Fighting for a way of life

Winifred families take on the APR
Deb Hill
Managing Editor
Saturday, September 8, 2018
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Members of the Winifred community are banding together in a grassroots effort to combat the American Prairie Reserve’s plans to create a 3.5 million-acre nature reserve. The group includes (from left) Darlene Rich, Mary D. Boyce, Erin Slivka, Gladys Walling, Laura Boyce, Jessie Heble (with son Ridge) and Karla Knox.

The American Prairie Reserve has a goal: protect the grasslands, a vanishing ecosystem. A group of ag families from the Winifred area also has a goal: preserve a way of life threatened by the APR. Or, as their signs say, “Save the cowboy; stop American Prairie Reserve.”

For years the APR has been actively pursuing its goal of creating the largest nature reserve in the continental U.S., but it was the purchase of the historic PN Ranch in northern Fergus County that motivated the loosely organized Winifred group to get more serious about their grassroots protest.

“We have a strong connection but we’re not really an organized group,” said Gladys Walling.

While the group may not be organized, they are in constant contact with each other, as most are neighbors or run ranches in the same general area.

“[Most of us] were attending a funeral just after the PN was bought, and all anyone was talking about was the APR buying it,” recalled Laura Boyce. “We’d all been aware of the APR’s presence north of the river for the past 15 years or so, but [their purchase] of the PN ranch brought their mission much closer to home. [We] immediately began organizing to try and keep the APR and their plans out of Fergus County.”

The APR is clear about its goals: stitch together 3 million acres of public lands, both federal and state, by purchasing the private lands that lie between them. According to its website, the APR has so far purchased just under 400,000 acres, a combination of private lands and leased lands, managed for recreation and wildlife.

It’s the loss of the private farms and ranches and attendant ag families that most concerns the Winifred group.

“It’s an erosion,” Erin Slivka said. “When the PN Ranch sold, we lost five kids who were attending our school. We lost their parents as members of the Winifred community. Ag communities take care of their own. Farmers and ranchers serve on the fire boards, the school board, are the ambulance volunteers. When you take that out, who will respond? When the APR visitors have a medical emergency or there’s a fire out there, who will respond?

“APR’s publicity alludes to displacing some people, but they say it’s not a big deal because it’s too hard to make a living here and people are dispersing anyway,” Slivka added. “But we have young people here who are continuing in the ag industry.”

“You hear that ag communities are dying, but Winifred is one community that is thriving and young people are returning to be part of the community,” Boyce said. “I’m proud of our Winifred community. But if you take that much land out of production, so there are no people working it who have skin in the game, we are all at risk.”

Management conflicts

Besides the overarching concern about loss of Central Montana’s rural communities, the group has concerns about how the APR manages its lands.

“Our main concern is with the bison,” Walling said. “They [the APR] are not managing them. They are taking out a lot of fences and dams and asking for special treatment, like year-round grazing on the BLM lands. If we want to graze cattle on the BLM, we have to put in fences, develop water and are only allowed to have cattle on there for a limited time.”

The possible return of large predators, perhaps even wolves or grizzlies, to the area is also concerning.

“We don’t want these animals threatening us here like they are on the west side [of the state],” said Mary D. Boyce.

The APR’s plan for a perimeter fence doesn’t make these ranchers feel any safer.

“Private ownership rights are only good until they cross over and affect my rights,” Erin Slivka said. “I haven’t seen a fence in my life that can keep in bison.”

Loss of farming on lands sold to the APR also worries Slivka, who feels it is a national security issue.

“We have food security in this country; we can feed ourselves,” Slivka said. “But if the APR has its way, it will control millions of acres. If we set those aside [take them out of agricultural production] it can threaten that, which seems irresponsible and unsafe.”

Karla Knox agreed, adding, “It sounds like a really good idea to save prairie grasslands, but who are we saving them from? [Ranchers] are doing a really good job protecting the area. You should see the wildlife in our fields. Last winter, which was really hard, the animals congregated on our lands, where the food was.”

Taking action

According to Laura Boyce, the group’s first effort to combat the APR was helping to pass the Fergus County Bison Ordinance in 2016.

“We worked with the Fergus County Conservation District and got the ordinance on the ballot, and the voters passed it,” she said. “With the ordinance, anyone raising bison is required to submit certain plans to the Conservation District, and the bison are required to be managed in a certain way.”

Boyce said the ordinance applies countywide and is key to the group’s insistence that bison be managed as livestock rather than wildlife.

But that’s not all the group has accomplished. The “negative easement” agreement they created is, they think, one of their best tools.

“It’s a ‘no bison’ easement,” Walling said. “All of us who signed on said we will not run bison on the land. It’s a good sized block of land, about 200,000 acres so far.”

“There are 74 properties in it all together,” Boyce said. “We worked with County Planner Pam Vosen, Attorney Hertha Lund and others to draw the agreement up.”

Knox said no one had done such an easement before, but it worked.

“We all agreed not to put bison on this land for 20 years,” she said.

“This [agreement] is closed, but I spoke with [attorney] Kris Birdwell and anyone can do another one,” Boyce added.

Most recently the group developed a banner promoting their message. “Save the Cowboy” banners are visible throughout Winifred and are popping up in other Central Montana communities.

Now the group has completed a brochure explaining their concerns, which they will hand out this weekend from their booth at the Montana Bale Trail fair in Hobson.

“We’re losing the community, culture and heritage of this area,” Slivka said. “We [farmers and ranchers] are doing a really good job protecting the area. We’ve established water, improved conditions, and benefitted wildlife. But we need to preserve all species, including us.”




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