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This story is published in collaboration with Bitterroot, an online magazine about the politics, economy, culture, and environment of the West.
During the four hours Dale Veseth and I spent on his ranch south of Malta last July, we saw two mule deer, countless songbirds, four long-billed curlews, a huge golden eagle, but zero cattle. Some rancher, you might think. Veseth, though, runs about 1,900 head of cattle on 27,800 acres. He keeps them clustered into four herds, which he revolves every 10 days or so among 90 pastures. At any given time, about 95 percent of Veseth’s spread doesn’t have a cow on it.
Veseth, 57, is an amiable guy with a shiny dome and a rich, brown mustache. Conversation with him is peppered with an odd formality; he answers a lot of questions by starting, “Well, my comment on that would be…”. A molassesy voice suggests an upbringing farther south, but Dale’s a Montana lifer. His grandfather started buying up parcels here in the ’20s, lost them all during the Depression, and then rebuilt the ranch bit by bit.
Veseth considered a career in academia — he has a master’s degree in animal science from Montana State University — but came back to the ranch in the 1990s. He’s glad he did, and I am, too, because he’s too much of a polymath to be cooped up in a lab studying one thing for the rest of his life. Over the course of my visit, Veseth showed me how to differentiate big sage, silver sage, and sagewort, and explained which grazing regimes are most conducive to each type. He spotted curlews from an impressive distance, and spoke for an unbroken eight minutes about invasive species like cheatgrass and Japanese brome. At one point, he gave me a handwritten compendium of 26 rangeland ecology books (Dale’s Reading List: Conservation 2016) complete with short summaries of each.
Dale and his wife, Janet, are intensely curious about the land they operate. Soil carbon content amounts to dinnertime talk. Three conservation groups conduct bird surveys on their land — that’s how Dale knows that curlews on the ranch usually overwinter in Sonora, Mexico, and return in mid-April. Janet produced a list of the 27 bird species a surveyor saw or heard during a recent visit, and was visibly excited about the “suite of grassland birds” found on their property. “It’s been a good year for lark bunting,” she said.
“With the politics today, it’s so easy to slip into negativity,” Dale said. “All this helps me stay positive, and I think it’s everybody’s dream to leave the land a little better than they found it.”
The Veseths may seem eccentric to outsiders, but their behavior is not tremendously unusual out here. The ranching community in Phillips County has developed into a remarkably progressive one in recent years. Many of them participate in the same bird counts, manage their land to promote wildlife, and use the rotational grazing technique Veseth deploys. It’s all part of a ranching ethos known as “regenerative agriculture,” which emphasizes grassland health as much as beef sales.
The prairie out here is about as pristine as you’ll find in the world, so some of the most innovative NGOs have taken a keen interest in this particular chunk of Montana. One of them is the Nature Conservancy, a global conservation behemoth that is teaming up with ranchers to preserve everything from grass to prairie dog towns; it started many of the programs the Veseths are involved with. Another is the American Prairie Reserve, an upstart in the conservation world that aims to reunite the old megafauna gang — wolves, grizzlies, elk, and 10,000 bison — that existed here before ranchers showed up. To do so, it aims to stitch together 3.2 million acres of continuous prairie habitat — the size of one-and-a-half Yellowstones.
Ranchers, for the most part, like the Nature Conservancy, and they, for the most part, despise the American Prairie Reserve. These disagreements have generated a good deal of press, and state lawmakers last year passed a resolution in opposition to APR’s plan. But lost amid the drama is recognition that the parties involved have turned this region into one of the most exciting laboratories in the West. Despite different methods of doing so, these people are grappling with the area’s complicated past in ways that could enrich its future.
The Northern Great Plains runs 450 miles north-south from Alberta to Nebraska and 175 miles east-west from South Dakota to Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Much of it is blanketed with soil blown here by long-ago winds or deposited by receding glaciers after the last ice age. That dirt is anchored in place by sagebrush and perennial grasses whose roots can extend more than 10 feet underground. These proved delectable to North America’s largest animals. Before the 1800s, a good portion of the continent’s 30 million bison called this grassland home, and they were joined by swarms of elk, deer, pronghorn, bears, wolves, and cougars. We think of these as mountain creatures today, but that’s because we chased them all off with our plows and suburbs. The ecosystem also hosted smaller critters like prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and black-footed ferrets, which commuted through their version of subway tunnels. Millions of birds still descend at this intersection of migratory flight paths.
