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American Prairie (AP), a conservation project in Montana, has quietly acquired more than 450,000 acres of land with the help of its billionaire donors and the federal government.

The little-known project aims to create the largest “fully functioning ecosystem” in the continental US by combining nearly 3.2 million acres of private and public lands, according to the American Prairie Foundation, which established the reserve 20 years ago. The group has recorded 34 transactions on nearly 453,188 acres of land across central Montana — much of which was once used for agriculture and grazing — since 2004 and continues to expand aggressively.

“Our goal is to assemble the largest collection of public and private lands dedicated to wildlife in the Lower 48,” AP vice president and chief external relations officer Pete Geddes said in an interview with Fox News Digital. “For comparison, it’s about 25% larger than Yellowstone.”

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“We’re not asking the federal government to create something, we’re not asking the federal government for money,” he said. “Instead, we engage in private philanthropy and voluntary exchange by buying ranches from people who want to sell them to us.”

Livestock filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Livestock filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Fox News)

The American Prairie Foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars in recent years, thanks in large part to donors who include well-known Wall Street and Silicon Valley magnates, according to recent tax filings. Hanszorg Weiss, a Swiss financier and mega-donor to liberal causes, the late German retail mogul Erivan Haub, John Mars, heir to the Mars candy fortune, and the Hewlett-Packard Co. There is Susan Packard Orr, daughter of the co-founder. All were donated to the AP, Bloomberg previously reported.

AP says 3% of its donations come from international donors.

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“It’s an area that doesn’t have many people and has been unpopulated for a long time,” Geddes said. “So, the idea is that there is a greater potential for less conflict over conservation in this part of the world.”

AP’s plans, however, have faced growing pushback from top state officials and local ranchers who argue that such a nature reserve would remove vital land from production and adversely affect privately owned lands. Using its donor funds, the group purchased about 118,000 acres of private land and leased another 334,000 acres of public land owned primarily by the federal government.

A bison lies on the ground in front of Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., on June 22.

A bison lies on the ground in front of Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., on June 22.
((AP Photo/Matthew Brown))

“Those donors can write those donations off as a charitable donation, so they don’t have to live with the consequences of what they’re doing to these communities,” said Chuck Denov, policy director for United Property Owners. Montana (UPOM), a group of local ranchers opposing the AP plans.

Speaking to Fox News Digital, “It is really worrying that so much foreign money is coming to AP to buy our land. “For the future of this country’s food security, we need to take a closer look.”

Denoh said the majority of locals in surrounding counties, who have conserved the land for decades, oppose AP’s plans. The region is almost entirely dependent on the agricultural industry.

Opponents of AP focused their ire in particular on one of the group’s key propositions Drop the forest plow onto the property, giving visitors the “chance to see majestic species”. UPOM is concerned that free-roaming bison could infect nearby livestock with brucellosis, an infectious disease commonly found in bison and elk populations that can be very costly to ranchers if it spreads to livestock.

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AP requested permission from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for managing 245 million acres of public lands, to allow bison to graze on portions of the leased property in 2017 and again in 2019. The agency announced Thursday. Approves AP’s request for bison grazing on 63,500 acres of federal property.

A bison and its calf roam a section of Canada's Elk Island National Park.  Descendants of Canada's bison herd were relocated to the Montana American Indian Reservation in 2018.

A bison and its calf roam a section of Canada’s Elk Island National Park. Descendants of Canada’s bison herd were relocated to the Montana American Indian Reservation in 2018.
((via Parks Canada AP))

Gov. Greg Gianforte and a series of state agency heads wrote letters to the BLM late last year asking the agency not to approve the request. Kristy Clark, director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, said the plan would remove “large tracts of land from production agriculture,” reduce farm income and hurt industries such as machinery sales and ranch labor.

“It’s completely illegal,” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said in an interview with Fox News Digital. “This is federal land that’s been set aside specifically — by the Taylor Grazing Act, by federal law — for cattle grazing. Bison aren’t cattle, even under federal law.”

“That’s the part that everyone seems to be ignoring here,” he continued. “The AP doesn’t want to admit it, certainly the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior don’t want to admit it. But it’s a fact.”

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Knudsen accused the AP of creating a secret plan where “liberal coastal elites can come and hang out and see beautiful animals” to create an “American Serengeti.” The attorney general said his office is closely reviewing Thursday’s decision by the Biden administration to determine its next steps to protect ranchers and the state’s interests.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen was sworn in on May 27, 2021.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen was sworn in on May 27, 2021.
(Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, file)

The Taylor Grazing Act, passed by Congress in 1934, was designed to prevent overgrazing by allowing local ranchers to lease public land for grazing cattle and growing forage crops. The bill was passed to increase food and livestock production on land that had, for years, been severely mismanaged.

Although the AP argues that the law allows bison to graze, the group notes that its plans are primarily focused on conservation, not production. For example, the group boasts on its website that it has led to the termination of 63,777 acres of cattle grazing leases in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, allowing federal officials to “restore habitat primarily for wildlife use.”

“We don’t see it as a non-productive use,” Geddes told Fox News Digital. “Those bison are playing very productive roles. They’re not commercial livestock production, but they’re productive in terms of what they’re doing for that prairie ecosystem.”

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“Yes, some of that land will run out of production, but land will run out of production everywhere, all the time,” he continued.

A herd of bison stands in a pen at the Fort Peck Reservation near Poplar, Mont., in 2021.

A herd of bison stands in a pen at the Fort Peck Reservation near Poplar, Mont., in 2021.
(AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

An estimated 800 bison currently roam some of AP’s properties, which the group hopes will increase to “several thousands” as part of its wildlife recovery plan.

AP currently leases some of the land it oversees to cattle ranchers who, amid a major regional drought, are desperate for grasslands available for cattle grazing. Geddes said those ranchers were well aware of AP’s plans to push bison off reserve property after allowing them to roam the leased land.

“Let’s say in two years, we’ll have 1,200 head of bison. In the seven counties we work in, maybe half a million cattle,” he added. “This criticism that we’re somehow dropping a neutron bomb and wiping out agriculture in the region — that’s just nonsense.”

According to the Montana Department of Agriculture, Montana’s $4.72 billion agriculture industry is one of the largest in the state and a major supplier of wheat, hay, lentils, corn and meat to the US. As of January, Montana ranchers managed an inventory of 2.2 million cattle, making it one of the few states with more cattle than people.

Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., pictured in Prae, Montana, in 2018.  Gianforte opposed the BLM's proposal to allow bison grazing in the state.

Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., pictured in Prae, Montana, in 2018. Gianforte opposed the BLM’s proposal to allow bison grazing in the state.
(William Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images)

Overall, the latest report from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service shows that cattle stocks have declined in Montana and across the country over the past several years.

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“The AP is working to buy as much land as they can to take as many cattle off the landscape as possible and eventually drive them off,” Denov told Fox News Digital. “Those lands were created in the first place to ensure an adequate and sustainable supply of protein for the country.”

“This is probably one of the biggest risks from AP,” he said. “If they can set this new precedent with the BLM, we think so [non-governmental organizations] Western countries are going to control these grazing leases and buy land to take them out of production. It is really bigger than AP.