This West Is OUR West

Save the Cowboy, STOP American Prairie Reserve

A close up of a logo
Description automatically generated

By Susan Roberts Metcalf and Jamie Jacobi Wickens | July 8, 2019

If you are like me, you have heard of the American Prairie Reserve, but you really don't know much about it other than the billboard slogan: "Save the Cowboy. STOP the American Prairie Reserve." Several readers have asked me to write a column about it, but I really did not know enough about it personally to give a just commentary. However, I did notice the name of one of my former favorite students associated with some informational articles about the APR, so I decided to contact her and ask her to guest write this column for me.

Jamie Jacobi was one of my junior high students and the daughter of Judy Riter, one of my teaching colleagues at Big Timber Grade School. She married her husband, Matt Wickens in 2004 and moved to his Winifred, Montana ranch. Matt had been an Ag teacher until a local rancher who was looking to retire approached him about buying his ranch 5 miles northwest of Winifred, Montana. Mr. Morgan wanted to keep the place in agricultural production, and he found the right young man to do that in Matt who was proud of his four generations of ranching roots in the Winifred area. Matt’s great grandparents homesteaded in 1913 south of Winifred near Suffolk. Matt grew up just down the road from the original family place, which is still owned and operated by his dad, brother and uncle. In 2001, Matt signed the papers to the ranch where he and Jamie are raising their three kids, Wyatt (12), Kinzlee (9), and Wrett (6).

A group of people posing for the camera
Description automatically generated

I asked Jamie to explain what the APR is and how it is impacting the lives of ranchers and communities in Montana. The following is what she wrote:

I remember the “good ol’ days” when we had neighbors down on the river. That ranch was owned by a tax paying company which employed two families who were active in our community. They raised cattle, put up multiple cuttings of hay each year, harvested wheat and barley off the bench, and provided numerous hunting opportunities. They had five kids in school and paid income taxes. One of the gals was an EMT, and the other a teacher and a coach here in town. They would come over and help us brand calves. Then we would load up and go do the same. They attended church, participated in community events, and were members of our 4-H club.

American Prairie Reserve (APR) has changed that! It is a change that is impacting agriculture in Montana!

Three years ago that ranch down on the river sold. (That happens every now and again, and we understand that.) Unfortunately for those of us making a living in production agriculture, the APR bought it. They bought another one further down the river and an additional one just north of the river too. This trend of them buying up one place after another is how they plan on pushing all of us out of this country where we have worked so hard to build a community, raise a family, and leave this land better for the generations to come. According to their website, ​the goal of the American Prairie Reserve is to control approximately 3.5 million acres of both private (approximately 500,000 acres) and public lands creating the largest wildlife reserve in the lower forty-eight states.

The vision sold to the investors is to create the “American Serengeti” in Montana’s Big Sky country. Agriculture, which has consistently been Montana’s leading industry, is left out of the equation. That is a big deal, for our community, county, state and beyond.

A screenshot of a social media post
Description automatically generated 

APR chose the north central and eastern portion, a six-county region, of Montana, because scientists determined it was one of only four places left in the world where the grassland conservation of this scale is still possible! Those scientists failed to mention that families still live here with businesses and jobs and kids in the schools--farmers and ranchers who have cared for the land and manage it wisely. We farmers and ranchers have followed the lease requirements which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has put in place for grazing. The deer, elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, coyotes and sharptails have been making a pretty good living off the land right alongside the farmers, cattle, and horses for generations.

The American Prairie Reserve is a 501(c)3 non-profit. They raise money through donations to buy the land. In turn the people get tax breaks for donating to this organization which is taking all of this land out of production forever. Farmers and ranchers do not have the means or ability to compete with the outrageous prices they are paying to buy land, because ranchers have to be profitable on this land in order to stay in business. This is something the APR is not concerned with at all. The APR pays property tax but NOT income tax, which is a big loss of revenue for the communities, counties, and state. They are taking the land out of production agriculture, removing the cattle grazing and turning it into a place for bison to roam. The tax base is not the only major concern regarding the revenue that is being lost when this land is taken out of agriculture. All of our communities rely heavily on the income that comes into town every day from the farmers and ranchers. It is that income that keeps the grocery stores, hardware stores, implement dealers, and service stations open.

As if that economic strategy is not invasive enough to choke our communities, the APR is now working WITH the BLM to gain year round grazing permits, which thereby eliminate any of the pesky management obligations of other permitees such as pasture rotations, in and out dates, riparian protection, seasonal grazing, and drought management. These factors would all be no longer a concern for them if they are allowed to get their way. What the APR is doing on private land is their right, but it is our right and duty to question their proposed changes to the public lands to ensure that the land will be taken care of and improved upon like we have been doing for generations!

As we reminisce about the "good ol’ days," we realize how much we have lost already. We must confront the challenges we are facing and work to overcome this assault on our way of life and our livelihood. It is my hope that those in agriculture (and those who understand the agenda of the APR) will continue to support one another, take a stand, and educate yourselves and others on the challenges the APR has put before us. All we want is to be able to continue to care for Montana’s number one industry and make a living off the land as we have for generations. Save the Cowboy. STOP the American Prairie Reserve!