..to the north the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve has begun work on eventually creating a more than 3 million-acre wildlife conservation area that caters to educational and recreational tourism.

Brett French

Billings Gazette

LEWISTOWN — Even here, in the heart of rural Montana, life is quickly changing.

There’s now a rock radio station where once only country singers crooned on the lone AM channel. An old feed store has been remodeled into a microbrewery and restaurant, its massive wooden beams that once supported cattle and horse feed now lightened under the load of diners and drinkers. To the south, billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks have bought thousands of acres of ranchland on their way to becoming the second largest landowners in the state, and to the north the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve has begun work on eventually creating a more than 3 million-acre wildlife conservation area that caters to educational and recreational tourism.

Put it all together and some long-time locals are feeling squeezed. The town newspaper’s opinion page is riddled with letters from people and politicians expressing fear, anger and a bit of outrage specifically concerning American Prairie Reserve.

“Prairie Reserve. Back off please,” wrote Lewistown resident Alan Vanek in a letter published Jan. 16.

“The goal of these international millionaires is to convert Eastern Montana into an American Serengeti and will convince the federal government to declare it an International Park controlled by the United Nations,” wrote Ed Butcher, a former Winifred state legislator, in a Jan. 23 guest opinion.

Ground zero

It was into this charged atmosphere that American Prairie Reserve officials stepped for the “Living with wildlife” conference Thursday through Friday.

“There’s a great need to start a conversation,” said Clint Loomis, a Lewistown artist and city commissioner, noting that it won’t be easy.

Loomis was speaking on a single-digit January day inside a crowded banquet room of the Yogo Inn, “A Montana tradition since 1962,” according to its slogan. The group was a mixture of scarfed cowboys, suit-jacketed PhDs and a variety of out-of-towners.

Parked outside of the inn was a semi truck with an empty livestock trailer. On the front and side of the truck were banners reading: “Save the cowboy, stop American Prairie Reserve,” sponsored by United Property Owners of Montana.

The convergence of particulars made it seem as though a lamb — the APR — had arrived at its own slaughter.

APR

Since stepping onto the Upper Missouri River Breaks landscape in 2004, buying ranches to create a wildlife preserve that now includes a herd of 1,000 head of bison, the APR has become the target of some locals’ wrath. They express fears that should APR persist and grow, small surrounding communities will lose business, young ranchers and farmers will pack up for places with cheaper land, and APR’s bison will escape to contaminate their cattle with disease, kill their livestock or eat their feed.

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