Home on the Range

This is definitely the muddiest my new shoes have ever been.

They’re laying on the floor, flopped haphazardly in front of the door as I am wont to do when I’m tired. And make no mistake—I am tired.

I’m not long back from a foray into the wilds of furthest Montana.  My son and I visited the American Prairie Reserve – a huge, several-hundred-thousand-acre expanse of wide-open space destined to grow yet larger, as a refuge for American bison and all the animals that live in their biological shadow: elk, coyote, pronghorns, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets – someday even wolves and bears.

It’s a wild place, and growing wilder.

I can see hundreds of miles from here.

I can see hundreds of miles from here.

The Reserve is a wildlife refuge, but it isn’t a National Park—not quite. It’s a public-private conservation partnership; a mix of state-owned land and land owned by the non-profit Reserve, along with participation by ranchers whose properties abut the Reserve itself. Ranchers who raise cattle.

Did I mention this is a wildlife refuge that also produces a line of grass-fed beef? It is.

Wild Sky Beef works with ranchers in Montana to produce grass-fed beef, primarily on prairie that has never been plowed. But what makes Wild Sky unique is that the Reserve pays ranchers a premium to create a more wildlife-friendly prairie – by installing wildlife-friendly fences, raising their animals in a predator-friendly manner, collecting animal population information via camera traps on ranch property, and more.

As more ranchers sign on, more and more prairie acreage becomes more and more hospitable to native fauna. Animals who once faced myriad dangers should they stray outside the boundaries of Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks find themselves with a more welcoming environment in the ‘wilds’ of human civilization.

And as Wild Sky works with more ranches in geographically important patches of prairie – say, between the aforementioned National Parks and the American Prairie Reserve itself – they begin to assemble something like a wildlife-friendly corridor between the enormous Parks system and the also-enormous Reserve.

Well, maybe not quite a corridor. More like wildlife-friendly islands. Like Frogger, really.

It’s giant, wildlife-friendly game of Frogger, using elk and bison and bears instead of 8-bit frogs.

Elk through a telescope. Also a good band name.

Elk through a telescope. Also a good band name.

After paying a premium to participating ranchers for their wildlife-friendly efforts, the profits from the sale of Wild Sky Beef are put back into conservation efforts on the Reserve.

In time, the Reserve is slated to cover 3 million acres -- the largest wild space in the lower 48 states, and four times the size of Yosemite National Park. And, according to the plan, it will be a self-sustaining ecosystem. An American Serengeti.

I’m a big fan of the conservation role of large ungulates on grasslands. And I find these bison and cattle roaming across hundreds of thousands of acres in eastern Montana very exciting. As keystone species in a prairie ecosystem, as the bison go, so go the prairie.

But I'm equally excited to see optimistic people tackling enormous tasks that they're passionate about. To see people actively and forthrightly trying to make the world a better place -- in this case using enormous once-common animals to change the prairie into a better version of itself. Enlisting the hooves and habits of wild things to build the soil upon which a world rests; to make something grand and untamed and magnificent.

They call this Big Sky country, and not without reason. But there are big hopes and dreams here, too.

Some day, when the bison herd has grown yet larger and the bears are back and packs of wolves again harry the elk along the banks of the Missouri, maybe I'll return here.

Maybe I'll note how the wilderness has proliferated, and the human footprint diminished. Maybe I'll bring my son again, and he can look for his ancient footprints in the clay-thick mud.

But first, I really have to clean my shoes.