When white folks came West in the 19th century, they pretty well messed everything up, at least from the perspective of the locals. Most of the creatures listed above were shot, trapped, or poisoned nearly to extinction, their turf transformed into today’s industrial wheat, soy, beef, and corn operations.
In 1999, the Nature Conservancy, which manages some 125 million acres globally, laid out the case for preserving parts of the Northern Great Plains, which remain under threat from agriculture and urban sprawl. Months later, representatives from a range of national and local nonprofits met in Bozeman to discuss the Conservancy’s findings. One of the attendees was Curtis Freese, a conservation biologist working with the World Wildlife Fund at the time. “There was this realization by a lot of conservationists that the Great Plains had been largely overlooked during our era of creating parks and refuges,” he said. “Essentially, it was conservation flyover country.”
But one chunk of the region more or less avoided that fate. In northeast Montana, the grassy glaciated plains cascade south into the sagebrush scrubland of the Missouri River Breaks, a ragged topography that hugs the mighty river. Conditions for farming here are much worse than in the southern and eastern edges of the plains. About 9,300 settlers lured west by the Homestead acts set up shop in Phillips County by 1920, but quickly found that the government-given 160, then 320, then 640 acres weren’t enough — not enough water for crops, not enough forage for cattle. So folks bailed; about 4,000 people live in the county today. What the government wasn’t able to give away ended up in the hands of state or federal agencies, primarily the Bureau of Land Management.
All this yielded a global rarity: huge swaths of untilled soil. According to the WWF, 69 percent of the Northern Great Plains remains intact. This was the prairie land conservationists met to discuss in 1999. They agreed the ground was sacrosanct, but when it came time to decide on a strategy to protect it, factions emerged. In one camp were nonprofits that felt the best way to preserve this grassland into the future was to work alongside livestock producers. Freese’s old employer, WWF, was solidly in that camp. But the scientist had another plan. The space in question was big enough, the soil intact enough, that, he thought, they could go further and rebuild the prairie ecosystem as it used to be. The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge could act as an anchor, and ranchers in the area were aging out. All the conservationists had to do, Freese figured, was buy up properties over time and swap out cattle with buffalo.
Freese had the science background, and was able to convince a Silicon Valley consultant and Montana native, Sean Gerrity, to join his cause and lead the fundraising side of things. In 2001, the group started the American Prairie Foundation, and recruited some of the world’s wealthiest donors to their cause. The effort to bring bison back to the plains was on.
Damien Austin brought the truck to a stop. “That,” he said, “is a big old bull.” To our right, an enormous bison wallowed in the dust. The tips of his horns disappeared into the the shaggy cap of fur, called a bonnet, atop his huge head.
The American canon is littered with writers musing about how the West makes one feel small. The region’s Grands — Teton, Canyon, you name it — tend to elicit Muir-like humility; few things we encounter will so obviously and triumphantly outlast us. A 1,500-pound buffalo is a candidate for such treatment. That single bull staring down Austin and I had, over the last decade or so, undergone yearly swings from subzero temperatures in winter to triple digits in the summer. He won’t see rain for months, then will be pelted with an inch of it in a matter of hours. Multiply him by a thousand, and a bison herd is one of the most resilient collective organisms on the planet, the mammalian Grand. Today we have oil towns and tech cities; the West used to have bison civilizations.
But as I watched the animal, very thankful the steel cage of a Ford pickup separated us, I couldn’t help but think that bison are proof that the romantic permanence of the West is an illusion. Buffalo used to be innumerable, such a mainstay that every organism out here evolved to profit off their presence in some way. But in a span of 50 years, virtually all of them were gone. In 1872, hunters killed about 5,000 a day. A dozen years later, just 325 were left in the wild. We wiped them out in the evolutionary snap of a finger.
“Certainly I think of this as a place to restore a fully functioning ecosystem that has been lost,” Alison Fox, the reserve’s CEO, said. “It’s rewarding, it’s challenging, it’s globally important. We are working in this area because temperate grasslands are the least protected biome, and we are lucky here in Montana to have this treasure of native grassland with this rich wildlife history.”
