In an attempt to soothe local discontent, the group behind a move to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States has modified its proposal to expand bison grazing on federal lands in northeastern Montana.
According to a press release from the American Prairie Reserve, the private nonprofit group has reduced the number of federal acres on which it has been seeking permission from the Bureau of Land Management to graze bison.
The original proposal, submitted last year, was for year-round grazing on 18 BLM allotments and 20 state leases covering 290,000 acres. The modification would reduce that to seasonal grazing on five BLM allotments and five state leases, totaling about 48,000 public acres.
The group is also seeking approval for a “small demonstration project to further showcase the sustainability of year-long bison grazing” that would take place on one BLM allotment and one state lease covering 12,000 acres in an area already approved for use by bison. In addition, the APR is proposing that the demonstration project be monitored by Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists, in addition to state and federal land managers, while also open to public review.
The original application, which drew more than 2,400 comments during the public scoping period, also would have removed interior fencing on the allotments. The revision will request only slight modifications to interior fences to improve pastures, according to the APR news release.
BLM spokesman Al Nash could not confirm receipt of the revised application which was submitted on Tuesday, although he said any changes would not require the entire process to start over with public scoping.
“I believe that we will be able to take this revised application and pick up from where we are without re-initiating public scoping,” he said.
Nash said a contractor for the BLM was in the process of writing the environmental assessment. He did not know when the EA might be done. The revisions will require some shift in the work, he added.
Damien Austin, the APR’s superintendent, is quoted in the group’s press release saying that the change was made as “a compromise that addresses local concerns while allowing us to move forward with wildlife and bison restoration in this special part of the state.”
The APR is hoping that approval of a smaller grazing allotment could help the group prove to skeptics that year-long bison grazing won’t harm the rangeland.
“We have research and demonstrated examples that show the positive impacts of year-long bison grazing with the appropriate number of animal units, but working with our neighbors has always been important to the organization,” Austin said.
The American Prairie Reserve, since its inception in 2001, has grown its bison herd to about 800 animals.
As the bison herd has grown, so too has the APR’s land holdings. The group has made 29 purchases of ranch and farm lands adjacent to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. At last count the group now owns 148 square miles of private lands that have come with leased grazing rights to 485 square miles of federal and state lands.
The group’s plan is to one day connect all of the public lands via 500,000 acres of private land purchases to create a 3.2 million acre mixed grass prairie preserve.
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As it has purchased lands and established a bison herd, the APR has met opposition from some surrounding landowners and regional townsfolk who generated enough political support to get the last Legislature to pass a nonbinding resolution asking the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM, to deny the APR’s requested grazing changes.
The spokesman of the main group pushing the legislation, the United Property Owners of Montana’s Chuck Denowh, said in a press release that despite the modification the “APR remains the same threat to neighboring landowners, Montana's agriculture economy, and the communities in their target zone.
“BLM grazing allotments were reserved by Congress for agriculture production — APR's revised proposal would be a radical departure from that policy,” Denowh said. “They know that if they can establish a new precedent on a single BLM allotment, they can expand elsewhere.”
Although the American Prairie Reserve’s original grazing plan modification was large, Nash pointed out that the BLM already has approved other landowners in the nation and Montana to graze bison.
“That does not make the application unique,” he said.
He also noted that the BLM had already approved a change in livestock from cattle to bison on two allotments that the APR uses prior to this latest request. The APR has also had year-round bison grazing on its 12,000-acre Sun Prairie allotment since 2014.
The attempt by the Montana Legislature to exert influence over the BLM’s process, which critics have said flies in the face of private property rights the state’s residents have long held so dear, will take a back seat to the agency’s review process.
“We will make a decision in accordance with the law, regulations and policy … that will include the Taylor Grazing Act,” Nash said.
Critics of the American Prairie Reserve’s plans to remove interior fencing have repeatedly cited the Taylor Grazing Act as a reason to deny the permit modifications. Passed in 1934, the act was meant to improve federal lands by implementing regulations following the drought of the Dust Bowl that exacerbated poor farming and livestock grazing practices.
Rotational grazing, which moves cattle onto different pastures to lessen the cattle’s impact on the rangeland, has evolved as a way to lessen grazing's impact on the land. Such grazing requires the installation of fences to contain the cattle. Ranchers see the removal of interior fences, as the APR has proposed, as a violation of the Taylor Grazing Act’s intent. APR has responded that removing the interior fences allows bison to roam across a wider landscape as they had historically done before being nearly eliminated from the Great Plains in the late 1880s.
"They (bison) graze differently," said Beth Saboe, APR's senior external relations manager.
Denowh called the requested changes by the APR a "Trojan horse" and “a dangerous experiment with far-reaching implications for Montana's economy."
The APR has made a public relations push to ease concerns by touting public recreational access to its land and its investment in the region — which includes the eventual opening of a discovery center and headquarters in an old downtown Lewistown building. UPOM has responded with the distribution of signs stating, “Save the cowboy, stop American Prairie Reserve.”
“We welcome anyone to come see the beauty of the land themselves and to discover how we are working to care for and steward it,” Austin said. “This is about conserving one of the world’s last functioning grasslands for the next generation to use, explore, and enjoy.”