildlife reserve that, when combined with public lands already devoted to wildlife, will protect a unique natural habitat, provide lasting economic benefits and improve public access to and enjoyment of the prairie landscape.”

Eventually, American Prairie Reserve envisions a herd of 10,000 buffalo roaming its land and adjacent federal and state lands.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association is skeptical of the idea of a free-roaming herd of buffalo. “Have Montanans expressed a true desire to see more bison, or is the pressure coming from outside our state?” asks Stockgrowers president Watty Taylor. “We do not know of any area in Montana where the local community is clamoring for a truly free roaming bison herd.”

Indeed, Taylor and others note there are already several bison herds in Montana, and a large free-roaming herd is unlikely to provide benefits for the animals or Montanans.

Major donors to the American Prairie Reserve include candy industry billionaires John and Adrienne Mars, who have provided at least $5 million, and brother Forrest Mars Jr. who has given at least $500,000. A California venture capitalist has also donated at least $2.5 million.

“They keep saying they’re saving it,” Vicki Olson, a reserve opponent and third-generation Phillips County rancher told the Associated Press. “If they get their way, they’re going to sell it back to the government and they’re going to take it off the tax rolls. It’s going to kill the community economically.”