American Prairie Reserve Buys S. Ranch
Page Whitham Sells 150,000 Acres, Will Operate Ranch Under Lease Agreement; Price Not Disclosed
By Samar Fay, Courier Editor
Published: Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012
The American Prairie Reserve, a Bozeman conservation organization, announced Tuesday that it has bought the 150,000-acre South Ranch in south Valley County from Page Whitham Land and Cattle, a move that has been rumored locally for months.
Page Whitham owner Steve Page confirmed the purchase Tuesday, and has written an explanation of his family’s action that appears on page A2.
Page takes a long view of the historical trend of the government’s land use decisions and determined that the time was right to sell that ranch.
“We have concluded that traditional ranching operations on public land in south Valley and south Phillips counties are in jeopardy of becoming history in the not so distant future,” Page said.
Page said the family plans to remain in Glasgow, operating the ranch under a 12-year lease-back agreement that can be renegotiated and extended at the end of the first lease. The purchase price of the ranch was not disclosed.
“We feel that our South Ranch no longer provides viable opportunity for future ranching generations and it is not without emotion that we have chosen to sell to a conservation organization willing to pay fair market value for this property, yet allow us to operate it as a cattle ranch for an extended period of time,” Page said.
APR has established a holding of more than 123,300 acres of deeded and leased public land in south Phillips County and has stocked it with more than 200 genetically pure bison that have never been crossbred with cattle. Their stated goal is a prairie based wildlife reserve with up to 10,000 free-roaming bison and other native animals on more than three million acres, anchored on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
South Valley and Phillips counties, with the adjoining CMR, comprise the largest contiguous block of public lands in Montana. The APR says it has some of the largest blocks of untilled prairie in North America, and says it represents the best potential for large-scale grassland conservation.
Many local ranchers have tried to maintain a united front against the creation of a Buffalo Commons on the BLM and state grazing lands that they need to continue their operations. They unsuccessfully contested losing their grazing rights on the CMR, and protested the raising of state land grazing fees by 50 percent last year.
Although Interior Secretary Ken Salazar two years ago repudiated a plan circulated in his department to make large parts of Phillips and Valley counties into a national monument, the fear still exists among local farmers and ranchers that this could happen, or that the APR could be turned into a national park.
Page was a member of the BLM Advisory Council when a national monument was proposed on the Missouri River. The majority of the council recommended no monument designation. Nevertheless, in 2001 outgoing President Bill Clinton used his power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
The bison owned by the American Prairie Reserve are private livestock, like many herds in Montana and other states. One reason that farmers and ranchers opposed the introduction of Yellowstone bison on the Fort Peck Reservation and Fort Belknap is that they are considered wild game, under the jurisdiction of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. If these bison break their fence and escape onto private fields and hay yards, as tribal bison on Fort Peck and Belknap have done, they cannot be handled like straying cattle.
“I’m not a pro-bison guy. I’m not an anti-bison guy,” Page said. “It all goes back to my fear of the future on a ranch with a high percentage of public land that has come under the microscope of public scrutiny.”
He said the market value of a public land-based ranch could be significantly impacted by higher grazing fees, and its future economic value depends on government policy. If sage grouse becomes listed as an endangered species, for instance, livestock grazing on all the public land in south Valley and Phillips counties could be reduced or eliminated.
Page is aware of possible critical reaction to his decision to sell.
“I’m sensitive to these issues. Anything you do that is different is going to meet with some local resistance,” Page said. “We don’t think this will injure anyone else economically. We’re very comfortable with what we’ve done.”
He said the county will not lose anything in taxes; the revenue will be the same. The land is already under a perpetual state conservation easement, so public hunting and recreation will continue.
“It boils down to our prerogatives as property owners. We have experienced a loss of property rights and values. This was an opportunity for us to protect our future estate,” Page said.
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