The billionaire blocking off Montana’s wildlife: ‘Like fencing people out of Walmart’

Almost immediately after their new billionaire neighbor put up miles of 5ft fences around his Montana ranch, complaints started coming in to the Blackfeet tribe.

In photos and videos captured by Blackfeet tribal members and reviewed by the Guardian, animals such as elk, deer, moose and grizzly bears can be seen struggling to navigate around or over the fences as they follow a historical migration path. Sometimes, they are trapped in corners of the fences, or wounded and limping after failed attempts to jump over the barriers. On numerous occasions, mother moose have been seen separated from their young.

“It would be like fencing people out of Walmart,” says Buzz Cobell, the director of the Blackfeet fish and wildlife department and Blackfeet tribal member. “It wouldn’t take long for people to start screaming bloody murder.”

The fences are owned by the founder of the financial services firm TD Ameritrade, Joe Ricketts, and they enclose his commercial bison ranch, Grizzly Ridge Bison Ranch. It’s a sprawling 32,000-acre property on Blackfeet reservation land. Tribal members complain that Ricketts is a terrible neighbor, failing in his responsibility to work with the tribe to keep wildlife safe.

Ricketts’s ranch team has recently offered the tribe a surprising deal that could resolve the dispute, the Guardian has learned. But tribal heads say the terms may be prohibitive. Ricketts’s representatives said he himself would be unable to comment.

When Ricketts retired from TD Ameritrade in the late 1990s, he began commercially ranching domestic bison at his Wyoming ranch. He later expanded to include additional ranches, including Grizzly Ridge Bison Ranch, and founded a distribution company called High Plains Bison. The company distributes bison meat to US grocery stores and Chicago’s Wrigley Field baseball stadium, where the Ricketts family owns the majority share of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. The meat is not sold in Montana stores.

“I built a brand with Ameritrade …” said Ricketts in an episode of The American Rancher that aired in 2012. “And I saw a way to build a brand in the bison industry with this wonderful healthy and delicious meat where there wasn’t any continuity of quality in the marketplace.”

Yet the existence of Grizzly Ridge Bison Ranch is a reminder of a brutal history. The ranch is a byproduct of the 1887 Dawes Act, an anti-Indigenous piece of legislation that aimed to break up tribal land and assimilate tribes into western private property ideologies. The law allowed the US government to divide reservations into parcels of land and allot it to tribal members and non-tribal homesteaders, breaking up both the land and the communal living traditions that are fundamental in Native communities.

As a result of the Dawes Act, tribes ultimately lost control of two-thirds, or 90m acres, of the original land designated for tribal reservations. Such land is still considered part of the reservation but is not owned or managed by the tribe. Many tribes across the US, including the Blackfeet Nation, are making concerted efforts to buy this land back.

An example is the land on which Grizzly Ridge Bison Ranch sits. In 2019, when the parcels that now make up Grizzly Ridge Bison Ranch went up for sale, the tribe put down a bid. The tribe had planned to use the land to increase the Blackfeet’s wild bison herd, according to Terry Tatsey, a former Blackfeet councilman who led the efforts to buy the property. The Blackfeet’s bison herd provides employment, affordable healthy food, youth education initiatives and cultural connection for tribal members.

Instead the land, equivalent to 2% of the Blackfeet reservation, was sold to Ricketts.

Fences are a ubiquitous part of the western landscape and may seem innocuous. But entanglements, death, injury, increased stress, depleted energy and altered movements and behavior are hidden costs for wildlife, according to experts.

The type of fence that wraps around dozens of miles of Ricketts’s ranch is called containment or exclusion fencing and is a tightly knitted grid of wire. Numerous studies have shown this fence design to be one of the deadliest for wildlife and capable of completely inhibiting movements.

“Many animals … migrate between summer and winter range,” said Andrew Jakes, the Great Plains program manager at the Smithsonian Institution. “And when you put this structure out there, it takes time and energy to navigate that.”

“We know that fences cause problems for large ungulates,” said Christine Paige, owner of the wildlife consulting company Ravenworks Ecology. “We know that it impacts them through mortality, through injury and through blocking their movements, whether it’s daily movements or seasonal migrations.”

The president of the ranch, Jonathan Harding, said: “Over the last decade, we have undertaken a concerted, multi-pronged effort to ensure there are several migration corridors and unimpeded winter range throughout the ranch.”

Ricketts’s team did not provide detail about these remediation efforts.

The Blackfeet’s own bison herd is contained within barbed-wire fencing and is not within the migration route.

Cobell has started a long-term elk monitoring project that aims to understand the extent of the impact the fences are having on big game species.

Already, Cobell is troubled by the data coming in that shows elk pacing in unnaturally straight lines along the fences and bouncing around as they search for ways around the barrier.

On the Blackfeet reservation, residents sometimes take matters into their own hands and cut the bison ranch fences to free trapped animals. Cobell and his game wardens have also cut the fences to free wildlife and reunite mothers with their young. Driving along the fence, these scars in the fence can be seen everywhere and most have been mended by the ranch workers.

Some of the cuts were made by trespassing tribal hunters, who cut the fences to access traditional Blackfeet hunting grounds, explains Cobell. Many tribal members had agreements with the previous owners to allow for access but lost that access when the property came into Ricketts’s hands. Cobell acknowledges that the trespassing is a problem, and says he wants to find a solution in partnership with the ranch.

Cobell met with the biologist for Ricketts Conservation Foundation in 2020 to discuss the various fencing issues, but he never heard from the biologist again.

Since then, Cobell has tried reaching out to various people connected to Ricketts’s businesses. He has written formal letters of request, sent emails, made phone calls and met with some of Ricketts’s team to discuss the problems and solutions. So far, he says there is nothing to show for it.

“I feel like they are kicking the can down the road,” said Lauren Monroe, the Blackfeet tribal secretary and chairman for the Blackfeet fish and wildlife commission. “They say, ‘we’ll meet, we’ll meet, we’ll meet,’ then leaders are out and they restart the process.”

Options for restitution are minimal: Cobell says the fences clearly violate the tribe’s fish and wildlife legal code, which says that “it shall be unlawful for a property owner to build high fences that are not considered ‘wildlife friendly’.” But the fine is only $5,000 – and owing to precedent set by the US supreme court, Ricketts as a non-Indian is not legally required to follow most tribal laws. The tribe has also lodged a complaint with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and is awaiting a verdict.

In early 2022, Cobell and other tribal leaders were shocked when they were approached by Ricketts’s team with an offer to sell the ranch land back to the Blackfeet Nation.

Tribal leaders do not know what sparked this decision, but they have been involved in negotiations with Ricketts’s team for more than four months. Cobell has been a part of these negotiations and worries that the tribe will not be able to afford Ricketts’s asking price, and that a stalemate in negotiations could be a stall tactic to put off bringing the fences into compliance with tribal laws.

“To me it’s a smokescreen,” he said. “So it appears they are doing something positive.”

For now, the future of the ranch is up in the air.

“The animals can’t speak up and tell you the problem,” Cobell said. “But they’ve been using that area for hundreds of thousands of years and now all of a sudden, there are these fences that are impermeable … Why doesn’t he [Ricketts] address the problem in his own back yard and try to be a good neighbor?”

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