The history of Horse Ranch paints a picture of homesteading on the Montana prairie during the turn of the 20th century. Originally a homestead claimed by Sierra D. Stoneberg Holt’s great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, the chunk of land lies 50 miles south of highway 2 and just north of the colossal Fort Peck Dam.
Holt’s great-grandfather didn’t have good luck as a homesteader in the same region because he had tried to become a farmer in the rocky, dry ground. After years of failed crops, he made the astute observation that the plains of northeast Montana were truly cow country, so he, along with his wife and mother-in-law, went to laying out a highly productive cattle operation. One that, 101 years later, still supports Holt and her family.
Over the years the ranch has survived droughts and harsh winters, overcoming fluctuating commodity prices and whatever other hardships often accompany agricultural endeavors. No matter what, the little homestead, turned generational ranch, has been steady, even now as the ranch stands strong against its neighbors, the American Prairie Reserve (APR).
The APR first started snooping around parts of central and eastern Montana 15 years ago, Holt recollects. She remembers vividly the day leaders in the organization accompanied by a member of the World Wildlife Fund, knocking on her family’s door. Since then, the APR has collected copious amounts of monetary support as they propel forward in hopes of reaching their end goal: a three-million-acre buffalo habitat.
“The best metaphor I could use to describe the APR is they are like a cancer with the tumor being in Phillips County,” Holt stated.
The APR acquired 5,000 acres of Phillips County in 2004 and released their first 16 bison in 2005. By 2018, they owned 46,869.39 deeded acres of Montana, concentrated in Fergus, Petroleum, Phillips and Valley counties. Every single one of those acres was once owned by a Montana family, many of them forming from humbled homesteading beginnings. Those were family acres seeped with history and tradition, sold out to the highest bidder whose ultimate dream is to de-populate that section of Montana and let the bison roam unmanaged.
“One of the biggest problems with the APR is they have no sort of population control except for buying more ground,” explained Holt.
The APR bison herd is monitored from the air twice a year, according to the APR’s website, and during their latest flyover in the winter of 2018, they estimate their bison herd to consist of about 833 animals. Holt, who holds a Ph.D. in Botany, explained that unmanaged bison double in population size roughly every five years. Which makes sense considering the APR has relocated 306 bison between 2005 and 2014, according to their website. The remaining bison have regenerated naturally.
Following that line of thinking and supposing the APR does in fact reach their goal of 3 million acres, Holt crunched some numbers and predicts the APR bison herd will require a landmass the size of North America in only 50 short years. That is if some untreated disease endemic like anthrax, brucellosis or tuberculosis doesn’t get them first.
“Anthrax lives in the soil almost indefinitely and buffalo can bring it up because of the wallowing. We know for certain there is anthrax near Saco, Mont. It came to the surface when my mother was in high school in the early 60’s,” said Holt.
The APR pays little mind to these potential issues because they have yet to come across a problem that money hasn’t been able to fix. According to the group’s 2018 taxes, the APR had over $87 million in assets, including land, buildings, equipment and investments. The 501 (c) (3) tax exempt organization received over $7 million in donations for 2018 alone. Billionaires like Jaqueline Badger Mars, who is ranked as the 33rd richest individual on planet earth according to Forbes, sits on the APR’s board of directors.
“They are strong because of the money,” Holt expressed.
It’s going to be really hard to fight them, Holt admits, but as a fifth-generation Montana rancher, she is not afraid to bare her teeth, dig in her heels and ultimately wait them out and she encourages other producers to do the same.
“We have to have patience and we have to support each other. They can’t expand if they can’t find people to sell to them,” Holt said.
Land owners across the APR’s target area have banded together finding solidarity in numbers. Some producers in the area have opted to sign negative bison easements, essentially putting it in writing that, over time, they admit the land may sell, but never shall it ever run bison.
History tells us that proper land use management and not gargantuan herds of unmanaged bison is really what has preserved the plains ecosystem. Horse Ranch, like so many other ranches in the cross-hairs of the APR, has supported multiple generations because agriculture families are the true stewards of the land.
Holt believes that as land owners, those in the area must do everything within their power to limit the damage done by the APR. Above all else she advises, “We can’t let them wear us down.”