Bison near a prairie dog town and an interpretive sign on the American Prairie Reserve (Photo by Dennis Lingohr. Courtesy American Prairie Reserve). \
The Bureau of Land Management has issued its final decision to allow American Prairie to graze bison on 63,500 acres of land in Phillips County.
Some of the land within the acreage is state land which is managed by the federal government, and the BLM’s decision has drawn criticism from Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen, both of whom have been staunch critics of the conservation organization, but who have refused to visit the operations. Montana has 5,830 acres of land included in the parcel, or roughly nine percent of the total grazing area.
The decision clears the way for American Prairie to continue to allow bison to graze on federal land set aside for grazing in north central Montana. The state has previously objected to the decision, saying the federal agency doesn’t have the authority to substitute cattle grazing for bison grazing, a legal theory which American Prairie has rebutted and the BLM has rejected.
The decision released on Thursday means that American Prairie will gradually increase its bison herd from 800 to around 1,000 in the next three years.
“By comparison, the majority of American Prairie’s land base is leased out to local cattle ranchers and supports more than 10,000 head of cattle,” the organization said.
The finding, issued by the Malta Field Office of the BLM, said that bison grazing will lead to improved land health and new jobs facilitated by American Prairie’s growth, as well as bringing in additional tourism dollars to the state.
Previously environmental assessments of American Prairie’s proposal also found that the bison grazing would not impact the land in any significant way. In fact, the BLM praised the proposal, “Those areas being grazed by bison will experience improvements to vegetative communities, diversified vegetation and an increase in native plant species.”
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In a press release put out after the decision, Gianforte rehashed the argument he’d made last year.
“As we review this decision, we share Montanans’ frustration with the BLM’s woeful and repeated failures to properly engage Montanans and act within the bounds of its authority on this issue,” Gianforte said.
He said the state is looking at next steps after reviewing the decision, and blasted the agency for ignoring “repeated requests from state officials for full public engagement.”
However, Malta Field Manager Tom Darrington pushed back against Gianforte’s assertion in the final decision, noting several different ways the federal agency engaged the public, including a public scoping period that lasted for a month from April 9 to May 9, 2018.
The BLM also held a series of in-person, open-house style meetings held between April 9 and 12, 2018. Those were held in the north-central communities of Winnett, Winifred, Malta and Glasgow. Darrington also said requests to extend the public comment period was also granted from July 1 through Sept. 28, 2021. The agency also noted nearly 400 letters received by the agency, commenting on the proposal, including 18 letters of protest.
“Given the level of public interest in the proposal, BLM initiated an increased effort to engage local and state cooperators and the interested public to the greatest extent possible. Consultation, cooperation and coordination requirements were met, or exceeded prior to (issuing this decision),” Darrington wrote. “Though the proposal to allow domestic indigenous livestock grazing conflicts with views and opinions expressed among some users of public lands, such unfavorable views of the proposal itself do not constitute scientific controversy, disagreement about the nature of effects, or provide evidence that the project is not in conformance to BLM’s statutory and regulatory requirements.”
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