HELENA — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has given initial approval to a proposal to graze bison in north-central Montana. It’s the latest step in a process that started five years ago – and it’s likely not the end.
American Prairie – a nonprofit formerly called American Prairie Reserve – proposed bison grazing on 63,065 acres of BLM land in Phillips County, south of Malta. The BLM’s proposed decision, issued Wednesday, would allow bison, behind fences, on six of the seven areas the organization proposed.
“We are extremely pleased with this decision, which will enable us to exercise our grazing privileges to sustainably grow our conservation herd of bison, protect the health of the land, and create more outdoor opportunities for visitors to experience Montana’s prairie lands and wildlife,” said American Prairie vice president and chief external relations officer Pete Geddes in a statement.
The decision would allow bison to graze seasonally in three locations and year-round in three others – including two that are already approved for bison. The seventh location would remain open only to cattle.
American Prairie says they plan to increase their bison herd from around 800 animals to 1,000.
BLM leaders said in a statement that their decision was justified by an analysis that showed the plan wouldn’t have a significant environmental impact. They also identified some potential benefits for wildlife habitat and vegetation, including the removal of some internal fencing and the different grazing patterns of bison allowing for more diversity.
“Ultimately, the overall goals of any grazing decision are to ensure the health of BLM-administered public lands and implement the law,” said Theresa Hanley, the agency’s acting Montana/Dakotas state director. “This proposed grazing decision will help us continue to achieve those goals, providing for multiple-purpose use and enjoyment, now and in the future.”
American Prairie first submitted a plan for bison grazing in 2017. They scaled it back significantly in 2019, saying they wanted to address public concerns and have more time to demonstrate how their grazing system works.
The proposal has gotten a lot of attention from people in the area. Groups like the Montana Stockgrowers Association have raised concerns.
“When we saw the decision, we were fairly disappointed with the decision,” said executive vice president Jay Bodner.
Bodner questioned whether the BLM could lease land for grazing bison, saying that federal law specifically designates it for livestock and doesn’t include bison in that definition. He also said ranchers are worried about the impacts of having bison in close proximity to cattle, from possible interbreeding to injuries if the animals end up in the same pasture.
“They are a different species than cattle, they’re going to graze differently, and so they’re going to have impacts on the rangeland differently,” Bodner said. “If you have less control over them, I think certainly rangeland health standards – are you going to be able to meet those? – that calls into question.”
He said the Stockgrowers want to make sure the BLM did its due diligence in responding to the public’s concerns.
“When you look at these kinds of pretty significant proposals that the American Prairie Reserve did propose, we really think that needs a full environmental impact statement,” he said.
In the decision, the BLM said it did analyze and consider all the public comment. For example, they responded to the concerns about the federal definition of livestock by pointing to other rules that allow privately owned “indigenous animals” like bison to graze at regulators’ discretion. They said they have issued grazing permits for bison in other states, and previously for American Prairie.
“We understand that not everyone agrees with allowing bison grazing on public lands, but the BLM’s decision makes it clear that our proposal is based on sound science and will benefit wildlife, the rangeland, and riparian areas,” Geddes said.
A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office said the state has started reviewing the BLM decision.
“The governor shares Montanans' hope that BLM took submitted comments to heart and bolstered its analysis to reach a legal, well-reasoned decision,” the spokesperson said.
A 15-day protest period is now open. The BLM will consider any protests they receive, then make a final decision. After that, there will be another 30 days during which the decision can be appealed.
You can find full documentation on the decision on the BLM website.