American Prairie (AP), a conservation project in Montana, has quietly collected more than 450,000 acres of land with the help of its billionaire donors and the federal government.
The little-known project aims to create the largest “fully functioning ecosystem” in the continental United States by joining together approximately 3.2 million acres of private and public land, according to the American Prairie Foundation, which founded the reserve more than 20 years. does. The group has recorded 34 transactions on approximately 453,188 acres of land across central Montana – much of which was once used for agriculture and grazing – since 2004 and continues to aggressively expand.
“Our mission is to assemble the largest complex of public and private wildlife lands in the lower 48,” Pete Geddes, AP vice president and head of external relations, told Fox News Digital in an interview. “For comparison, about 25% larger than Yellowstone.”
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“We are not asking the federal government to create anything, we are not asking the federal government for money,” he added. “Instead, we are engaged in private philanthropy and voluntary trading by buying ranches from people who would like to sell it to us.”
The American Prairie Foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars in recent years, according to recent tax returns, thanks in large part to its donors, including notable Wall Street and Silicon Valley moguls. Hansjoerg Wyss, a Swiss financier and mega-donor to liberal causes, the late German retail tycoon Erivan Haub, John Mars, the heir to the candy fortune on Mars, and Susan Packard Orr, daughter of the Hewlett co-founder -Packard Co., they donated everything to AP, as previously reported by Bloomberg.
The PA said around 3% of its contributions come from international donors.
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“It’s an area that doesn’t have a lot of people and it’s been depopulating for a long, long time,” Geddes said. “So, the thinking was that perhaps there is a greater potential for less conflict over conservation in this part of the world.”
However, AP’s plans have experienced increasing pushback from senior state officials and local ranchers who argue that such a nature reserve would remove key land from production and negatively impact surrounding privately owned lands. Using funds from its donors, the group purchased approximately 118,000 acres of private land and leased an additional 334,000 acres of public land owned primarily by the federal government.
“Those donors are able to write off those contributions as charitable donations, so they don’t have to live with the consequences of what they are doing to these communities,” said Chuck Denowh, director of policy at United Property Owners of Montana (UPOM). , a group of local breeders opposed to AP’s plans.
“It is very worrying that we have such a large amount of foreign money going into AP to buy our farm land,” he told Fox News Digital. “For the future of this country’s food security, we need to take a closer look.”
Denowh said the overwhelming majority of locals in surrounding counties who have cared for and preserved the land for decades are against the PA’s plans. The region is almost entirely dependent on the agricultural sector.
AP opponents particularly focused their anger on one of the group’s main proposals to release wild bison into the property, offering visitors “a chance to witness the majestic species”. UPOM has expressed concern that wild bison may infect surrounding livestock with brucellosis, an infectious disease commonly found in bison and moose populations, which could be extremely costly to farmers if spread to their livestock. .
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The foundation applied for permission from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for managing 245 million acres of public land, to allow bison to graze on portions of the leased property in 2017 and again in 2019. On Thursday, the agency announced it had approved the AP’s request for bison grazing on 63,500 acres of federal property.
Governor Greg Gianforte and a number of state agency heads wrote letters to BLM late last year urging the agency not to approve the request. Montana Department of Agriculture director Christy Clark said the plan will remove “large chunks of land from production farming,” likely reduce agricultural production revenues, and damage support industries in the area such as the sale of machinery and ranch workers.
“It’s just illegal,” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen told Fox News Digital in an interview. “This is federal land that is specifically – by the Taylor Grazing Act, by federal law – reserved for grazing cattle. Bison is not cattle, even under federal law.”
“This is the part that everyone seems to be ignoring here,” he continued. “AP doesn’t want to admit it, certainly the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Interior don’t want to admit it. But that’s just the fact.”
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Knudsen criticized AP for what he called his surreptitious plan to create an “American Serengeti” where “liberal coastal elites can come and go and watch the cute animals.” The Attorney General added that his office is closely examining the Biden administration’s decision Thursday to determine its next steps to protect ranchers and state interests.
The Taylor Grazing Act, passed by Congress in 1934, is designed to prevent overgrazing by allowing local ranchers to rent public land for cattle grazing and fodder farming. The bill was passed to increase food and livestock production on land that had been badly managed for years.
While AP argued that the law allows for bison grazing, the group also acknowledged that its plans are primarily focused on conservation, not production. For example, the group boasts on its website that its land acquisitions have already led to the retirement of 63,777 acres of grazing livestock leases in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, allowing federal authorities to “restore habitat. mainly for the use of wildlife “.
“We don’t see this as non-productive use,” Geddes told Fox News Digital. “Those bison play very productive roles. It is absolutely true that they are not a commercial livestock production, but they are productive in the sense of what they do for that ecosystem of grasslands.”
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“Yes, some of that land is running out of production, but the land is running out of production everywhere, all the time,” he continued.
An estimated 800 bison currently roam some of AP’s properties, a number the group hopes will increase to “several thousand” as part of its wildlife restoration plan.
AP currently leases some of the land it controls to cattle ranchers, who, amid severe regional drought, are desperate for grasslands available for cattle grazing. Geddes said those ranchers were well aware of AP’s plans to eventually push them off the reserve property once the bison are allowed to roam that leased land.
“Let’s say in a couple of years we will have 1,200 head of bison. In the seven counties where we work, there are probably half a million head of cattle,” he added. “This criticism that we’re somehow dropping the neutron bomb and wiping out agriculture in this area – it’s just plain nonsense.”
According to the Montana Department of Agriculture, Montana’s $ 4.72 billion agricultural industry is among the largest sectors in the state and provides the United States with a large supply of grain, hay, lentils, corn and meat. In January, Montana ranchers maintained an inventory of 2.2 million cattle, making it one of the few states with more cattle than people.
Overall, livestock stocks have declined in Montana and across the country in recent years, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
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“AP is working to buy as much land as possible to get as many cattle out of the landscape as possible and ultimately drive those people out of there,” Denowh told Fox News Digital. “Those lands were created in the first place to guarantee an adequate and consistent supply of proteins to the country”.
“This is probably one of the biggest dangers of AP,” he said. “If they can set this new precedent with BLM, we think so [non-governmental organizations] across the West they will buy land to take control of these pastures and take them out of production. This is really bigger than AP “.