Linda Poole can’t restrain herself when it comes to the most-polarizing topic in Montana: the reintroduction of purebred bison. As Poole sees it, the bison aren’t a cause. They’re cuddly fundraising mascots helping the American Prairie Reserve to raise money to advance its mission of land accumulation under the auspices of species preservation.

“If you can ignite people’s imaginations with free-roaming bison,” she says, “you get the bison to make your money.”

The bison in question are grazing about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away on ranch land owned by the nonprofit Prairie Reserve, which has attracted some $60 million from well-known Wall Street and Silicon Valley financiers.

Its plan is to buy out Poole’s neighbors and assemble as much as 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares) of contiguous private and public land -- about a million acres more than Yellowstone National Park to the south -- in a bid to build an American Serengeti, where the deer and the antelope can again play free.

The organization’s donor roll reads like a who’s who of the ultrarich: billionaire candy heirs Forrest Mars Jr. and his brother, John (combined net worth: $44 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index); German retail baron Erivan Haub ($4.9 billion); the foundation of Swiss medical device mogul Hansjoerg Wyss ($12.4 billion); and Susan Packard Orr, daughter of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Co. and chairwoman of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, which has assets of $5.6 billion.

Pure Bison

After cobbling the properties together, the group plans to populate the sparsely settled scrubland with up to 10,000 genetically pure bison, descendants of the original animals that last thundered across the American frontier of the 1800s (as opposed to today’s tamer descendants, which have been crossbred with cattle).

They’ll mingle with coyotes, prairie dogs and other scourges of the cattlemen with whom the Prairie Reserve is battling (when it isn’t buying them out). The group will then allow the public full run of the expanse, much like a national park.

“Think of it like an empty aquarium,” says Sean Gerrity, 54, president of and the driving force behind the Prairie Reserve and a former Silicon Valley management consultant. “What we sell is the possibility, and we sell ourselves as the people capable of bringing that vision to fruition.”

What especially galls some local ranchers is the presumption that they and their forebears have done little to preserve the environment.