ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Back now with DAY TO DAY.
The problems of the Great Plains have been building for decades: lack of industry, an aging population, ghost towns reverting to prairie scrub.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And that's where the idea of the Buffalo commons comes in. Backers want to take big parts of the plains and repopulate them with bison and native species.
CHADWICK: The American Prairie Foundation is trying to do that in Northern Montana, around the town of Malta by knitting together a hodgepodge of old family ranches and public land with a hope of luring in eco-tourists. It's a pretty radical idea for a part of the country that's pretty but decidedly not radical.
Here's our portrait from the plains by producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister.
Mayor BYRON EREAUX (Malta, Montana): My name is Byron Ereaux. I'm the mayor of Malta, located in Northeastern Montana.
(Soundbite of train)
Ms. ANNE BOOTHE: I'm Anne Boothe. I'm executive director of PhillCo Economic Growth Council, that works on economic development and planning for Malta and Phillips County.
Historically, Malta was a thriving railroad town.
Mayor EREAUX: We're kind of unique in a way that it's kind of 200 miles to every place.
Ms. FANG: We are 200 miles from Billings. We're 200 miles from Great Falls, 200 miles from...
Mayor EREAUX: 200 (unintelligible) Canada, 200 to North Dakota, Williston...
Ms. FANG: I don't know that we would say we're isolated, and yet definitely we are. I think those of us that live here appreciate the isolation.
Mr. RONALD SCOTT: My name is Ron Scott, I'm president of The First State Bank in Malta. You can see for miles and miles and miles up here and it's mostly what you call prairie land. In the spring of the year, you can just smell the sagebrush. I mean, it's something that gets into your blood.
Mr. MANNY WESTSIDE(ph)): I manage Westside Self-Service Food Court and Casino. I lived in Malta all my life, which is - be 55 years.
Ms. FANG: I was raised on a farm in Northern Phillips County.
Mr. SCOTT: I lived in Phillips County all my life. I really feel it's a good place to live.
Mayor EREAUX: It's pretty much you're little typical nice clean town. We have all paved streets.
Mr. SCOTT: We got a brand-new high school.
Mayor EREAUX: We have a new golf course.
Mr. SCOTT: We got a brand-new hospital.
Mayor EREAUX: Have a Dairy Queen.
Mr. SCOTT: The other side of the coin, we lost our car dealership, we don't have a GM or Ford or Toyota like we did. We don't have any implement dealerships. The jobs just aren't here what they used to be.
Mr. WESTSIDE: The only thing that don't seem to go down in numbers are bars.
Ms. FANG: We've seen a declining economy, out migration.
Mr. WESTSIDE: The population used this hold pretty steady between 2,300 to 2,500. Now I think they have us down in this census at about 1,980 people.
Mr. SCOTT: As the younger generation moves out to bigger and better things, there's nobody to leave the ranch to. It used to be in the past that the neighbor would buy up the ranch, which is not necessarily the case today.
Mr. KYRON COCO(ph): My name is Kyron Coco and I'm a senior fellow for World Wildlife Fund, working with the American Prairie Foundation to hopefully start a large-scale bison restoration program.
We're at the what we refer to as Fort Bison on American Prairie Foundation land in North Central Montana, where we've released our 20 bison that we've moved from Wind Caves, South Dakota and into this facility that we refer to as a soft-release pen, where we wanted to get these animals acclimated to where their new home is.
Mr. SCOTT: The American Prairie Foundation came in to this county maybe a year and a half ago. They bought a ranch, five, 6,000 acres, and since that time they have about additional land.
Mr. COCO: People are more inspired when they can think back and think about tens of millions of bison across the entirety of the Great Plains, and there is not any situation where we really have that anymore. We can't go out anywhere on the Great Plains and see large herds of bison over large acreages of native grasslands without fences and with their national predators and behaving as this species did historically. We don't have that anymore, and so that's why we're starting this project in Northern Montana.
Mr. SCOTT: Their ranch over there is pretty isolated and I don't know how much people will drive 50, 60 miles on gravel roads to go look at a buffalo. Of course we're not really familiar with tourism in this part of the country. We don't know what the impact might be. But we're very doubtful right now that it will be very large at all.
(Soundbite of bison)
Mr. DALE VISSAS(ph): My name is Dale Visa. I ranch sell of Montana 50 miles. I've actually had three generations of Vissas before myself live on the same land. The first Vissas came to this area in 1886 or 1887.
Mr. SCOTT: The silver plant is silver sagebrush. We're going through a wheat grass here. We're very proud as a community of the job that we've done on the landscape. I can't say that everything I've done will be right tomorrow or of what my ancestors have, but it's a work in progress. We've kind of evolved into a role using modern range management practices and having an interest in wildlife and artifacts on that wildlife.
Ms. FANG: The ranchers have been on that land since the late 1800s. They have been the stewards of that land and they are the reason that that land is in the excellent condition that it's in.
Mr. WESTSIDE: And now some new things coming in where, you know, maybe we're going to buffalo next to their cattle.
Mr. SCOTT: This has been either sheep country or cattle country for the last hundred and some years and it seems like it's going to continue to be cattle country.
Mr. COCO: The community is all real good people. They're hardworking. A little drawback - and it ain't a drawback, nothing to be bad - you know, sometimes they don't accept change. When outsiders come in they have the tendency to be a little uncertain of them.
Ms. FANG; We are conservative, we are cautious. Change is always difficult and we're just hesitant to truly believe that this type of radical change throughout our community is the best use for the land and best for the people.
(Soundbite of music)
Mayor EREAUX: A lot of these issues aren't specifically just economics. A lot of them are very emotional. My granddad's ashes were flowing over the ranch here. I know my father's will be and I kind of intend for mine to be too. We would just like to see this continue.
CHADWICK: The people of Malta, Montana and the ranch country around it still dealing with a plan to create a buffalo commons on nearby land.
Our story was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Long Haul Productions.
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