Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) American Prairie continues to expand its land holdings in north-central Montana, announcing last week it now holds more than 475,000 acres of land after acquiring another 12,534 acres in Phillips County on two parcels of land.

The conservation organization said the two pieces of land were priority acquisitions so it can continue to preserve prairie land and improve wildlife habitat and public access in the Upper Missouri River basin.

The first parcel, called Lazy J5, includes 10,218 acres adjacent to American Prairie’s White Rock unit off Highway 191 southwest of Malta. American Prairie said it is an area where the organization wants to expand its bison herd and includes several grassland bird species, ungulates and a management area for black-tailed prairie dogs.

The second involves 2,316 acres just north of the Mars Vista unit near Highway 191 and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

The organization was working with landholder Dusty Schwenke to acquire the parcel before he unexpectedly passed away last month, American Prairie said. It worked with Schwenke’s family in the past, continued the acquisition process with his estate and finalized the purchase “in accordance with Dusty’s wishes,” American Prairie said.

“Dusty Schwenke has been an important partner for American Prairie for many years, including playing a key role in designing and building our extensive bison handling facility,” said American Prairie Field Project Manager Lars Anderson. “…Our team greatly valued his expertise, knowledge, and spirit, and we had hoped to work with him far into the future. Along with many community members, we mourn his passing.”

American Prairie said that parcel includes shortgrass prairie land, a stretch of Cyprian Creek and other wetlands, and is an area that sees carnivores pass through to go to different habitats.

The organization said it needs to take time to familiarize itself with the new land before sharing public access details and future recreational use within the new parcels.