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The Next Yellowstone: How Big Money Is Building A New Kind Of National Park


This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Listen to the full documentary here.

The northern Great Plains aren’t much to look at. It’s the drab, boring part of a cross-country interstate drive between Seattle and Chicago. 

No trees in sight. No water. But Sean Gerrity, founder of American Prairie Reserve, has always seen something more out here.

On a recent summer afternoon, he climbs a steep, grassy hill in the plains of northeastern Montana to show me. 

Once we reach its top, the flat, yellow prairie opens up into a stunning panorama of deep, white canyons cut through by a wide, silty river. 

“What you’re seeing here is the incredible beauty of the Missouri River out in front of us,” he says. “Those beautiful cliffs and the raking light coming across in the afternoon.”

This is the country Gerrity wants to protect. A wild, rugged place full of steep coulees and unbroken plains. It’s called American Prairie Reserve and it’s a new kind of national park — one that’s free to the public and privately funded by small donors and some of the world’s wealthiest people. 

Its goal is to rewild this swath of the Great Plains and return all the animals that lived on this landscape more than a century ago, before white settlers arrived. Wolves, grizzly bears, thousands of genetically-pure, wild bison.

Gerrity points down to the valley below. “Over here would be some elk,” he says. “Over here would be bison. On the river banks would be a mama grizzly bear with two or three little cubs walking along the mud there.”

Making Gerrity’s vision a reality requires piecing together an existing national monument and wildlife refuge with private properties and their accompanying grazing leases to create a giant, rewilded grassland. 

When it’s complete, it will be the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Lower 48 — about 5,000 square miles, nearly the size of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

On the ground, the reserve finds support among nearby tribes and with those who see economic potential in tourism. But the pushback is louder. It comes from a close-knit community of ranching families who view the reserve as an existential threat, removing them from the land they’ve worked for generations. As one cattlewoman told me, “for them to be successful, we can’t be here. That’s not OK with us.”

Others voice concern over the big-money donors allowing American Prairie to acquire multimillion-dollar ranches. 

But in a state known as the Last Best Place, biologists believe American Prairie Reserve may represent the last best place to pursue a wildly ambitious restoration of the Great Plains — and at a time when many have lost faith in the government to protect wild places. 

As the reserve slowly grows bigger and bigger, a modern Western drama about change, loss and renewal is unfolding on this unforgiving landscape.

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