BY NATE HEGYI
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
You see a lot of signs around here saying “Save the Cowboy, Stop the American Prairie Reserve.” They’re taped to windows, staked in lawns.
One is nailed to a shed outside the First Creek Community Hall. It’s a little white building surrounded by grassland and farm fields, just north of some American Prairie-owned lands.
Inside, on a hot Sunday afternoon, a small group of ranchers are greeting each other and chatting. They’re dressed up for church — snap-button Western shirts, combed hair and blue Wrangler jeans — because this community center serves as a makeshift chapel on Sundays. There’s a wooden cross in the corner held up by a Christmas tree stand. A 4-H flag is posted to the wall.
Travelling preacher Hal DeBoer presses play on a black boombox and leads his tiny congregation in a country-style hymn.
DeBoer is from Florida but he’s lived and preached in Montana for 44 years. He fell in love with the ranching culture. Today he’s wearing a big, shiny belt buckle and cowboy boots. He can’t quite put into words just how much the prairie means to him.
“I want to be here, I don’t want to be anywhere else,” DeBoer says. “It’s like I’m a part of the land. And it just burns in me.”
“I’m, I’m sad by it,” says rancher Peggy Bergsagel.
Sure, she can understand why someone might sell. Ranching is hard, margins can be slim, and large spreads can be worth millions. But Bergsagel would never sell out, especially to the reserve.
“Never, ever,” she says. “They can drag me with wild horses across the prairie and I won’t. I won’t!”
Many ranchers here share that sentiment. They make a lot of different arguments against the project. Some border on crazy, such as the conspiracy theory that the reserve is part of a cunning plot by the United Nations to clear everyone from the Great Plains. But the most common argument boils down to this: God gave people this land so it can be worked, so we can produce food or fuel from it.
DeBoer says that’s a biblical idea. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, “and the very first words that he said to the man was, ‘I want you to work this and take care of it.’ So to me, that is what the ranchers and farmers are doing. They’re working the land, but they’re taking care of it.”
This Christian idea of stewarding the land first drove white settlement in the West more than a century ago. DeBoer’s always thought of God as the first farmer. “He planted the Garden,” he says. “So he’s for the farming profession.”
But ranching and farming in this part of the Great Plains is really tough, especially during the long winter, when temperatures drop well below freezing and a constant wind roars across the open prairie. Snow drifts so high that roads sometimes disappear. The sky and the land become separated by a single, thin grey horizon.
In the summer, temperatures soar into the triple digits. Rains come heavy and hard or they don’t come at all. Massive fires sweep across the prairie. Sometimes they burn so hot they melt steel.
This was the world white homesteaders first laid eyes upon on in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They discovered a country that was more like a desert than their green European homelands.
Families became isolated, trying to grow crops in a place that mostly rejected them. During these homesteading days, an affliction of insanity rippled across the Great Plains. It was known as prairie madness, brought on by the terrifying loneliness of settling a hard new land. One magazine writer described insane asylums filled with Scandanavians coming off the Great Plains.
When the homesteading boom finally busted after World War I, the population in eastern Montana plummeted. It’s pretty much been in decline ever since.
That’s one reason why American Prairie Reserve targeted this spot in the first place. There’s a lot of native grassland here and a lot of land for sale.
But some ranching families never gave up on their spreads and they aren’t about to sell out now, even though the reserve is paying millions of dollars for each property. That kind of money could buy a nice retirement home by a lake somewhere. But they don’t leave, and I want to know why.
So the next morning, I find myself moving cattle on the C Lazy J Ranch.
The grasses are green out here from a recent thunderstorm and dozens of big, black cows are lining up near an electric fence. Rancher Connie French is pushing them onto a new pasture.
French doesn’t look like a stereotypical rancher. Instead, she reminds me of someone’s artsy, garden-loving grandmother. She has curly grey hair, a big broad sun hat and the deeply tanned face of a person who spends every day outdoors.
As she lifts some electric fence, something suddenly makes her stop.
“Can you hear it? I just heard it over here,” she says.
She inches over to some sagebrush and spots it — a coiled rattlesnake.
“Gives you the creeps, doesn’t it?”
