With the mission of creating the largest nature preserve in the contiguous United States, the American Prairie Reserve (APR) has bought land and is making quite a presence in north central Montana. The APR’s goal is to create an American Serengeti, and in doing so, the organization wants non-interrupted grazing land for their bison.
In 2017, the APR submitted a bold request to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), wanting to modify the grazing agreements on 18 different BLM allotments across multiple counties in north central Montana. Modification included changing the class of livestock on the permit from cattle to bison, changing the authorized season of use, as well as modifying and/or removing fencing within the allotments.
Opposition to this 2017 proposal was significant, so the APR circled the wagons and in 2019 they submitted their Alternative B proposal. This proposal to the BLM only impacted eight allotments exclusively in Phillips County. The same modifications were requested.
In July of this year, the BLM released their draft Environmental Assessment (EA) on the proposal and with it, a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The BLM’s response has been met with opposition from area land owners, as well as state grassroots organizations like the Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA).
“From a Montana Stockgrowers perspective, we have concerns in quite a few areas,” said Raylee Honeycutt, director of natural resources for MSGA. One concern we have is bison graze differently than cattle, we know that. We feel like there is going to be significant impact on rangeland health, riparian areas, as well as the socio-economic impacts to the cattle industry in the area.”
Continuing, Honeycutt pointed out how range management practices – like rotational grazing – have been employed by cattle producers for decades. Removing fences, changing season of use, and the other modifications laid out in the proposal regresses the years of regenerative grazing that have done in the area.
On Sept. 15, a live public comment meeting was held in Malta, Mont., where people could voice their opinions about the draft EA and FONSI. MSGA staff, including Honeycutt, attended the meeting. Most of those who were present at the meeting were ranchers and landowners who fear the BLM’s FONSI sets a dangerous precedent that could negatively impact the future of the whole western livestock industry and public lands grazing.
“The meeting was great. Everyone came with a story of how this will impact them and I think that is key when people are providing comments,” Honeycutt said.
In their comments on the FONSI, MSGA has called for the BLM to do a more expansive Environmental Impact Study on the proposal. In addition to the aforementioned concerns, MSGA questions the legality of bison to graze under the Taylor Grazing Act. In going along with their comments, MSGA suggests that if the BLM continues on with this line of thinking, that all grazing permits need to be retroactively reviewed and allowed the same graces afforded to the APR in this particular instance.
“We feel there needs to be equality across all permitees and we feel there has been preferential treatment given to the APR,” Honeycutt added.
A comment period on the draft EA and FONSI was open until Sept. 28. The BLM will take several months to review the comments and make a final decision from there. If the EA and FONSI stands as it currently does, an appeal process will follow.