Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

close up view of bison eating dry grass in corral at zoo

by Kayla Sargent

The old saying goes, “good fences make good neighbors.”  That quote has held true in much of the ranching industry for years.  But as folks in central Montana find that their new neighbor hopes to create an “American Serengeti” out their backdoor, more than good fences may be needed to maintain neighborly relations.

“Fear, misinformation and a lack of trust” could be used to describe today’s relationship between many Montana ranchers and the American Prairie Reserve (APR) according to the organization’s Vice President and Chief External Relations Officer Pete Geddes.  As the group focused their energy and resources on land acquisition, “strategic tradeoffs were made” and communication may not have been executed efficiently, Geddes said.

That’s why Geddes and team members Damien Austin, Vice President and Reserve Superintendent, and Seth Hawkins, Karen and Jay Abbe Director of National Discovery Center, attended the Montana Cattlemen’s Association (MCA) Annual Meeting in Lewistown on December 7.

“We are now committed as an organization and we have a bit more capacity to make sure people understand what we’re doing and understand that we seek to be really good neighbors in the communities in which we work,” Geddes said.

Today, the APR runs approximately 850 bison on three separate parcels that comprise the approximate 419,000-acre reserve in north central Montana.  Austin, who lives on the Dry Fork unit of the APR, partakes in the day to day management of the land and buffalo herd.  His two children attend school in Malta, and he said part of the reason his family moved to the Dry Fork unit was to raise his family in a rural setting.

Austin explained that APR focuses on three main program objectives: habitat, restoration and people.  First, habitat is simply the group’s land acquisition goals.  APR has a hefty goal of creating the largest nature reserve in the continental U.S. by connecting three million acres of public land using private land purchased from willing sellers.

Restoration pertains to the preservation of the native grasslands, restoring habitat and wildlife populations and growing a herd of range bison.  Austin said the restoration program is “on-the-ground activities” like returning cultivated ground to native plant species and bringing buffalo to the area.

“With that said, we know that we are in a sea of agriculture.  Montana is an agricultural community, we live in an agricultural community, and everything around each one of our properties is part of the agricultural community,” Austin said.  “We don’t want to impact our neighbors or the public property.  So we think a lot about the community that we live in and the neighbors that are surrounding us and try to make sure our activities don’t negatively influence neighbors.”


Wild Sky Ranching…

Austin said APR created the Wild Sky ranching program to address their impact on agricultural neighbors.  Participating ranchers are financially incentivized to incorporate “wildlife-friendly” practices like modifying fences and maintaining native vegetation on their own operations.  Austin said the only requirement to sign up is “not plowing the prairie.  Other than that, it’s a cafeteria plan, so the rancher can sign up for whatever they would like.”

Some ranchers do not view the Wild Sky program as a way to curb the APR’s impact on the agricultural community.  One rancher at the meeting told the APR team that he finds the program “very condescending.”

“I’ve been ranching in central Montana now for almost half a century,” Gilles Stockton, Grass Range rancher, told APR representatives.  “I have antelope go under my fences, deer go over my fences, and elk go through my fences.  I’ve managed my grass and it’s in good shape.  I’ve got birds of all kinds.  And I’ve personally fed thousands of coyotes prime lamb.  I just find that program incredibly condescending.  I believe I have earned that extra ten cents but so do all of my neighbors who have been doing the same thing.  We don’t need one of your guys following us around telling us how to do it.”

Austin assured the rancher that the program seeks to “get some money in the pocket of people that are already doing wildlife-friendly practices.”  He said they do not plan to “convert” ranching practices through the program.

The Wild Sky program wasn’t the only concern on the minds of ranchers in attendance.  Some asked questions about weed control, wildfire policy, hunting and trapping plans, predator control, grass management, and disease and health issues.

Rising to the top of the conversation were brucellosis mitigation and buffalo herd management.  Currently, the buffalo roaming APR’s land are classified as livestock.  This means the animals must be managed in accordance with Montana Department of Livestock regulations.  Austin said any time bison are shipped out of their resident county, stringent transport rules are followed.  He added that they own a mobile handling facility that allows them to gather and cull the herd in order to maintain the appropriate capacity for the range.  Public harvests are held to control numbers as well.