Rattlesnakes, black biting flies, the hordes of mosquitoes that hatch this time of year — the prairie of northeastern Montana can be downright nasty to live in. But French loves the challenge.
“You know, maybe it’s like when people skydive or something,” she says. “It’s a little bit of adrenaline, it’s that self-sufficiency — feeling like I can handle whatever gets thrown at me.”
But she believes the American Prairie Reserve is throwing something profoundly threatening at ranchers like her who live within the bounds of its proposed 3.2-million-acre sanctuary.
“For them to be successful, we can’t be here,” she says. “And that’s not OK with us.”
It’s not as if the reserve is wiping out ranching all across the Great Plains. But it is challenging the established order, ranchers’ control over this land, which has put them in the state legislature, on county commissions, and has kept cattle king here in northeastern Montana.
But as land prices in the West rise and ranchers struggle to find family members to take over their spreads when they die, ranching itself, and the lifestyle it affords, becomes threatened. And the idea of an outsider like American Prairie swooping in is intolerable for many locals.
The reserve’s notion of rewilding the West and returning wild bison to the plains really bothers Connie’s husband, Craig. He compares those animals to impressionable kids.
“That, to me, is like telling a teenager to just go do what you please without any boundaries, and that’s definitely not a way to parent,” he says. “Letting animals roam free and do as they please is definitely not a way, in my view, to steward land.”
Craig has lived out here all his life. He’s a big guy with a loose Wrangler shirt and straw hat. He worries that 3.2 million acres isn’t big enough to support the reserve’s goal of 10,000 wild bison.
“When God was doing it he had a lot bigger playground,” he says. “We just have this small little sandbox.”
Scientists from the World Wildlife Fund say otherwise. But both Craig and Connie are rooted in that Christian notion of stewarding the land. They say it’s the best way to take care of what’s left of the prairies.
While some ranchers here overgrazed the land and plowed up native grasses, most did a good job taking care of it. That’s a big reason why this area is still considered one of the last intact grassland ecosystems in the world. Ranchers here are pretty good stewards. Powerful conservation groups have taken notice. They are working with some ranchers here to help them save what’s left of the prairie while at the same time sustainably raise cattle.
“We are the best hope to keep this land here,” French says. “I really feel like ranchers — these land stewards — are the best option for conservation.”
But the number of agriculture jobs in this region have dropped by more than a third since 1970, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And even though folks invest their lives in the land, sometimes their kids just don’t want to take it over. So they sell to the highest bidder, whether it’s a neighboring ranch, a wealthy out-of-stater, or the prairie reserve.
But French says she’ll never sell out to the reserve. Because if she does, she says she’ll lose something deeper than the land.
“I don’t want to live a soft life,” she says. “I don’t want my grandkids to live a soft life. I don’t want them to have air conditioning at the push of a button. Or heat at the push of a button. Or things delivered to their door. I want them to have to work for some things. I don’t want life to be too easy.”
Places like the American Prairie Reserve offer another kind of self-sufficiency. It’s wild country where urban dwellers can get lost on epic trail runs or three-day backpacking trips.
But French says there’s a big difference.
“So then you’re a tourist,” she says. “You’re a visitor. You’re an observer. So you’re there for a short time and then you go home. When you actually live there, you’re a participant. You are involved in the day-to-day life of not just your animals but the land around you. The wildlife, the grass, the bugs. You are an active participant that’s taking care of that place.”
French worries we’ll lose that deep, on-the-ground knowledge if ranchers leave the prairie. But a handful have sold to the reserve, and some locals support the project.
I met one rancher outside of an Albertsons grocery store in Lewistown, Mont., south of the reserve. She was carrying a pack of White Claw alcoholic seltzer waters.
She says if it wasn’t American Prairie buying up lands, it would be someone else, someone like the Wilks brothers, who made their fortunes in the fracking business and are notorious in the West for buying up huge parcels of land and closing down public access. At least the reserve isn’t doing that, she says.
But this woman didn’t want to speak on the record. In fact, almost all of the supporters I contacted didn’t.
But one guy did reach out to me over Twitter. He said he was willing to talk.
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