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Advertise on the Tentacle

May 22, 2013

The American Prairie Reserve and Montana

Tom McLaughlin

The Salsbury Ranch, Malta, MT – The area can barely be called grasslands. Biologically the cut off between that and desert is ten inches. They receive eleven. If they are lucky. The temperatures are extreme. Many days in summer can be in the lower 100’s day after day while highs of ten below are not uncommon in the winter time.


The area is crisscrossed with ditches that bring water from the Milk River, a meandering body of water that I crossed five times while heading from Malta to Helena in a relatively straight south westerly direction. The water is controlled and taxed by a bewildering number of bureaucratic alphabet soup agencies. The flow can also be also be dammed and allowed to flood low lying areas (bottom land) where winter hay is grown and harvested.


Each ranch has a “mother herd” (my phrase) of cows that are bred in June- August by bulls or artificially inseminated in units called straws. They are sometimes won as raffle prizes. This herd is overwintered on pastures owned by the federal or state government, or land owned by the ranchers but usually a bewildering combo of all three. The grazing rent paid to both government entities is nominal.


The calves are dropped and branded in the early spring and fattened on the growing grass of the pastures moving around from area to area as the sparse grasses are consumed. They are auctioned off in September or October. Ranchers reseed the land and the poop does the rest.


The big talk is about the American Prairie Reserve. They are attempting to acquire about 500,000 acres of privately owned land that connects to three million acres the state and federal governments already own. The area will connect to the Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, creating a huge swath of protected prairie.


The ranchers who own land are dependent on the federal and state lands to support the mother herd against the movement. They maintain they feed much of the nation and the closure of the prairie which will force beef prices to escalate further. They fear if the American Prairie Reserve succeeds in getting close to their goal, then the government will close off their lands to grazing, in effect, putting them out of business.


The American Prairie Reserve has deep pockets and has succeeded in acquiring the largest ranches. Land has skyrocketed in anticipation of a huge offer from the group. Speculation is rampart. However, it is a dangerous game between when the Reserve may offer a price and the closure of grazing rights anticipated in the uncertain future.


The vision of the American Prairie Reserve is to return northeastern Montana to the wild state of the pioneers. They wish to reintroduce herds of buffalo and have them repopulate the prairies. They create an image, an excellent selling point for donations, of peaceful herds grazing on the fruited plain.


Ecologically, the idea makes no sense. The land cannot be returned to the early 1800’s pristine conditions as too many men have come and gone to change it. The dustbowl is a perfect example. “Climate Change” is in the process of further altering the area; probably pushing Northeastern Montana further into a desert biome as rainfall in the area decreases.


These twin factors spell doom for the reintroduction of the bison. They will require the assistance of man to feed them and prevent mass starvation because man will not be there to reseed the land they will have over grazed.


Not only will the decrease of rain be a problem, but the canals bringing water from the Milk River will also cease to function. There will be nobody to clean them out, regulate water flow and vast expanses of grasslands will revert to desert because the water will no longer be diverted. The idea that we can just walk away and” let nature take its course” will result in untold deaths among the bison until nature readjusts from man and reasserts itself, a process that will probably take a hundred years.


The best course for the bison, the land and the food supply of the nation is to maintain the status quo. The ranchers are pressing their case with their elected representatives in an effort to preserve their middle class income and to steward the land. The rest of the nation needs to understand the folly of the American Prairie Reserve and the impending disaster should it become a reality.


. . . . . Life is good…..


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