Seeking the truth: Montana AG, Stockgrowers appeal BLM’s bison grazing decision

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen on Aug. 26, 2022, asked a federal board to overturn the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision to grant a permit change allowing bison grazing in Phillips County. The permit is a part of the American Prairie Reserve’s broader effort to expand bison grazing on the plains across northern and eastern Montana.

Attorney General Knudsen’s appeal asks the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Hearings and Appeals to overturn the decision and issue a stay until the appeal is resolved to prevent irreparable harm to the grazing allotments and surrounding communities, said a Knudsen news release.

“The BLM’s decision ignores the real concerns of rural communities and ranchers who rely on the land in favor of elitist attitudes of those seeking to transform Northeast Montana into a wildlife viewing shed for tourists. Agriculture is not an easy way of life, but Montana ranch families – including my own – are proud of their history and heritage that is still a part of our state today,” Attorney General Knudsen said. “As American Prairie Reserve occupies more and more land here, it pushes out ranching communities, threatens our livestock industry, and will ultimately add to the instability of the world’s food supply.”

BLM’s decision violates the Taylor Grazing Act, Federal Land Policy, and Management Act, Public Rangelands Improvement Act, which all aim to improve public range lands and uplift ranching communities. Conservation bison grazing would directly undermine these legislative goals. Additionally, BLM’s process in issuing its decision ignored numerous concerns and legal deficiencies raised by commenters and violated the Administrative Procedure Act and National Environmental Policy Act, said Knudson in a news release.

Grazing indigenous animals like bison can be accomplished through special use grazing permits, but BLM gave APR preferential treatment through bypassing that permit process, upending its statutory scheme, and prioritizing outside groups over Montana ranchers.

“… bison aren’t livestock under federal law,” the appeal states. “Such a shift in the use of the land harms not only ranchers—who can no longer use this federal land to graze their livestock—but entire rural communities who depend on livestock operations to earn their own living.”

The BLM failed to adequately consider these economic impacts on local communities as required by law as well as the interference a large bison herd would cause surrounding cattle operations. Additionally, BLM held a single virtual meeting “in the middle of the day, in the middle of the work week, in the middle of haying season—a time and format that precluded the participation of those individuals most impacted by the proposal and most likely to offer salient feedback,” said Knudsen.

Last September, Attorney General Knudsen held a public listening session in Malta, Montana. More than 250 Montanans came to the meeting, including many local agriculturalists who said the BLM effectively ignored and shut them out from its public comment process.

Following that, he filed formal comments with the BLM that spelled out the legal issues with the agency’s inadequate review process and with the APR’s proposal itself, which are echoed in his appeal.

American Prairie (formerly American Prairie Reserve) isn’t shy about it’s goals.

“Unlike the creation of national parks through government action, American Prairie is connecting large swaths of fragmented public lands through the strategic purchase of private lands.

“Biologists have determined that a prairie would need to be around 5,000 square miles in size (roughly 3.2 million acres) in order to be a fully functioning ecosystem complete with migration corridors and all native wildlife. By building on existing protected lands, American Prairie can buy a relatively small amount of land and still achieve landscape-scale results. Using the American Prairie model, a patchwork of ownership transforms into a seamless prairie ecosystem,” says AP on its website.

“When these fragmented public and private lands are connected, the prairie will provide a continuous land area collaboratively managed for wildlife and recreation, the largest of its kind in the Lower 48 states,” says AP.

AP says it’s “habitat base” is about 450,000 acres. It says 118,371 acres are private lands owned by American Prairie and 334,817 acres are public lands (federal and state) leased by American Prairie.

AP refers to their bison as “wildlife” and does not indicate managing them as livestock.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) has also filed an appeal. In partnership with North and South Phillips Grazing Districts and under the counsel of the Budd-Falen Law Offices, LLC, MSGA appealed the recent decision and requested a stay on this decision, they said in a news release.

The Montana Stockgrowers urges support for their appeal, and says donations can be made at

MSGA President Jim Steinbeisser says they are working to hold federal agencies accountable and conserve Montana’s open spaces.

The MSGA Advocacy Fund allows for a collective voice for cattle ranchers advocating for change and accountability at the state and federal levels. MSGA’s Advocacy Fund supports issues like promoting the benefits of cattle grazing, protecting cattle grazing on public lands, and holding state and federal agencies accountable.

The Montana Cattlemen’s Association also voiced opposition to the BLM’s decision to allow bison to graze.

“In order to support their decision, BLM makes unsupported claims about the beneficial impact of bison on the rangelands as in contrast to grazing by cattle. BLM presents no scientific evidence for this contention. The observation by many is that bison and cattle have nearly identical habits and needs in both grazing patterns and use of water sources. Bison’s alleged ability to improve rangeland conditions fits more in the realm of “urban myth” than as an established scientific fact,” said MCA in a news release.

MCA said the bison could pose a physical threat to ranchers and others in the area. MCA also suggests that the BLM hasn’t explained who will fix fence if bison crawl out.

MCA points out that in the BLM’s own assessment, it indicates that the cattle have not caused problems with the forage or the wildlife, and yet BLM assumes that by removing fences and grazing bison rather than cattle, the forage and wildlife will improve.

The BLM should at least study and report the potential impacts of allowing the AP to turn bison out at different times than ranchers turn their cattle out. For example, they say possibly allowing bison to graze year round is a “dramatic change in policy” and could impact the grass before it is established in the spring.

“For the most part, BLM has been a trustworthy partner in managing public lands for the benefit of recreationalists, hunters, and ranchers. This unprofessional decision can only erode the trust that has been earned by the Bureau of Land Management. Bison are not cattle and cannot be controlled by fences designed to be adequate for cattle. BLM must make it clear that the APR will be held to a higher standard in the management of their bison herd,” said MCA.

The Montana Attorney General, Montana Stockgrowers, and others say that the BLM's decision to allow bison to graze federal land meant for livestock grazing will negatively impact the local community. Heather Hamilton-Maude
for Tri-State Livestock News

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