American Prairie Foundation (APF), a Montana-based private land trust, working in cooperation with World Wildlife Fund, today released 16 bison on a portion of 32,000 acres of prairie it owns and leases south of Malta, Montana. The area is the core of a new prairie reserve created from land purchased by APF to restore native wildlife, including genetically valuable bison. "History was made today," said Sean Gerrity, president of American Prairie Foundation which has offices in Bozeman and Malta. "Bison once roamed this land in herds of thousands, and today they're back. Their return signals the start of an exciting project to restore native grassland wildlife to the prairies where they have been absent for more than 120 years." "Bison are just one part of new management of this land. The reserve will be privately owned and operated by APF, but most of the land will be open to the public for recreation. We expect it will draw people from all over the world and be a boost for surrounding communities." The Northern Great Plains were once home to arguably the most spectacular wildlife assemblage in North America. Bison roamed in what Captain Meriwether Lewis described in 1805 as "innumerable herds" alongside elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, deer, prairie dogs, and huge flocks of grassland birds and waterfowl. While those scenes of prolific wildlife are largely a thing of the past, the prospects for maintaining numbers of native animals and restoring species like the bison, which has been noticeably absent since it was hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s, are good. Two important factors set APF's bison herd apart: First, it is one of only a handful of herds left in the world that are free of hybrids from bison-cattle crosses, the result of generations of experimentation at the turn of the last century when bison numbers dropped to just a few hundred individuals. The source herd, now living at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, is one of the few herds derived from original wild stock not bred to cattle or bison/cattle crosses. Second, unlike genetically pure herds in Yellowstone, the Wind Cave herd is free from the disease brucellosis, which is a concern to domestic cattle producers. The Director of World Wildlife Fund's Northern Great Plains Ecoregion Program, Dr. Curt Freese, notes that recent research on the bison genome has found that some of the genes that make bison "wild" are disappearing for other reasons as well. "Basically, bison - already largely ecologically extinct in their historic range - are becoming livestock through selective breeding," says Freese, whose program is providing scientific and technical support to the project. "The need to establish new, large herds to conserve the wild bison genome is extremely important. The great news about today is that these bison are returning to the heart of their historic range, and we didn't have to do anything special to the land except to put up fences. Decades of stewardship by local landowners kept the land in very good shape. The bison will graze the land very differently from the cattle, and we expect it will benefit other wildlife almost immediately." Gerrity says that the land will remain on the tax rolls. APF banks locally and employs local citizens and contractors whenever possible. This summer alone, APF locally contracted for more than $50,000 in projects, from fence building to obtaining title insurance. "One of our main goals is to be a good neighbor and part of that means making sure we contribute to the local economy," continued Gerrity. "An increasing number of ranches around the Missouri River Breaks are being converted to private hunting compounds where the public is excluded. Like those operations, we're not ranching but, unlike them, people will have access to our land for tourism and hunting." Gerrity believes that producing native wildlife on APF lands will create opportunities for tourists, hunters, bird watchers, and other outdoor recreationists, as well as for school and other educational groups, to come to the APF property to experience a relatively intact prairie ecosystem. The result, Gerrity thinks, should be a significant increase in revenues for businesses such as motels, restaurants, gas stations, sporting goods stores, and outfitters. Gerrity cites the 70,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, which attracts 500,000 visitors each year and pumps millions of dollars into the local economy. The 71,000-acre Custer State Park in South Dakota attracts 1.8 million visitors each year, most wishing to see its free-ranging bison herd. "This is a new and bold plan for the prairie and we know people from all over the world will be interested in it," said Gerrity. "We look forward to working with local people especially, and answering any questions they might have about who we are and what kind of neighbor we will be."