Ranchers have responded with banners reading “Save the Cowboy: Stop American Prairie Reserve.” They see a competitor buying up old ranches, pushing off cattle and promoting a new industry that has no connection to their established way of life.

 Missoulian

MALTA – Cowboys and bison live on both sides of the Missouri River, but the gulf between them yawns as wide as the Missouri Breaks.

It separates tradition from change, old money and new, cows and buffalo, cowboys and Indians. It’s where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out after they robbed a train for $83,000 near Malta in 1901 before giving up the Wild Bunch and moving to Argentina. It’s also a landscape that, like Argentina, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, possesses some of the planet’s last remaining grassland ecosystems, complete with nearly every big wild animal Lewis and Clark reported when they paddled through in 1805. Fans call it “The American Serengeti.”

The change and new money come from the American Prairie Reserve, which has brought in bison and big plans to stitch together a multi-million-acre wildlife refuge along the Missouri Breaks south of Malta. Doing that displaces ranches that have grazed cattle there for five generations. In addition to bison, APR has added new campgrounds, isolated yurts and publicity to attract new tourism.

Ranchers have responded with banners reading “Save the Cowboy: Stop American Prairie Reserve.” They see a competitor buying up old ranches, pushing off cattle and promoting a new industry that has no connection to their established way of life. Concerns about bison passing brucellosis to domestic cattle or wrecking fences come up late, if at all, in the debate. That’s perhaps because extensive research has never shown a transference of the disease from bison to cattle, and as many cattle have busted neighbors’ fences as bison have.

“They have their story,” Malta resident and rancher Anne Boothe said of APR’s efforts. “We have our story. How do we decipher what the real impacts are? Are there places we need to meet in the middle? What are the best choices for Main Street Malta?”

Boothe is friends with APR reserve superintendent Damien Austin, who lives with his family in Malta. They serve together on the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum board of directors. But she said the divisive nature of APR’s bison goals has fractured the community.

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