BLM Okays Prairie Reserve Bison Grazing

The American Prairie Reserve’s goal of creating the largest nature reserve in the Lower 48 got a boost Thursday when the Bureau of Land Management issued a proposed decision authorizing a change of use on its federal grazing permits from cattle to bison. The BLM decision authorizes APR – which has been purchasing private lands in the north-central Montana to connect them with vast tracts of public land to create a nature reserve – to allow bison grazing on six BLM grazing allotments that had previously been used for cattle grazing by ranches holding the grazing preferences prior to APR’s property acquisitions.

The BLM decision allows year-round bison grazing on three permits, with seasonal bison grazing on the other three. The decision provides for 7,969 animal unit months of permitted use, with a 1:1 conversion from cattle to bison.

Aside from the larger issue of the APR’s creation of a de facto nature reserve involving thousands of acres of public land, two main issues are intertwined in the bison grazing controversy. The first is the BLM’s decision to authorize grazing permits or leases for “privately owned or controlled indigenous animals” (including buffalo or bison) even when those animals are not used in production agriculture. The second is the BLM’s contention that the livestock industry’s view that the Taylor Grazing Act reserved BLM lands for production agriculture is a “misinterpretation” of the 1934 grazing law.

APR’s Vision

According to a statement on its website, the American Prairie Reserve’s goal is “to purchase and permanently hold title to private lands that glue together a vast mosaic of existing public lands so that the region is managed thoughtfully and collaboratively with state and federal agencies for wildlife conservation and public access.”

The group’s efforts to connect “large swaths of fragmented public lands through the strategic purchase of private lands” has included purchases of 117,611 acres of private lands to build its habitat base to nearly a half-million acres since 2004. But its goal is to be much larger, with plans to “stitch together” more than 3 million acres of public lands (5,000 square miles) using private land purchases “in order to create a seamlessly managed wildlife complex.”

Conservation Grazing

“The idea here is to re-establish the native grazer as part of our mission to create a fully functioning prairie ecosystem,” said APR’s Beth Saboe in an interview Thursday about the BLM’s decision to allow APR to convert permits to bison use. “We are running a conservation herd. We are not a commercial herd.”

Stocking rates and management plans for the APR bison herd are different than that of a commercial livestock operation, and the animals are not handled as frequently as commercial herds, according to Saboe. The animals are not shipped to market, and are not branded, “so it is a more hands-off management plan.”

Livestock producers in the region have voiced concerns about the potential of brucellosis transmission resulting from bison grazing. To this topic, Saboe said, “We have an incredibly robust disease management plan,” and health testing on the herd always surpassed Montana Department of Livestock requirements.

APR’s first bison came from Wind Cave, South Dakota, in 2005, Saboe said, and the organization has worked to grow the herd to more than 800 head. Saboe noted that calving season is about to start and they are looking toward ”very slow, incremental” herd growth, with the BLM’s grazing authorization setting the stage for APR “to grow the herd to, at most, to 1,000 animals by 2025.” APR’s bison herd currently grazes three different properties at this point, with the majority being on APR’s deeded holdings, but the BLM authorization will allow the group to expand its bison grazing on public lands.

To control herd numbers, Saboe said that APR allows hunting of a limited number of bison but refers to it as “public harvest” instead of public “hunting.”

“We refer to it as harvesting because our bison are deemed as livestock,” she said, adding that last year APR allowed the harvest of 22 animals from the herd. These are free hunting opportunities, with the bulk going to Montana residents. “Then if your name is drawn, it’s like a $300 tag.” The other tool used to control the herd’s population size is through the donation or distribution of more than 400 animals to other bison conservation efforts, with the majority of those transfers to Native American tribes.

Commercial Grazing

That BLM has authorized a bison conservation herd under its livestock grazing permit authority remains a core issue, according to attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who pledged the livestock industry will appeal the BLM decision. Budd-Falen represents Montana’s South and North Phillips County State Cooperative Grazing District in the case.

“What they’re calling as ‘authorized domestic livestock’ is they’re including indigenous bison,” Budd-Falen said. Although plenty of livestock operators raise and market bison in production agriculture, that is not what APR is doing, and that doesn’t align with the Taylor Grazing Act’s purpose in providing stability for local communities and the livestock industry. “The BLM is saying that even though APR has no intention of ever selling these animals … they’re saying it’s the same.”

“When you look at the Taylor Grazing Act, to be able to qualify for a grazing allotment in 1934, you had to show that you had an economic ranch unit, and that you were contributing to the local economy – that was the whole purpose of commensurate base property,” Budd-Falen said. “You had to show that you could keep a ranch unit, with your herd grazing on private land part of the time, and public land part of the time.”

The law’s preamble stated that the purpose of the Act was to “to stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing over-grazing and soil deterioration, to provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development, to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range, and for other purposes.” The law provided for grazing permits to be issued with preference be given to landowners “engaged in the livestock business.”

According to the environmental impact statement for the conversion for APR, bison have been approved as a class of livestock in other allotments in six western states in the past, but it isn’t clear that any of those cases were for non-productive herds.

“I think the livestock industry really needs to watch this,” Budd-Falen said. “I am a big private property right supporter so if you want to sell your private land to whoever you want to sell it to, I think that’s great. But I think that BLM lands were set aside for grazing use and for stabilization of these rural communities, and I think this position is outside that realm. If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere else.”

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