Commentary

Fox: American Prairie and Phillips County find common ground

January 28, 2021 6:58 pm

Working the bison at the American Prairie Reserve (Photo courtesy of the American Prairie Reserve).

Last week, Phillips County officials unanimously voted to approve a new bison grazing and disease management agreement with American Prairie Reserve. This agreement resolves American Prairie’s long-standing variance request to the County’s Bison Grazing Ordinance. It is the hard-won result of constructive talks with our team, the Phillips County Conservation District, and livestock industry representatives.

American Prairie is a nonprofit that is purchasing and restoring private lands that connect with existing public land, with the goal of creating the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States. We want the Reserve to be a refuge for wildlife and people, and we’re opening up as much of our property as possible to the public so that all Montanans have access to our state’s incredible grasslands for generations to come. As part of this effort, we hope to help bring many native prairie species back to Central Montana. This includes bison, which were crucial in shaping the ecosystem before nearly vanishing in the late 1800s.

Our agreement with Phillips County allows American Prairie to continue exercising our rights as private property owners to have bison grazing on our land, while also making sure that the concerns of our neighbors are heard. Specifically, the agreement gives American Prairie a 10-year variance, with the requirement that we expand our already-robust disease management program, as well as more frequent information sharing with the Conservation District and livestock producers.

Alison Fox, chief executive of the American Prairie Reserve (Photo courtesy of American Prairie Reserve)

Herd health has always been a top priority and will continue to be. As of January 2021 we have 800 bison in our herd and a team of nine living on the Reserve devoted to bison management. We source exclusively from herds that have been disease-free for several decades. We test, vaccinate, and quarantine every animal before it arrives on American Prairie property. Bison fence breaches are rare, and our bison management team monitors and maintains the perimeter fencing around properties where bison are grazing. Additionally we buy fencing supplies locally, and hire local contractors to put that fencing in place. We will be working with a local, state-licensed veterinarian to fulfill some of the expanded protocols. Although these additional grazing and disease management practices come at a significant operational cost to us, we agreed to them because we want to do our part to be good neighbors in the communities bordering the Reserve.

We are also pleased to say we are honoring this new agreement immediately. Next week, our bison will undergo our routine handling process intended to maintain the health of the herd and monitor for any problems. This year, that process will include expanded disease testing required management protocols as part of the Phillips County agreement.

American Prairie will also continue to lease grass to local ranchers on our properties in Phillips, Valley, Fergus, Blaine, and Petroleum counties. We currently lease grass to local ranchers to support 13,000 cows grazing on our properties, in addition to partnering with ranchers to provide financial rewards for living with wildlife. This is just one example of our commitment to supporting Central Montana’s ranching industry – which sits at the heart of our state’s economy and cultural identity – into the future.

Thank you to the Phillips County Conservation District and livestock representatives who came to the table and worked with us in good faith to find common ground. We are dedicated to continuing to build a stronger, more constructive relationship with the Conservation District through the terms of the agreement.

If anyone has any questions about the agreement, or our bison management practices, we are here to answer them. Please reach out at [email protected]

Alison Fox is the CEO of American Prairie Reserve.

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