The Next Yellowstone: A Hunter's Paradise

Oct 23, 2019

In northeastern Montana, a controversial group of millionaires and billionaires is trying to build a privately-funded national park. The group is purchasing ranches, phasing out the cattle, and opening the land up to genetically pure bison and other wildlife.

It's called American Prairie Reserve. But as we've heard in our series, "The Next Yellowstone," most long-time locals are bitterly opposed to the idea. Still, there are some supporters.

Our Mountain West News Bureau's Nate Hegyi tagged along with one hunter in the prairies of northeastern Montana.

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

PARTS: How Big Money Is Building A New Kind Of National Park | A Privately-Funded Park For The People | Save The Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve |  A Hunter's Paradise | The Bison Is A Symbol Of God

I find myself in Justin Schaaf's black Toyota Tundra heading down a two-track dirt road. Schaaf, 27, looks like a high school linebacker. His head is shaved and he's wearing cargo pants. He's taking me to one of his favorite hunting spots. While he works as a train conductor for the local railroad, his passion is hunting.

"If I'm not hunting I'm thinking about hunting and planning hunts, and when I'm sitting in the motel for work or when I'm sitting at home in the recliner I'm looking at maps, looking at Google Earth," he says.

He's always trying to find the perfect place to hunt.

As the road peters out, Schaaf pulls over. We grab some water and begin hiking in. It's not big game hunting season yet, so we're just scouting.

"We're hoping to see some elk. Definitely some bighorn sheep. I have seen some pretty good mule deer in here," he says.

We climb over sweet clover and sagebrush. This seems like an easy place to get lost but I'm not worried because Schaaf has lived in eastern Montana all his life. His great-great grandparents homesteaded just a few miles south of here near the Musselshell River. They lasted about 40 years before quitting and heading into town.

"They didn't have enough land to support the ranching that you need and I don't think the farming was cutting it at all," he says.

It was a fate suffered by a lot of homesteaders out here. They couldn't produce enough food or money to survive. As eastern Montana's population continues to decline, Schaaf thinks it's time to try something different.

"Is a little shot of tourism, capitalizing on hunter dollars, bringing more hunters into this area, will that make the difference?" he asks.

He thinks it might. After all, Schaaf is a young guy who stayed in eastern Montana precisely because of this wild country in his backyard.

"I can make more money in other places but it's the outdoors, being able to pull my pickup up here and not talk to anyone and go for a hike all day long, that keeps me here," he says. "Opportunity to just roam, I think, is enticing to young people."

So-called rural recreation counties are growing faster than counties that don't have a lot of hiking, hunting and fishing opportunities, according to the non-profit Headwaters Economics.

And here's an important point: unlike a traditional national park, American Prairie Reserve allows hunting.

We don't spot any wild bison. They're mostly confined to privately-owned reserve lands north of us. But we do see a big herd of elk, about 45 cows and calves.

"That's a crapload of elk," Schaaf says.

It's getting hot and the hike is grueling. We stumble up steep ravines and past stands of ponderosa pine. Schaaf says he understands that American Prairie Reserve is funded by rich people, some who made millions helping finance industries that degrade the environment.

"I do worry where that money comes from," he says. But dirty money doesn't just come from the private sector. He points to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that takes royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling and pumps it back into parks and public lands.

"It's helped my kid's playground and it's provided hunting opportunities for me," Schaaf says.

It's just the way the world works, he argues. So long as that money is used to protect and provide public access to wild places like this, it's good enough for Schaaf. But he also understands why so many locals hate the reserve.

There's the fundamental difference between working the land and letting it go wild. But there's also a strong distrust of powerful outsiders. Schaaf points to the nearby Missouri River as an example. It looks more like a wide lake here because it was dammed during the Great Depression. The federal government forced out ranchers and farmers who lived in the valley bottom before flooding it. Scars may remain.

"People have been down this path before of things changing abruptly," Schaaf says. "The opinions of those people should be listened to. They shouldn't be taken lightly or tossed out. They've got legitimate beliefs, too. We might disagree but I'll still listen to them."

American Prairie moved relatively fast and hard on this landscape. It didn't compromise. It bought land to get itself a seat at a table. But that's the key here. It bought land from willing sellers. It isn't claiming eminent domain. It isn't flooding a valley.

It isn't taking their land by force. Or stripping them of their language, their religion and their livelihood. That's what happened to the people who were here before the ranchers, farmers and hunters. The Aaniiih and Nakoda lost their land and the animal they depended on most: bison. But now the reserve is bringing thousands of those animals back, a rewilding tribes in the region welcome.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado, and the O'Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Montana. It was supported by the Pulitzer Center.