Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains

An ambitious plan to return grasslands to the wild splendor of the past faces impassioned resistance from the present.

Justice Werk (on white horse) and Kassy Perez move cattle on the Werk ranch on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The tribal land neighbors the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a conservation project aiming to create an immense protected area in central Montana.

We bounce in the truck along a furrowed road, through a mud slick and up to a bluff that looks out to the curve of the Earth.

The plains glow emerald in this wet spring, rolling toward distant hills. Near an oxbow in the creek beneath us, a herd of buffalo graze. They are primeval creatures, bearded and huge, their winter fur peeling off in strips like old wallpaper.

In the days before horses and guns, Plains Indians chased buffalo off this steep embankment to their deaths. It’s late in May, late in the afternoon, and the light has taken on a rich, nostalgic cast. Damien Austin, a former zookeeper with rectangular glasses and a rectangular fringe of hair, extends his hand across the humped expanse of prairie. “Just imagine grizzly bears running around out there,” he says.

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