BILLINGS, Mont. – When conservationists Curt Freese and Sean Gerrity look out on the rolling prairie of north-central Montana, they see grasslands largely unchanged by time or man — the perfect place, they believe, for bison to roam again.
"Our vision is not a small herd on a few acres, but to create that exciting, visual image that really gets people's hearts beating fast: 'Wow, look at those bison!'" said Freese, Northern Great Plains Program director for the World Wildlife Fund.
That vision will begin to take shape this week. On Thursday, 16 bison will be released from a holding pen onto a portion of the nearly 32,000 acres of land that has been purchased or leased as the start of a wildlife reserve. The conservationists hope it will eventually grow to hundreds of thousands of acres.
Gerrity and Freese say the goal is to replicate and preserve a thriving, natural prairie ecosystem that will bring people to ranching communities that are, in some cases, struggling for survival.
They downplay the fear of some locals that the project is the start of turning Phillips County into a "Buffalo Commons," a region where cattle ranching is replaced by a sea of open prairie populated by bison.
However, Frank Popper, the man behind that controversial idea, said this project and others precisely fit the notion of Buffalo Commons, even if those involved don't acknowledge it.
The Buffalo Commons proposal was to restore prairie and wildlife, like bison, in huge areas of the Plains states where agriculture is no longer sustainable because of dwindling population, drought or other factors.
Buffalo Commons is still a hated idea in some places, nearly 20 years after Popper and his wife proposed it. But Popper believes opposition has abated somewhat as conservationists ranging from Ted Turner, who raises bison on his ranches, to the American Prairie Foundation are essentially putting the concept into practice.
This seems to suggest "that the Buffalo Commons can happen, and there's plenty of room for existing ranching and farming," said Popper, who teaches land-use planning at Rutgers and Princeton universities.
The Montana project began four years ago when the World Wildlife Fund found mostly pristine prairie in a patchwork of public and private land neighboring the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell Federal Wildlife Refuge. The array of plant and animals in the region of southern Phillips County ranged from bighorn sheep and elk to owls and hawks and fragrant sagebrush.
Procuring the land fell to the American Prairie Foundation, the fund's partner in the project. So far, it has bought five ranches and acquired grazing or lease rights to nearly 23,000 acres of public land.
Some of the ranches had been on the market two or three years, underscoring changes in family farming and ranching, said Gerrity, the foundation's president.
"For the first time since World War I, neighbors aren't necessarily coveting each other's land," he said. If the group hadn't stepped in, the land could have been plowed, sold off in chunks or closed to the public, he said.
The conservation groups envision the preserve becoming a tourist attraction, but county Commissioner Troy Blunt doesn't buy it. The preserve is about 50 miles south of Malta, reachable by a dirt road that rain would turn to slick muck. Factor in long, bitter winters that would deter all but the heartiest of adventurers, and the effect on the local economy probably will be minimal, he said.
"It might be well intentioned, but it does little to nothing to build or enhance our local communities," he said.
Leo Barthelmess, who raises cattle in the county and used to cut native grass seed on one of the ranches, said he worries about bison getting loose or possibly spreading disease to cattle. The bison being released on the preserve came from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
The conservation groups say they're content to build the preserve and bison herd slowly and keep in close contact with ranchers and other residents in an effort to be good neighbors.
"We fully expect this will outlive us, that this will be a national treasure that people who live around there will be proud of, that will be able to breathe new life into their communities," the wildlife fund's Tom Lalley said. "And this will just be one hell of a cool place."