Fox’s employees, like Austin, are similarly inspired by this vision. He grew up on the outskirts of Billings, then bounced around the West before returning to Montana’s largest city to work at the local zoo. Shortly after, he started volunteering at the fledgling American Prairie Reserve. “It was just super exciting. The very first time I came out, I fell in love. I moved out as soon as I could get a full-time job,” he said.
Austin climbed the ranks, and is now APR’s vice president and superintendent of the refuge. APR gets a good deal of flak from certain ranchers for being headquartered in Bozeman, 250 miles away from the reserve’s western end, but Austin and a growing collection of employees do live out here. His kids go to school in Malta. He’s on the board of the local dinosaur museum. Most anything that takes place on the reserve, which holds about 800 bison, is funneled through him. If all goes to plan, the scope of his job will increase about eightfold as the reserve slowly adds properties and buffalo.
APR is possible thanks to the economics of ranchland. To make a cattle operation work out here, ranchers have associated grazing leases — they might own, say, 10,000 acres and lease another 10,000 from the BLM. The system gives ranchers access to land at a fraction of the cost of leasing private grass or owning it outright.
APR’s plan is to buy ranches and switch the grazing permits from cattle to bison, which are considered livestock under Montana law. By utilizing the very public-private infrastructure that supports ranching throughout the West, APR leaders believe they’ll only have to buy 500,000 acres of private ranchland; the rest will be public land. So far, APR has raised $160 million and scooped up 419,291 acres. It owns 104,244 acres outright, and holds grazing leases on the rest.
Even with the reliance on the feds, it’s still an aggressive acquisition strategy that, if fully realized, would yield a refuge virtually unmatched in scope globally.
“I don’t think we have a strong cultural memory, or a cultural memory at all, of the biodiversity and the richness of the prairie ecosystem,” said Danny Kinka, APR’s wildlife restoration manager. “I mean, the place rivaled parts of Africa in terms of its menagerie of large-bodied mammals. We know this from early explorer accounts and 10,000 years of Native American oral tradition.” A big part of his job, Kinka said, is “creating a picture in people’s minds of what it could be.”
On a cloudless July day, Austin drove me around APR’s Sun Prairie unit, the closest approximation of that vision. Sun Prairie is the most developed of APR’s landholdings — it has a campground, visitor center, a few yurts (usually reserved for donors), and about 350 bison. A big component of APR’s plan is public access; the reserve’s goal is to re-establish an ecosystem and facilitate its enjoyment by tourists and hunters. But as it stands, the place is a pain to visit. The closest commercial airports are about four hours away, in Billings or Great Falls. A four-wheel-drive vehicle with ample clearance (read: big truck) is necessary out here; my Subaru’s oil pan took a beating. When it rains, the area’s bentonite-laden soil achieves the consistency of modeling clay — locals call it gumbo. During a mountain bike ride along the Breaks a few days after a rainstorm, I got stuck in the mud and was able to crawl off the bike while it remained standing in the guck. Mosquitoes are oppressive enough at times to provoke anxiety. Every evening, a small pickup drives around Malta spewing insecticide out of a rickety, two-stroke blower.
Local ranchers are concerned that a full-fledged prairie reserve would upend the ag economy here, but Austin posits that APR will improve, not degrade, the area’s economic outlook. “For the most part, when an economy gets diversified, it gets stronger,” he said. “I don’t want to see the schools and businesses close down. Those are my schools, those are my businesses.”
APR is building another campground and some cabins, and is in the process of renovating a visitor center in Lewistown, at the southwest end of the reserve. But that’s about the extent of its plans for tourism infrastructure. That, to Austin, means locals have the option to cash in by opening hotels, bars, guide services, and restaurants geared toward out-of-towners drawn to the prairie. About the only tourism this area sees otherwise comes from die-hard hunters.
The Matador Ranch is a stunning property situated in the foothills of the Little Rocky Mountains. When I visited, a month’s worth of heavy rains had turned the fields into an emerald canvas. Elk and deer abound, and beavers dam the creek in the lush wetlands.
