Olive Branch or Trojan Horse?


by Kayla Sargent

In an effort to “extend an olive branch” to ranching communities in strong opposition to their mission, the American Prairie Reserve (APR) modified the scope of their BLM grazing request.  The “olive branch” instead struck many area ranchers as more of a “Trojan horse” United Property Owners of Montana (UPOM) spokesman Chuck Denowh said.

The APR submitted a Livestock Change in Use application to the Bureau of Land Management in late 2017 requesting changes on 18 BLM grazing allotments in Fergus, Petroleum, Phillips and Valley Counties in central Montana.  Specifically, APR sought to change the class of livestock from cattle to bison; allow for year-round grazing; fortify boundary fences by replacing the second strand from the top with electric wire; and remove interior fences.  The initial request also sought the same changes on 20 state leases for a total of 290,000 acres of public lands.

The BLM followed with an Environmental Analysis (EA) that began with a public scoping period of two months.  The findings of the EA are pending.  In the meantime, the 2019 Montana Legislature passed a joint resolution urging the Department of the Interior and BLM to deny the APR’s request to alter grazing permit requirements on the 18 allotments.

On September 24, APR cited this resolution as a key reason the organization has decided to scale back their request.  The revised application still requests that the class of livestock be changed from cattle to bison on five BLM allotments and five state leases where they would graze seasonally rather than year-round.  On those roughly 48,000 public acres, APR is still requesting “slight modifications to interior fences to improve pastures.”

In order to “further showcase the sustainability of year-long bison grazing,” the APR’s revised request seeks authorization of year-round bison grazing on one BLM allotment and one state lease totaling 12,186 public acres.  The demonstration area is being requested in what APR refers to as the Sun Prairie unit, or BLM allotment Telegraph Creek.  This unit sits along the Missouri River south of Malta and Northeast of Winnett.  This area was approved for seasonal bison grazing in 2005.

APR said the large reduction in the scope of their request is meant to “resolve local concerns and provide more opportunity to publicly demonstrate the sustainability of year-long bison grazing with neighbors, land managers and other interested members of the public.”

APR Superintendent Damien Austin said they already have research and examples that show the positive impacts of an appropriate number of bison grazing year-long but “working with our neighbors has always been important to the organization.”  He called the proposal adjustment a “compromise that addresses local concerns while allowing us to move forward with wildlife and bison restoration in this special part of the state.”

UPOM’s Denowh warned that the APR’s mission has not changed.  He said APR has been advancing a plan for more than a decade that would “eliminate the existing ranching communities that occupy the area they want under their control.”  Scaling back doesn’t mean they’re quitting, Denowh stated.

“APR remains the same threat to neighboring landowners, Montana’s agriculture economy and the communities in their target zone,” Denowh said.  “APR’s revised proposal is smaller in scope, but has the same objective as the original.  While some may see it as an olive branch, it’s more of a trojan horse.”

A precedent on a single BLM allotment would leave room to expand that elsewhere, and APR knows that, Denowh explained.  He is still standing by the call for BLM to “reject the proposal outright.”

“Our public land should not be used in a dangerous experiment with far-reaching implications for Montana’s economy,” Denowh said.

APR stands by the statement that grazing bison year-long is a sustainable plan that will “benefit the land and the wildlife” and Austin said they have proven that with a herd since 2014.  They now feel the need to demonstrate it publicly, he said.

“Grazing isn’t a one-size fits all approach and this demonstration project is an opportunity to put aside biases and listen to what the land is telling us,” Austin said.  “We are confident our preferred grazing strategy is good for Montana’s land and wildlife, but acknowledge it may take others further evidence to feel the same.”

If approved, APR said the health of the demonstration acreage would be closely monitored by state and federal land managers as well as scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  They also intend to open the area to public observation.

“This is about conserving one of the world’s last functioning grasslands for the next generation to use, explore and enjoy,” Austin said.

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