Smaller is better

APR scales back bison grazing application
By: 
DEB HILL
News-Argus Managing Editor
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
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A bison grazes on the American Prairie Reserve’s Sun Prairie Unit. On Monday the APR submitted a modified proposal to the Bureau of Land Management for bison grazing, greatly reducing the amount of land proposed for year-round grazing and adding a proposal for seasonal rotational grazing.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Linghor

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Citing a desire to be good neighbors and allow more time for people to learn about their bison-grazing proposal, on Monday afternoon American Prairie Reserve representatives announced they are scaling back their application to expand bison grazing. The organization had proposed year-round bison grazing, facilitated by removal of 300 miles of interior fencing on Bureau of Land Management and state lands for which the APR holds grazing leases.

The new proposal substantially reduces the number of acres on which year-round bison grazing is requested, from the original request for 290,000 federal and state acres to 12,000 acres. 

This brings the number of federal allotments and state leases proposed for year-round grazing to 1 each, down from 18 BLM allotments and 20 state leases in the original proposals.

The new proposal also includes seasonal rotational grazing of bison on 48,000 state and federal acres, something not included in the original request. 

Only 40 miles of fence will be removed under the new proposal, rather than the 300 miles of fencing to be removed in the original.

“These changes are based on concerns we heard with year-round grazing,” said Betty Holder, senior land acquisition manager for the APR. “While we have a substantial body of knowledge about year-round grazing of bison, we are not in a hurry. We want to give people additional time to learn about what we are proposing. 

“We’re in this for the long run,” Holder added. “So if this [smaller project scope] is what people need to see to know we can do this well, that’s what we’ll do.”

 

Ranchers unconvinced

Those who oppose the APR’s goal of protecting the prairie ecosystem by creating what APR calls “the largest nature reserve in the continental U.S.” are still skeptical.

“APR’s platform has not changed—they want to establish a massive, free-roaming bison herd in Central Montana and eliminate our communities and our agriculture economy. They know that convincing the BLM to go along with this plan, even on a single grazing allotment, establishes a precedent they can use to expand over hundreds of thousands of acres,” said Winifred’s Laura Boyce, one of the organizers of the Save the Cowboy movement. 

“In the end the American Prairie Reserve has received millions of dollars in donations and will be obligated to fulfill those goals they’ve promised,” Boyce added

Holder said the reduction in the requested number of acres would last for a period of 10 years, with bison herd growth based on natural reproduction of approximately 1,000 animals per year.

APR Vice President Pete Geddes said the original request submitted to the BLM in 2014 resulted in a decision in 2015, but the decision was then withdrawn by the agency, requesting better “cumulative effect” analysis – basically a request for the APR to submit a proposal based on all future goals on all allotments.

“We submitted on allotments we were never intending to put bison on,” Geddes said. “We submitted all of it at once, but this was our long-term plan and we were never intending to do it all at once. That part was lost [on people].”

Geddes said the revised proposal is consistent with the BLM’s interest in providing greater flexibility to permitted livestock grazers who can improve rangeland health and create healthier wildlife habitat. He referenced BLM’s Outcome Based Grazing projects as an example of that interest.

 

Factors in the decision

Holder said “push back” from throughout the state, especially the testimony in Helena as lawmakers debated House Joint Resolution 28 submitted by Lewistown Representative Dan Bartel, convinced the APR leaders the process had become politicized. 

“We hope through this [smaller, slower] approach that people can become more familiar with the science and will be able to see it on the ground. We will have scientists and state and federal land managers reviewing the demonstration area to ensure all necessary standards are being met,” Holder said.

“This is a real and sincere effort to engage in the right way and build more durable support for our project,” Geddes said. “Going slower is better for all concerned.”

Meanwhile Boyce said APR’s new proposal doesn’t change anything as far as she is concerned.

“I’m proud of the effort so many people have put in to stand up against APR to save our communities,” Boyce added. “They have billionaires and we are just a grass roots group. At least we know we’ve been successful in raising the question in people’s minds: is the APR doing anything good for our local community or our state?  The local push back against the APR has forced them to slow down their plans, but by no means does this mean we are backing down.”

 

Montana State Representative Dan Bartel, House District 29, released the following statement on Tuesday:

 

I have received verbal reports that the American Prairie Reserve is planning to withdraw its application for consolidation of 18 BLM grazing allotments on 290,000 acres, including removal of interior fencing, allowances for year-round grazing and other items. 

In the alternative, I understand APR may be planning to file with BLM a revised request for seasonal rotation of bison on 48,000 acres, removal of interior fencing on a 12,000 acre allotment, or other considerations.

I am pleased the APR has responded to the voice of the Legislature in HJR 28, as well as the concerns from local citizens and agriculture groups. Not having access to the revised APR proposal, here are my current comments on the APR announcement: 

1: The controversiality of the existing APR proposal will require any revised application to go through the NEPA process. As part of the NEPA process, I would like for BLM to require APR to assess the impact of the entire scope of the APR proposal over time and across the entire landscape of the affected human environment. This means that instead of just evaluating the incremental impact of changes to one allotment, BLM must require APR to evaluate the overall impact to the human environment across the region from the entire APR plan of record. 

2: Interior fencing is a longstanding and effective tool for public lands and range management. The projected effect on adjacent allotments, lands, or the tax base from removal of any interior fencing within the grazing district should be evaluated. BLM should require an assessment - consistent with the Taylor Grazing Act - of the impacts to adjacent lands and the state and local tax base. 

3: My constituents have brought to my attention significant technical, environmental and other complaints that APR may not be a good neighbor with their existing bison operation. As part of the NEPA process, BLM should first investigate and publish APR’s compliance history, and any future bison proposal should require binding third party monitoring on all allotments by local Conservation Districts, NRCS, and interested agriculture groups. The third party monitoring should include consistent brucellosis testing, ear tagging, annual reporting, and other good range management practices.

4: The secretaries of Interior and Agriculture and the White House should consider a policy as to how bison may fit with the longstanding Congressional mandate to manage grazing allotments and national forests according to the doctrine of multiple use and sustained yield. This includes the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA), Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960 (MUSYA), the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA), and the Wilderness Act of 1964. 

Once I have received a copy of the revised APR proposal and have had an opportunity to receive input from my constituents and local government, I can offer more detailed comments.

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