The Nature Conservancy bought the 60,000-acre ranch in 2000. Two years later, Dale Veseth and a few others came to the organization in dire straits. Montana was suffering a horrendous drought, and the ranchers didn’t have enough grass to sustain their cattle. An enormous financial hit loomed, so Veseth asked if the Conservancy would allow ranchers to run their cattle on the Matador.
Linda Poole, the Conservancy’s program director at the time, agreed to lease Matador grass, but landowners had to promise not to plow their fields and to prevent the spread of invasive weeds. With that, the Matador grass bank was created. Ranchers who agree not to break ground on their private property are allowed to graze their cattle on the Matador at a low price; if they decide to plow at any point, they can’t return to the grass bank. Additional conservation measures — installing wildlife-friendly fencing, participation in bird surveys, preserving sage-grouse breeding grounds — earn further discounts. Nineteen ranch operations now run more than 3,000 cattle on the Matador, and the program has been used to ensure 350,000 acres of ranchland isn’t being plowed.
“We identified people that are raising livestock and maintaining grass as natural partners,” Brian Martin, the Conservancy’s director of grassland conservation in Montana, told me. “The new paradigm of conservation is that people are part of the system. Be that in Montana or Kenya, it’s important we embrace those local communities and their expertise.”
Martin’s willingness to work with ranchers — and providing them good financial reason to do so — made an often hesitant population more open to the Conservancy’s programs. “It’s education, incentives, and overcoming fear,” Veseth said. “It’s building that trust that allows you to take that next step.”
I visited the Matador with Charlie Messerly, a lifelong resident of the area and the ranch’s manager. Messerly oversees a collaborative effort here that’s rare for any industry. Cattle are rotated around the Matador in a few herds — essentially a large-scale version of Veseth’s approach. The participating ranchers take turns coming out to do chores; if another person’s heifer needs veterinary care, for example, you just do it.
“I don’t think, 20 years ago, it was on anybody’s radar for a conservation organization and multiple ranchers to work together,” Messerly said. “It’s not costing us millions and millions of dollars to buy and maintain land. All we gotta do is be good neighbors and work with people. … They want this land to be sustainable for generations. Everybody pitches in and helps out. We just need to keep these people here and these communities thriving.”
TNC’s influence has percolated beyond the Matador. In 2003, the Conservancy provided initial support for the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, a local group committed to shoring up the ecological and economic health of area ranches. Through grants from NGOs and federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the RSA has held educational seminars and conducted grassland restoration work on more than 20,000 acres since 2016.
“It’s not all about sustainability — it’s about regenerating,” said Paula Enkerud, who was RSA’s executive director until October 2019. “People say farmers and ranchers always want things to stay the same — no they don’t. We can be very progressive people.”
One goal of these groups is to help pass ranches on to the next generation. On a balmy Tuesday evening, I stopped by the home of Ted and Katie Brown. Ted was late getting in; all the recent rain meant there was hay to cut. When I arrived, their three cowboy-attired kids scurried about.
It’s incredibly difficult for young ranchers like Ted, 34, and Katie, 31, to get into the business unassisted. Land prices keep rising — in no small part because of APR’s presence as a buyer — and it’s hard for small operations to achieve the profit margins necessary to stay afloat. So the Conservancy started letting young ranchers run cattle on the Matador until they could build up enough capital to buy their own spread. That’s what the Browns have done for the last five years. During that time, they saved enough to buy a 2,560-acre farm, which they’re in the process of reseeding to native prairie. Why? “Because farming sucks,” Katie said.
Ted raised his arms: “These hands were made for neatsfoot oil, bridle reins, and soft, smooth lariat ropes,” he said, laughing.
Over beers, Katie and Ted explained how TNC’s programs at the Matador have made the entire ranching community more robust. It’s far more than grass. In a typically insular industry, Matador members hop on conference calls and hold meetings to discuss management of the collective herd. They take turns performing herd health checks and rotating cattle between pastures. And there’s an egalitarian atmosphere. “Just because you have more cows doesn’t mean you have more say,” Ted said.
“It’s brought a lot of folks together to learn from each other,” Messerly told me. “It’s also essentially a large research station. We have a lot of different research projects that have taken place on the ranch over the years. That information is all shared with our grass bank members, and they’ve learned from that and implemented it on their private ranches.”
