Fifth-generation Montana rancher Michelle Fox remembers once reading a passage from the journals of Lewis and Clark. The explorers were describing a spot located near where her tribal reservation is today–the view, back then, was “black with buffalo,” Fox, a member of the Gros Ventre Tribe, recalls. “I was standing there, and it’s hard for me to envision how it was,” she says.
Of course, hunters long ago displaced the tens of millions of buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains. Now, by making a few important changes to property, Fox feels she is doing her part in an unprecedented effort to bring the buffalo (also called the American bison) back.
Fox’s ranch is near lands owned by the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a nonprofit with an ambitious vision to build “America’s Serengeti” in north-central Montana. The privately financed effort aims to connect and preserve 3.5 million acres of grassland where native wildlife, including purebred bison, coyotes, elk, and antelope, can roam–and tourists can visit. When finished, it would be bigger than any national park in the lower 48 U.S. states, about roughly the size of Connecticut.
The project is controversial locally. It rubs directly against the long history of tension between ranchers and conservationists over America’s frontier. In the long-term, APR plans to raise $500 million and hopes to slowly buy ranchers’ property in its project area to help cobble together the reserve through a combination of private and public lands. No one is forced to sell, but many in the region consider it at worst a “land grab” by outsiders and at best yet another threat to the way their way of life, according to a Bloomberg piece.
But Fox, whose land adjoins the APR area, is not an opponent, and neither are all ranchers. In 2013, APR launched an unlikely spin-off business, called Wild Sky, aimed at easing tensions: It started selling beef under a brand called Wild Sky.
“The push behind Wild Sky was to be proactive about setting up a path for both ranchers and conservationists to get along,” says Laura Huggins, Wild Sky’s manager of economic initiatives. “We thought the easiest way to do that was through a financial reward.”
Wild Sky is working to recruit ranchers, like Fox, to implement measures on their ranch so wildlife in the area can pass through. In exchange, the ranchers receive extra payments raised from the sale of Wild Sky’s beef–which is also grass-fed and drug- and hormone-free–in outlets across the country. As the label expands, the goal is that other profits will help fund the larger American Prairie Reserve initiative, which is currently about $71 million towards its $500 million fundraising goal.
It’s not the first attempt at a wildlife-friendly beef label that has been tried. More than ten years ago, the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups tried a similar endeavor, called Conservation Beef, that failed to catch on. Partly, says Huggins, it was ahead of its time–consumers didn’t really care as much about where their steak came from back then. But, importantly, they didn’t have the right partners.
“They were a bunch of conservationists trying to sell beef, and from what we could tell, they didn’t quite know how complicated it was,” she says. “The business didn’t really work.”
Wild Sky is learning from this example, hiring “meat heads” from the industry and expanding slowly based on demand. So far, it’s signed on four ranchers to the program, including Fox, and is selling about $70,000 a week in beef at about 65 food outlets, large and small, around the nation. The company is now in talks with larger supermarket chains, Huggins says.
In May, Wild Sky struck a deal that will allow it to expand more quickly. Working with Jensen Meat Company, a large meat processor based in California, it will supply a new line of natural ground beef that Jensen produces. The package will feature the American Prairie Reserve logo and potentially the face of Wild Sky ranchers like Fox. Though the beef usually won’t come from these ranchers, a portion of the sale proceeds will go to funding wildlife-friendly improvements on the ranchers’ lands (Right now, Wild Sky beef is sourced from the broader Great Plains region.)
At Fox’s ranch, these improvements look relatively simple so far. She’s replaced barbed wire fence with wildlife-friendly fencing, which is smooth at the bottom so elk, deer, and other animals can slip underneath. She’s gotten her children to stop shooting at prairie dogs, a common practice because many ranchers believes the holes they leave are bad for the cows and pastures (though there’s some research that shows otherwise). Eventually, her goal is to restore the natural hydrology to her lands as well, rather than using irrigation.
Fox’s long heritage on the land has made her feel a personal stake in APR’s conservation mission, but she was still at first apprehensive about joining Wild Sky. In the end, she says, it was a business decision for her and her family. With the extra money she’s gotten in the last year, she’s also been able to improve her barn, build a greenhouse, and generally help her family live more self-sufficiently from the land. After she and her husband made several tweaks to her operation to meet Wild Sky beef standards, their first calf that will eventually be sold as Wild Sky meat was born in March.
But will everyone really feel the same as she? Likely not.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about APR here in the local region. They think that they come in, and they buy up these ranchers land, it’s almost like they’re pushing them out. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says. “I try to educate people about what APR is about…There might be 10 people standing there, but if I can get through to two of them, that’s two more informed people.”
This article was updated to more accurately reflect the relationship between APR and Jensen Meat Company.