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Most Montanans see the Missouri Breaks through a rifle scope.

Bugling elk herds, mule deer with chandelier racks, pheasants and pronghorn and millions of acres of public land await those daring and time-endowed enough to explore this part of Montana that sits four hours from anywhere.

The American Prairie Reserve would like to expand those optics, adding some bird-watching binoculars and star-gazing telescopes in the other seasons of the year. It’s also added the biggest of North American big game, the American bison, to the roster of attractions.

As part of its campaign to create the biggest public-private wildlife refuge in the United States, APR has invested heavily in tourist facilities featuring its properties. The effort serves both to help visitors gain entrance to an unwelcoming landscape and for APR itself to gain entrance to an unwelcoming community.

“Is the highest and best use of this land just for producing food?” asked APR recreation manager Mike Kautz. “Or could it be a place for wildlife and for people to recreate and hunt and fish? We’re working hard to assemble the habitat and open it up to the public to come and visit. We’re perceived as aggressive and mercenary when we’re not doing any of that. We’re entrepreneurial. We’re good at solving problems.”

APR has raised more than $75 million to buy private land adjacent to the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and Missouri Breaks National Monument and transform it from cattle ranching to bison country. Its long-range goal stitches together 3.5 million acres of public and private land dominated by a herd of 10,000 bison.

“We have a huge tolerance for wildlife,” APR refuge supervisor Damien Austin said while bouncing his SUV toward the Sun Prairie bison herd. APR picked its acreage numbers scientifically, aiming for a place big enough to withstand man-made disasters, adapt to climate change and provide enough room for bison to perform their evolutionary function on the landscape.

“Ten thousand bison is the population size needed to maintain genetic diversity and recreate the habitat for all the other plants and animals that evolved with the bison,” Austin said. “The Yellowstone (National Park) bison is ecologically extinct. It doesn’t have enough animals to affect the landscape.”

But Yellowstone does have the tourists. A 2017 economic study funded by the National Wildlife Federation and researched by University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research looked at the potential impact of building a recreation economy around APR’s bison reserve. The study found that nonresident visitors to the Glacier Country tourism region spent $1.2 billion in 2015, followed by Yellowstone Country at $1 billion. The Missouri River Country was the poorest of the state’s six tourism regions, pulling in $113 million that year or 3 percent of the state’s overall traveler spending.

APR hopes to change that with a growing menu of tourist facilities. It has opened several campgrounds for tenters, RVs and even cabin-sleepers on its lands. It has built two elaborate and comfortable yurts that sleep groups of eight or more in scenic yet remote pockets of the Missouri Breaks, with plans for eight more to come. Kautz said the network will resemble trekking lodges in Switzerland or Nepal, where hikers can string together shelters a day apart for week-long adventures.

Locals have been skeptical of the plan. For one thing, the UM study also shows that retail trade jobs averaged $21,600 a year, while largely seasonal or part-time recreation jobs earned about $16,000 and food and hotel workers made $14,233. That compares to agriculture jobs that average $31,750. Then there’s the challenge of inviting visitors to a place that can drive residents to their knees.

“I really question the viability of the tourism,” Ranchers Stewardship Alliance President Perri Jacobs said. “This is an isolated area. If people come explore, they have to be prepared to haul their own water. They’ll need a four-wheel drive with enough clearance that can function here. There’s little cell phone service. You could die out here before you could get help.”

That’s where APR’s alliance with the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation could pay big dividends.

“When push comes to shove, they’re on my ancestors’ land,” said Fort Belknap Tribal Tourism Director George “Junior” Horse Capture. “It’s like having a bedroom in your house but you’re not allowed in there. And then all of a sudden, you can go in there. It’s a good feeling.”

Horse Capture serves on APR’s national council. The Reservation north of the Missouri Breaks has two bison herds: About 500 in its Snake Butte Preserve that have some cattle genes mixed in and another 30 genetically pure animals from Yellowstone National Park. While no one has intentions to intermingle the reservation and reserve bison, there are lots of plans for shared tourism operations.

“I think 90 percent of our success will be because of APR,” Horse Capture said of the reservation’s tourism goals. “I hope people get over the fear and quit listening to the rumors and see what’s going on for themselves. This is going to be one of the biggest game reserves all over the world. Livestock and farming are very unstable markets. The rumors they’re forcing people out aren’t true. The question is how Malta is going to help itself to benefit from APR. What can I get ahold of as far as tourism goes?”

State and federal data show most of northeast Montana fading while the rest of the state exceeds national trends. From 2000 to 2015, Phillips County's population fell 9.4 percent while the state grew 12.4 percent. Farm and ranch jobs have shrunk. That’s due in part to mechanization replacing people, part to needing larger properties to support fewer workers.

Big paychecks once went to energy workers who enjoyed wages between $69,000 and $107,000, but that boom employed less than 1,000 people and has pretty much faded. The Pegasus gold mine at Zortman paid well, too, but it ran out of gold in 1996 and left the state with a massive environmental cleanup task.

Those statistics don’t capture the real picture of Malta, according to Jacobs and others. They don’t reflect the 65 young families who’ve moved in over the past five years, returning to raise their kids with the same small-town values their parents lived. The local pharmacist is under 40.

They can’t all go back to ranching, however. Agriculture operations tend to be family-owned because the barrier to entry is so high. A dry-land ranch needs to have about 10,000 acres to succeed as a business, and that can start at $5 million. A national study recently showed around four out of five new farmers begin by carving out part of their parents’ operation on loan.

Meanwhile, the ecosystem APR treasures has been vanishing worldwide at a disturbing rate. In the United States alone, two-thirds of the nation’s grasslands have been lost to development.

Changing commodity values have spurred farmers in the Dakotas to plow up grazing land and replace it with corn. That’s pushed wheat farmers west, where they’ve taken over some of the ranching country in Montana.

The plow-up in Montana has been dramatic. After President Ronald Reagan signed the Conservation Reserve Program that paid farmers to idle marginal cropland, Montana enrolled 3.5 million acres by 2007. In the subsequent decade, that’s fallen to 1.3 million acres due to lack of federal funding.

“Where else can you go to see an ecosystem that once covered most of the continent?” Kautz asked. “It was so ubiquitous. Why didn’t we save any of it?

"Our huts have been open since August. They’ve been booked every weekend. This is a chance to hike a trail-less landscape. That’s an experience that’s becoming more and more rare.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.