Incorporating landowners has long been part of the Nature Conservancy’s playbook, but economic pressure in the modern West means it’s trying out some new tactics, too. In February 2019, the Conservancy bought 10 parcels totaling 4,340 acres, and will sell them back over three years to three area ranchers who agree to place conservation easements on their properties.
“We started with a phone call about some cows, and now TNC is a partner with us to the tune of millions of dollars,” Veseth, who is involved in the deal, said. “They’ve not only put permanent easements on the land, so that it will be perpetually conserved, but they also have direct input on how we manage.”
The arrangement means the Conservancy has entered a fray it long avoided: financing ranch operations. And it’s possible this won’t be a one-time deal. “It is a good model that creates some space and time for people, for these partner ranches to kinda get things together, and sometimes that’s what people need,” Martin told me.
Another nonprofit that’s taken an interest in what these ranchers are up to is Curtis Freese’s old employer, the World Wildlife Fund. “About 75 percent of remaining intact grassland is privately owned, and most of that is managed by ranchers,” said Claire Hood, who works for WWF’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative. “The ranchers that are working with us … these are cream of the crop producers.”
Making your cattle operation ideal for birds and prairie dogs doesn’t necessarily improve profit margins, but WWF is trying to change that. A pilot project underway since 2017 connects livestock producers with Costco Wholesale in an attempt to improve sustainability on ranches and traceability at the grocery store. The goal, Hood said, is to promote practices that improve grassland health, carbon sequestration, and water quality while adding a potential marketing benefit with a reputable, deep-pocketed retailer.
Historically, grassland ecosystems faced two forms of disturbance: wildfire and grazing. Species evolved to coexist with both. Ranchers, along with nonprofits like the Conservancy and WWF, are now managing their cattle in a way that recreates these systems, all in the name of improving soil health, wildlife habitat, and, they hope, the economic resilience of their operations. Oddly enough, this new management regime means they’re making their cattle act as much as possible like the very bison APR is trying to reestablish.
There aren’t many places where bison still roam in the mega herds like APR wants to create, but Yellowstone National Park is one of them. Chris Geremia, a biologist who studies the 4,000 to 5,000 bison there, helped me understand what the future prairie reserve could look like. He set a scene in one of Yellowstone’s most famed wildlife regions. “You can stand in the Lamar Valley, where you can look 10 miles or so in either direction, and you might see 3,000 bison,” Geremia said. “And they might be scattered into groups of 500 here, 200 there, 1,000 there, 200 there. And as you watch them over the days, they’re moving in synchrony, back and forth across the valley. They’re covering large areas — they might be covering an area over the course of a week that spans 12 to 15 miles in length. But they’re repeatedly moving together, and they’re using the same sites.”
During the growing season, Geremia said, buffalo act like lawnmowers. Their jaws are designed to graze short grasses, so herds constantly move between what he calls grazing hotspots. The continuous grazing keeps the grass short and in a nutritious state of growth, just like what you’d find in a well-manicured lawn.
Deer, elk, and pronghorn typically graze on fresh shoots in spring-warmed valleys, and then follow the emerging grass higher in elevation as temperatures warm. Not bison. A recent study Geremia led found that buffalo’s continuous grazing pattern, plus the aeration from their hooves and fertilizer from their dung, essentially restart the growing process in their hotspots. Get a big enough herd with enough space to move, and it creates its own spring.
From the air, you’d find these grazing lawns pockmarked with wallows — spots where bison flopped on the ground, rolling in the dust to shed winter fur or flake off insects and mites. The depressions act as water catchments, creating micro-habitats in this dry environment.
Western meadowlark, grasshopper sparrows, and lark bunting nest where bison graze heavily. Hawks focus their attention here, where the sightlines are better. Medium-length grass on the edges of the grazing pattern hosts upland sandpiper and greater prairie-chicken. The long grass untouched this time around by meandering bison is where sedge wren and dickcissels hang out. Mammals — from prairie dogs to elk — adapt their own activity to the buffalo’s grazing habits, as do the predators, like coyotes and wolves, that feed on them.
A landscape like this is achieved only by bison allowed to roam freely, and whose populations aren’t heavily managed, Geremia said — the opposite of typical livestock management that seeks more-or-less uniform grazing of a plot of land. This symbiotic environment is precisely what APR seeks to build.
