Slippery Slope: BLM approves bison grazing for American Prairie
The Bureau of Land Management reported July 28, 2022 that it would indeed allow bison to graze six allotments in Phillips County, Montana.
The American Prairie (formerly known as the American Prairie Reserve or APR) requested about five years ago that the BLM allow it to graze on seven allotments it owns. The American Prairie says its mission is to create the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States. They currently own or manage at least 450,000 acres.
According to the BLM, the Telegraph Creek, Box Elder, Flat Creek, White Rock, French Coulee, Garey Coulee and East Dry Fork allotments are now approved for bison – a total of approximately 63,500 acres of BLM-administered lands – which currently provide 7,969 animal unit months of permitted use.
The BLM also said one common allotment grazed with another livestock operator would remain approved for cattle-only grazing. Four of the allotments are approved for seasonal grazing with pasture rotation. Year-round grazing is approved for three allotments; two of which had been previously authorized for bison grazing. There is no change in animal unit months on any of the allotments. Most allotments will be managed under a pasture rotation grazing program, said BLM.
The release of the final grazing decision initiates a 30-day BLM appeal period. Certified letters of notification have been sent to qualified interested publics, as defined by federal grazing regulations. More information regarding the appeal period can be found within the final grazing decision, said BLM.
The American Prairie praised the action, saying that bison will “benefit native wildlife, restore water quality, and will improve rangeland conditions in north central Montana.”
The BLM predicts economic enhancements to result from the decision. “Implementation of the proposed change in use would result in a gain of the equivalent of four full-time jobs at the county level (up from 24 jobs under Alternative A to 28 jobs under Alternative B), while labor income, value added, and total output would all see increases at the county level. The modest job gains would occur in the industry categories of veterinary services, crop farming, and non-cattle animal production.”
Parri Jacobs, a Malta area rancher, believes that the BLM is violating the very purpose of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act which established rules for grazing on federal lands.
“Preference shall be given in the issuance of grazing permits to those within or near a district who are landowners engaged in the livestock business, bona fide occupants or settlers, or owners of water or water rights, as may be necessary to permit the proper use of lands, water or water rights owned, occupied, or leased by them,” says the Taylor Grazing Act in section 315b.
“We don’t believe the BLM is following their own rules. The Taylor Grazing Act wasn’t put in place to allow a conservation bison herd. It was meant for food production, which is agriculture,” said Jacobs.
The American Prairie on its website discusses bison under the “wildlife restoration” segment and does not seem to have interest in raising bison as livestock or as a livestock business.
Jacobs said that there is a “mixed bag of scientific evidence about whether brucellosis is transmissible from bison to cattle,” but she said elk wander through the area and are known to be transmitters, so brucellosis from the bison is a concern to her. She also doesn’t want the threat of brucellosis to cause her community to become a “designated surveillance like some counties around Yellowstone, because ranchers in those areas deal with severe restrictions and testing in order to move cattle in and out of the area.
Lastly, Jacobs is worried that bison will replace cattle on additional grazing permits on federal land.
“It’s definitely a slippery slope. If they allow this, what is next? How much further is it going to go? It could be a runaway freight train, for sure,” she said.
Jacobs and her family shares a common allotment with the AP, but it will remain a strictly cattle allotment – at this time bison will not be allowed to graze on their particular allotment.
“But because of another allotment that they are going to allow bison on – we have the possibility of bison running next to us,” she said.
The Montana Stockgrowers, Public Lands Council, Montana Farm Bureau have voiced concern over the announcement.
The Montana Stockgrowers say that member concerns and protests were not addressed.
“To say we are disappointed with the final decision would be an understatement. Ranchers have worked diligently for over a century caring for the public land livestock graze. Ranchers are held to the highest standards by federal land agencies in the areas of range management, range monitoring, range improvements, and processes within the BLM’s grazing regulations, yet when concerns were raised regarding these areas in comments and protests, BLM did not acknowledge these concerns,” stated Jim Steinbeisser, MSGA President in a news release.
MSGA and its members have consistently provided comments regarding concerns with APR’s proposals. These include concerns over the impacts to the rangeland health, riparian areas, and socioeconomic impacts to the rural communities and the livestock industry.
In recent years, MSGA has raised a variety of issues with the APR’s request to BLM to change the class of livestock from cattle to bison, change the authorized seasons-of-use, and the removal of interior fences and have shared disappointment in the BLM’s draft EA and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).
The final decision is a significant change to grazing on federal lands and will have serious repercussions on BLM grazing throughout the West, said MSGA in a press release.
Governor Gianforte is also concerned.
“As we review this decision, we share Montanans’ frustration with the BLM’s woeful and repeated failures to properly engage Montanans and act within the bounds of its authority on this issue,” Gov. Gianforte said. “The agency limited public comment to a single, virtual event in the middle of haying season, ignored repeated requests from state officials for full public engagement, and failed to analyze the full range of impacts of its proposal, which it lacks the statutory authority to enact. The State will consider next steps after a thorough review of BLM’s decision.”
The Montana Attorney General, said in a formal statement that he had held a listening session and also submitted comments to the BLM. He is not in agreement with the decision.
“After shutting out public input from local communities, it’s not a surprise that President Biden’s Bureau of Land Management would rubber-stamp this radical proposal that is another step toward displacing northeast Montana’s livestock industry and replacing it with a large outdoor zoo. My office is reviewing the decision closely to determine our next steps to protect ranchers and ensure the State’s interests are upheld.”
Jacobs said she believes some livestock organizations do plan to appeal the decision.
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