Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?
By Tony Hiss
In Montana’s Gallatin Valley one July afternoon, a pickup-truck prowl at the Flying D Ranch, near Bozeman, felt like an instantaneous return to an unrecoverable past, to the “seens of visionary inchantment” that Meriwether Lewis came across when he and William Clark made their way across Montana in 1805. Lewis recorded encountering—there was no spell check in the expedition’s equipment—“immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer & Antelope feeding in one common and boundless pasture.” We were on the lookout for wolves; I was willing to settle for bison.
The 113,613-acre Flying D, up at the northwest corner of Greater Yellowstone, is a Ted Turner operation, and only a smidgen of the two million acres he owns in the United States and Argentina. The ranch has almost 2,000 elk and maybe 5,000 bison. Before the 1870s, it has been said, it would’ve been easier to count all the leaves in a forest than to count the bison. After 15 years of mass slaughter, though, there were only 325 bison left in the nation.
Like Nokuse in Florida, the Flying D is a large-scale, long-term experiment in ecosystem restoration. The premise, according to State Senator Mike Phillips (the pickup- truck driver), is that in ranch country, a wildlife refuge can pay for itself if it’s also run as a business. The big bison herd, which replaced a cattle operation, is largely raised for sale—bison burgers are available at all of Turner’s 45 Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants around the country. A few bull elk are hunted annually by high-end outfitters. Other species are welcomed, celebrated: mule deer, grizzlies, cougars, moose, pronghorn antelope, cutthroat trout, the occasional wolverine—nearly all the animals that were present before settlers arrived in Lewis and Clark’s wake.
Wolves found their way to the D in 2002, seven years after being reintroduced to Yellowstone. The D’s wolf pack, called the Beartrap pack, is the largest in Greater Yellowstone—or was until a year ago, when it got so big it split into two separate groups.
Phillips, a biologist and a friend of Wilson’s, was elected to the Democratic minority in the Montana Senate two years ago. Since 1997 he has also served as the founding executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund (TESF), “the largest and most significant such family-funded initiative that we know of in the world,” he says. I ask him what the D will look like a hundred years from now. “Exactly like now,” he says with a laugh, “providing we get a good June rain.”
Ted Turner was making one of his many visits to the D that afternoon for a private meeting celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the ecosystem’s biggest advocacy group, and made a point of introducing himself. In jeans and a crisp sport shirt, he seemed quite chipper. “Here’s a piece of land,” he said, pointing from his back porch to the high, snowcapped peaks behind him, “that could’ve been a resort—28 minutes from the airport, or downtown, or a good Division II football game. But it’s perfectly placed as a beachhead for wildness. Seemed to me the choice was obvious, and it’s a good thing we stepped in when we did.”