At home on the American Prairie Reserve.
A side-wind blasts through the open window and a thick aroma floods my nostrils. I bring the car to a screeching halt. Sage, juniper, and prairie wildflowers mixed with the blunt stench of livestock. It’s pungent and intoxicating.
Leaving the car in a pull-out, I walk to the canyon’s edge as golden-hour light floods the eroded coulees. Below me flows the Judith River, brown and fast. Old-growth cottonwood galleries line its banks, florescent green in their spring bloom. A hundred miles of prairie spreads to the horizon, the unspoiled wilderness of the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument.
This open prairie is a curious place to find myself, a lover of mountains; but here I am, exploring the American Prairie Reserve's (APR), PN Ranch, directly adjacent to the Breaks. I've come to do some recon for a dirt-road bike tour I've been planning, a dream of mine for years.
APR has a dream of their own: to re-establish a fully functioning prairie ecosystem across 200 miles of central Montana. To achieve that goal, they’re stitching together private, state, and federal lands, creating what National Geographic called “one of the most ambitious conservation projects in American history.”
And it’s all open to the public.
Back in my car, I tumble down the last few miles of dirt road before slowly crawling across a guardrail-less bridge over the Judith and up to my accommodations. While I’d just as soon rack out under the pageant of stars sure to be on display, I’ve opted for the comfy confines of the APR’s newest amenity—their sleeping yurts. My weekend homestead is part of a unique hut-to-hut system APR is working on; it will eventually link the east and west ends of the reserve, allowing visitors to hike, bike, or horseback ride up to 200 miles, staying at huts along the way.
A weekend basecamp on the PN Ranch
As the full system isn't finished, I’ll be using the yurt as basecamp for my scouting mission. Hours spent poring over BLM maps and Google Earth tell me there are miles of dirt paths in these parts, but I need on-the-ground confirmation of the conditions before committing to a multi-day backcountry ride. Out here, an afternoon thunderstorm can turn dirt to gumbo, leaving you stranded miles from shelter and way out of cell-phone range. I push these thoughts to the back of my mind as I unpack my gear and get settled for the night.
Inside the yurt, I marvel at the luxury: electricity, a refrigerator, a full-sized oven and four-burner stove, even a fully stocked library of wildlife and conservation titles. I drop a six-pack into the fridge, pulling one out for myself as I spread a map across the wooden table. Tomorrow I’ll attempt to ride every mile available to me on the PN, up and down dirt-road double-track to the ranch’s farthest reaches and back.
Morning comes early on the prairie, first light breaching the river-canyon walls as early as 4am. Expecting peace and quiet this far from anything, I’m jolted awake by a cacophony of birdsong. Adjusting to the symphonic variations of meadowlark, robin, and warbler, I drift back to sleep, getting essential rest for the day ahead.
Fully recharged by 7:30am, I’m on my bike by 8, heading west on perfect tacky dirt, my head on a swivel as I take in the sights. And what sights there are: mule deer by the dozen; more birds than I can count; antelope in groups of three and four; and a flighty coyote, well versed in the ways of the rancher’s rifle. From a hundred yards out, I watch the canine dash gracefully up an open hillside, gaining several hundred feet of elevation in under a minute. The coyote is built for the prairie, as at home here as a bird on the wind.
For hours I ride, covering miles of trail while stopping at my leisure to investigate a natural spring, identify an unknown flower, or soak in another stunning vista. On the ranch’s northernmost trail, the landscape appears featureless and barren. Riding west, I look over my right shoulder and think, “Wind and water have not shaped this expanse,” as they have just miles down trail. Then I remember something Mike Kautz, APR’s visitation manager said: “From the top of the ranch, views of the Missouri are spectacular.” I get off my bike and walk about 50 yards before realizing that the land is not featureless; I'm on the edge of a monstrous chasm dropping 1,000 feet to the river below. This seems as good a place as any for lunch.
Gorging on Missouri River views for lunch
In the afternoon, the miles roll by uninterrupted. While the reserve is open to the public, I haven’t seen a soul all day—a solitude rarely found on the public land surrounding Bozeman. As my mind wanders, I’m snapped back to reality by a coyote dashing from its hiding place just feet from my front wheel.
Startled, I step out of my pedals and fumble for my camera. By the time I have it out, the ’yote is long gone, pausing every so often to look back at me, mocking my clumsiness. I watch him lope away amid a chorus of prairie-dog shouts, realizing I most likely blew his cover and perhaps cost him a meal.
It strikes me that I’m witnessing the early stages of APR’s vision: an intact, fully functioning prairie ecosystem. For a long time, prairie dogs and coyotes have been the scourge of the prairie. For many who work this land, they’re still a nuisance. But here on the PN, they’re the hunters and the hunted, roles they’ve played for millennia, and roles they’ll hopefully play well into the future.
Which isn’t to say this land isn’t a working landscape. Back in the saddle and around another corner, I come wheel to hoof with a large cow and her calf. The calf is skittish but mom doesn’t move a muscle. I pause, pondering a course of action. I "moo" obnoxiously. Unbelievably, the cow and her calf move along, rejoiningg the rest of the herd.
While ecological restoration is the thrust of APR’s mission, on some of their properties, local ranchers are enrolled in Wild Sky, APR’s financial-incentive program that turns wildlife into an asset. Ranchers enrolled in the program implement wildlife-friendly practices, such as installing wildlife-friendly fencing or accomodating predators. This increases the chances of wildlife, livestock, and people thriving together. Or that’s the hope, at least.
So far, it seems to be working. I’ve seen more wildlife in a day of riding here in ranch country than I would on a similar ride in the mountains, and more cattle. I’ve seen birds of prey, waterfowl, and songbirds; whitetail, muleys, and antelope; prairie dogs and coyotes.
Riding through an age-old drama: sunset on the prairie
As afternoon turns to evening, I linger high above my temporary basecamp at a second yurt location, several miles from where I’ll sleep. I’m waiting for sunset, hoping for drama. And the prairie delivers. Off to the east, thunderheads tower over the Missouri; lightning strikes, inaudible at this distance. To the west, the sun sets behind a distant island range; in front of me, its last rays turn the canyon walls purple, pink, and blue.
Head cocked, I listen for the yip of a coyote or the hoot of an owl, but they're unwilling to betray their whereabouts. I hear nothing but the wind.
To learn more about the American Prairie Reserve, or to book a stay at one or their yurts, visit americanprairie.org.