“We’ve also got a number of different means in which we manage the bison to make sure they are a healthy population,” Austin said.


Bison Ordinance

To address the numerous concerns that arise among ranchers when buffalo herds are nearby, several local conservation districts have passed bison ordinances.  Fergus County Conservation District (FCCD) passed an ordinance after a county vote in 2017.  FCCD Chair Steve Hertel reiterated that a bison ordinance does not mean bison can’t be raised in Fergus County, but for those that choose to do so, they must be managed in accordance with the ordinance.

“I’m glad these folks said they are our neighbors,” Hertel said.  “They are our neighbors.  And that is exactly what this ordinance is all about, is being neighbors.”

Montana’s Conservation Districts are tasked with protecting each county’s natural resources.  The elected leadership of each Conservation District is directed to establish practices and implement rules that “preserve wildlife, protect the tax base, protect the public lands and protect and promote the health, safety and general welfare of the people of this state.”

“We all know that the state of Montana’s number one industry is agriculture and it’s our job as conservation supervisors, and everybody else in this room, to protect that,” FCCD Vice Chair Anna Morris said.  “If we don’t have agriculture as our main tax base, we have a problem.”

Morris said that is the point of the bison ordinance.  Specifically, prior to any bison entering Fergus County, a management plan must be submitted and approved by the FCCD.  The plan must include, in part, a map of fences and facilities; bison population objectives; means to control population and distribution; wildlife habitat management; disease monitoring; bison escape and recovery plan; management of riparian areas; grazing rates; herd health; water management; perimeter fencing requirements; individual animal identification and more.

“This is just a way to be a good neighbor,” Morris said.  “This was passed to protect our county and protect all of you within our county.  That is our job.”

Eight other districts across the state of Montana have passed similar ordinances and Morris said she hopes more conservation districts will follow suit.  Phillips County Conservation District passed a similar ordinance in June 2016.  In October 2016, the APR requested a variance from the ordinance citing “great practical difficulties and unnecessary hardship.”  Particularly, the variance was requested from two sections – one requiring state veterinarian testing and certification that the bison are disease-free and the other requiring brands, tattoos, tags or other identification to track health.

A hearing regarding the variance request was held in Malta November 12, 2019.  A ruling has not been determined and since litigation is pending, the parties involved in the hearing were advised not to comment.

When questioned by ranchers at MCA’s meeting about “double standards” and “special treatment,” the APR, as advised by their attorney, could only offer limited response.

Austin did clarify that their variance request “applies specifically to disease testing and identification and those are matters that we believe lie within the realm of the Department of Livestock to manage.”


Wild Buffalo…

As one rancher put it, the APR “absolutely has the right to raise buffalo.”  The concern is that neighboring ranchers may have to deal with the consequences, including feed loss, disease management and extra predators, especially if the herd is ever deemed as “wildlife.”  While this isn’t the case today, APR “firmly believes that someday there’s a place for a herd of bison outside of Yellowstone Park that is under a different status than livestock,” according to Geddes.  “We’re on the public record as being committed to make that happen if and when the people of Montana choose to make that designation.”

“What we would like to do, we’re thinking very long term here in 20 or 30 years, is to be a partner should the people of Montana decide that bison belong on the landscape somewhere outside of Yellowstone, that’s not our call.  But we’ll be there running that herd,” Geddes said.  “If that never happens, we’re perfectly content to manage our herds, hopefully on larger contiguous parcels so that they’re a resource not only for the preservation of the species, but for people to come and enjoy and see them in their native habitat.”

Ranchers in attendance displayed some of the “fear” mentioned early in the presentation by Geddes.  With concerns like disease and potential for wild buffalo in central Montana, it became apparent that mutual ground is elusive for the two parties.

“You keep shaking your head and all, but again, I’m not asking for philosophical alignment,” Geddes said.

As Geddes told Fergus County commissioners in a recent meeting, “I’m not looking for sweetness and love all the time.  I’m not looking for philosophical alignment, but what I do hope we can do is get to a place where we have a relationship based on mutual respect, trust and openness and that your philosophical disagreement with what we’re trying to do – which we shouldn’t argue about, it’s no better or worse than anybody else, it’s our vision, not necessarily your vision – but let’s not let that difference get in the way of doing things that can help the communities in which we work.”


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