American Serengeti

A luxe mother-daughter trip to the largest preserve in the continental United States.

UNLESS YOU ARRIVE by helicopter, as one VIP did during our stay at the American Prairie Reserve, Kestrel Camp in the high plains of Montana is a long way from anywhere.

It’s an hour from the nearest town (Malta, population 1,950) and accessed by dirt roads. These, when it rains, become slick with bentonite, a substance that causes slow-moving cars on level surfaces to slide right off the road. During a six-month winter, blizzards are a fact of life; the wind drove some early frontier people mad. Although snow, hail and downpours can happen anytime, summer and fall are when the prairie comes alive with wildlife, when the green grasses ripple in the breeze, when sunflowers bob their heads along the roadsides and meadowlarks sing on barbed wire fences. It’s when the big skies of Montana are at their most expansive.

Those of us from away think Montana and visualize mountains, trout streams, high-end ski areas or the spectacular Going-to-the- Sun Road in Glacier National Park. But in the north-central section of the state, through which the Missouri River flows for more than 700 miles, it’s open country, sparsely settled, with nary a Wi-Fi cafe in sight. It’s a land of farms and ranches, combines and grain silos. It’s also a land of natural grassland prairie, tens of thousands of acres of which have never been tilled. Sixteen years ago, a group of conservation visionaries conceived of a project to protect this ecosystem, one of the last such in the world, while creating a wildlife reserve roughly the size of Connecticut. Thus was born the American Prairie Reserve.

I’d been invited with one of my daughters to join a 10-person mother-daughter trip organized by a photographer friend from Virginia. We’d already spent three days canoeing through the spectacular scenery of the Missouri Breaks on the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition, so we knew that when those explorers first came through the area in 1805 they encountered vast herds of bison and not one human being. As settlers moved in, bison were virtually exterminated; other large species — grizzlies, mountain lions, elk — were displaced to the mountains. APR’s founders devised an audacious plan to protect the land and restore its wildlife.

The dream can be envisioned on a map as a 3.2-million-acre oval through which the Missouri River runs from west to east. Privately held land, as much as 500,000 acres, would be combined with a patchwork of protected public lands (the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, state of Montana and Federal Bureau of Land Management lands) to create the largest preserve in the continental United States. Bison herds would be reestablished, pronghorn antelope and prairie dogs protected and fences removed. Ultimately, other large ungulates and carnivores could follow.

We arrived, fittingly enough, by boat, landing our canoes near the confluence of the Judith and Missouri rivers. There we met our hosts, Terence Ruane, the reserve’s facilities supervisor, and philanthropy manager Gavin Clark, and were taken (in ridiculously comfortable Sprinter vans laden with snacks and drinks) to tour the APR’s newest acquisition, the fantastically scenic 50,000-acre PN Ranch, which anchors the westernmost portion of the Prairie Reserve.

The next 48 hours were spent driving the lands, viewing wildlife, visiting an ancient buffalo jump and a restored one-room schoolhouse, and reveling in the five-star accommodations at the APR’s Kestrel Camp. The five yurts (plus a double yurt housing the dining and recreation facility) are invisible from the road, though they sit on a vast treeless plain with expansive views over the prairie. Understated exteriors belie their roomy, beautifully furnished interiors. These feature high-thread-count sheets, a plethora of bath products and freebies like water bottles, hats and guidebooks, a killer view and an oculus framing the night sky. There the quiet is its own weight. The night sky is as exhilarating as you’d expect so far from light pollution. In the morning, the resident bison (a bachelor bull who enjoys scratching his back on a post in the driveway), hovers nearby while we make our way to yet another delicious and beautiful meal.

Those meals, prepared with gracious hospitality by chef de cuisine Herbert Norton of the Bozeman-based Food Studio, were exquisite. At dinner, after the American Prairie whiskey and hors d’oeuvres, we were served fresh mozzarella and roasted tomatoes on a rectangle of watermelon, basil salad on the side. Roasted walleye, plated with asparagus, corn and morel relish and tomato jam, was followed by compressed strawberries, sherry vinegar and olive oil–whipped almond milk.

By the second evening our expectations were admittedly high. Norton surpassed them with a creatively deconstructed Caesar salad and a bison short rib that was a dish one adds to a greatest hits list. By the time the dark chocolate pot de crème appeared, we were deep into sharing our personal highs and lows of the day, each one of us profoundly struck by the beauty, the light, the sense of space and the opportunity of the Great Plains, each one of us fired up to share the vision of this ambitious but attainable goal of creating a 3.2-million-acre wildlife preserve.

The project, launched in 2001, has grown its starter herd of bison (genetically pure, diseasefree) from 16 to almost 1,000. It’s purchased almost 90,000 acres for a protected total of more than 350,000. Working with local ranchers, staff have implemented antelope-friendly fencing and installed wildlife cameras so landowners can be reimbursed for providing habitat for keystone species. They’ve set up campgrounds, restored a historic schoolhouse, built an education and science center and launched a hut-to-hut system for hikers. On the reserve, ranching continues in certain areas, some hunting is allowed and campgrounds are maintained for the public.

On our last morning we took reluctant leave of our luxurious accommodations and climbed back into the Sprinters. As we rode along, drivers braked for a family of sage grouse, glimpsed baby marbled godwits tumbling among sunflowers, and watched a flock of pelicans take flight from a lake ringed with rushes. They wheeled into the sky, gathered formation and circled, alighting back on the lake as soon as we had moved off.

Eventually we reached a large herd, about 100 bison, mostly females with calves plus a few young bulls. We parked 300 yards away and remained near the vehicles, quietly taking photographs and watching through binoculars. Still, the creatures were uneasy. One by one the animals got to their feet; slowly the herd started moving away. Soon they were trotting, disappearing down into a little wash lined with vegetation, reappearing on the far side as a sizable group moving across the prairie. This is no Yellowstone, where the last direct descendants of the millions that roamed the Great Plains nonchalantly share the winter roadways with snowmobiles. This is as close as it gets to a wild herd. As they churned the ground with their hooves, gathering momentum and merging into a dark line across the brown and sage plain, we began to see what is possible.

The original idea of the American Prairie Reserve, according to conservation biologist Curt Freese, was to re-create what Lewis and Clark saw when they passed through the area: “a spectacle to rival Africa’s Serengeti.” For a brief moment on the reserve, we experienced exactly that.

Photos by Missy Janes and Chase Reynolds Ewald (School, Fish)

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