Cattle, bison can coexist just fine

September 14, 2022 4:49 am

Fall colors on the American Prairie Reserve (Photo Courtesy of the American Prairie Reserve).

Earlier this summer, the Montana-based American Prairie organization was approved to graze bison on Bureau of Land Management lands in central Montana where it holds grazing privileges.  This decision sparked a string of lawsuits from cattle groups and even the State of Montana, which claim surrounding ranchers and local communities will go belly-up as a result.

I don’t buy it, and neither will the judge.

As a recovering attorney, I can tell you this is a classic false dilemma. By saying coexistence is impossible, they are trying to frame the conversation as a mutually exclusive choice between two extreme alternatives.

The truth is bison and cattle have already been sharing the short-grass prairie for well more than a decade. This dynamic will not change as American Prairie sustainably grows their bison herd in the future. There is plenty of room in Central Montana for these large animals to graze as they once did and for ranchers to continue raising high-quality Montana beef.

Rangeland health

Naysayers say bison are an ecological menace that will overgraze the prairie. That’s just not true.

The science shows that all grazing animals, including cattle, can improve grassland diversity if carefully managed.  However, pound for pound, bison are the ecological champs. They are a native grazer and coevolved with the region’s native plants and grasses. They are also drought and heat-tolerant; an important consideration as Montana heats up.

The reality is that cattle ranchers and American Prairie both make important contributions in stewarding one of the world’s last intact prairie landscapes.

Disease management

Naysayers claim coexistence is impossible because bison spread diseases like brucellosis to cattle. But brucellosis isn’t present in central Montana, and American Prairie is one of the groups working hard to keep it that way.

They only source bison from herds that have been brucellosis-free for decades. They meet or exceed all Montana Department of Livestock testing, vaccination, and quarantine requirements and are given a clean bill of health every year by the state veterinarian.

Two years ago, American Prairie even agreed to expand its testing to hundreds of more bison and to test for a dozen different diseases.  Again, this is well beyond what is required by the Montana Department of Livestock. American Prairie hires professionals and they have the most sophisticated disease management program found in central Montana.

Rural Impact

Naysayers argue there can be no coexistence because removing 63,000 acres of public lands from production agriculture will destroy the fabric of local communities.

The reality is American Prairie leases more than 80 percent of their lands back to local ranchers and supports around 10,000 head of cattle with that grass. There are far more significant economic stressors making life challenging for ranchers. Ongoing drought, corporate meatpackers, and rising input costs to name a few.  I think conversations would be more fruitful if we all acknowledge the ways American Prairie helps add value.  Visitors spend tourism dollars and support local economies. The future of many rural Montana communities requires economic diversification.

Finally, I’d like to point out that American Prairie is opening lands for public use because there aren’t many landowners doing that these days.

American Prairie is improving multiple use management by boosting public access, restoring wildlife habitat, and creating more opportunities for the public to experience shared public lands and wildlife. The end result of this work is that future generations of Montanans will always have a place on the prairie to call their own.

Good luck arguing against that in court. My fellow Montana hunters should certainly question why our Governor and Attorney General are spending time and tax dollars to challenge this decision.

Larry Epstein is a fourth generation Montanan who grew up in Cut Bank and served as Glacier County attorney for more than three decades.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.