Tour the ranches around the American Prairie Reserve, though, and you’ll find pockets of landscape that look an awful lot like what Geremia describes — just without the bison.
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It’s Kelsey Molloy’s job to help build these pockets. Molloy is a rangeland ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, and oversees the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances program in the area. The program, developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helps landowners establish management plans that preserve or rebuild habitat for grassland songbirds and sage-grouse. Participation means a rancher won’t face extra regulation on her property if these animals are listed as endangered species.
Molloy was skeptical of grazing’s benefits until she studied Canada’s Grasslands National Park, which hadn’t been grazed for decades. She found what was, essentially, an unkempt lawn — overgrown, fire-prone during drought years, and lacking in habitat for birds that like shortgrass prairie.
Her quest to help prairie birds now has her allied with area ranchers. “I’ve gotten a chance to go out to a lot of ranches, and ranchers just know so much about their property. It’s amazing — ‘This creek dries up. This is where I always see the foxes.’ I’m overwhelmed by their knowledge.”
By implementing lessons from Molloy’s program and others, ranchers have their cattle mimicking buffalo as best they can with rotational grazing. From this perspective, it’s odd that there’s so much conflict between APR and the ranching community. Ranchers, particularly young ones like the Browns, view APR as an existential threat. Signs around the area say “Save the Cowboy, Stop APR,” and the Montana Legislature passed a resolution last year opposing APR’s request to swap a BLM lease from cattle to bison.
“Our kids are fifth-generation,” Katie said. “We can’t compete with that big money, and you can’t make your neighbor not sell to [APR]. What’s left? It’s a huge threat. It scares the hell out of me. There won’t be anything left for our kids. It’s a threat to take our livelihood right out from under us.”
APR has taken steps to ease the tension. In response to the resolution, for instance, it drastically scaled back its application for year-round bison grazing on state and federal land, from 290,000 acres to just 12,000. But what’s happening here isn’t unique to this area of Montana, nor to APR being the prospective buyer. Across the West, increasing land costs push away young ranchers. Mechanization makes ranching less labor-intensive, meaning fewer people are needed to work the land. More expensive properties fall into the hands, increasingly, of amenity ranchers who buy up huge swaths of land for vacation or hunting properties; if they run cattle, it’s often for the tax incentives or to retain federal grazing leases. And young couples that do attain properties are almost always like Ted and Katie Brown: folks whose families are already in the industry (they split the cost of the ranch with Katie’s dad). Those who lack a succession plan sell to a willing buyer.
What is unique is that so many landholders out here, be they private ranching operations, international NGOs, or upstart wildlife reserves, are intent on keeping this grassland as healthy as possible.
During my visit last summer, I camped in APR’s Sun Prairie unit. On the first night, I lay in my tent, a breeze shifting clouds lit aflame by the setting sun. When the wind finally stilled, animal noise took over. Prairie dog barks punctuated the hum of insects that thickened the air like cream. Twice that night, I was awakened by bawling coyotes. Sunrise was an explosion of birdsong.
Bison are pretty common in the campsite; a nearby interpretive sign was clearly used as a scratching post. None paid me a visit, but there’s something about knowing that nearby these massive creatures, once lost but now returned, are moving in the same pathways of their ancestors.
Earlier, on the Matador, Messerly summed up the state of affairs on the Matador and the properties of grass bank ranchers. Sure, he said, there aren’t any grizzlies, wolves, or bison on these spreads. “But, other than that, this grassland is probably in better shape than it’s ever been. And it’s a different world today. This whole earth is inhabited by people, and that’s not going to change. So you’ve got to figure out how to work with people, and not just do it on your own.”
The Nature Conservancy, ranchers, and the American Prairie Reserve have different ideas for the future of this land. Rarely discussed, though, is the possibility this isn’t a zero-sum proposition. Folks are deciding between competing visions for the West, but perhaps they don’t have to choose at all.
“American Prairie Reserve’s presence and preserving some of these community traditions — I don’t think those two things have to be at odds,” Fox, the reserve’s CEO, told me. The “Stop APR” signs, she said, are “disheartening.”
“That slogan is so black-and-white,” she said. “It doesn’t reflect, in my mind, the common values and common appreciation we all have for the prairie ecosystem.”