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Support the American Prairie Grazing Proposal

The American bison is making a historic comeback on Montana’s prairie.

American Prairie is working to save the rapidly disappearing shortgrass prairie ecosystem. Central to that mission is the restoration of a large population of plains bison, which are now gradually making a comeback after being absent from the land for more than 100 years. But for the herd to reach its full potential, we are asking the federal and state government to provide access for bison to graze some public lands where we have grazing privileges.

Comment Period

The BLM has advanced American Prairie’s request to graze bison on some public lands in Phillips County. The BLM’s initial findings conclude that the proposed action will not have a significant environmental impact on the land and “will benefit local wildlife, improve land and water quality, and create new local jobs, all without impacting the value of the ranching economy.”

American Prairie encouraged the public to comment in support of Alternative B, the proposed action. View a sample letterComments were due by September 28, 2021.

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ABOUT THE PROPOSAL

The Bureau of Land Management has given their preliminary approval for our long-standing request to graze bison on public lands in Phillips County, MT where we hold grazing privileges.

If fully approved, the plan authorizes a 10-year permit for our bison to graze seasonally across five BLM grazing allotments and will remove 30 miles of interior fences to improve pasture conditions. The plan would also demonstrate the sustainable benefits of year-round bison grazing by authorizing a more natural, grazing pattern on one additional grazing allotment previously approved for bison grazing by the BLM.

After several years of analysis, the BLM concluded our grazing proposal will benefit the local wildlife, improve land and water quality, and create a few new local jobs, all without impacting the regional ranching economy.

To learn more about this proposal, please read our Frequently Asked Questions.

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Grazing Proposal FAQs

Plains bison have been absent from the vast majority of Montana’s short-grass prairie for more than a century. The public now has until September 28th to support a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plan authorizing American Prairie to return bison to nearly 70,000 acres of public lands in North Central Montana.

What was requested of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)?

In 2019, American Prairie submitted a modified grazing request to expand pasture rotation bison grazing on five federal grazing allotments and five state leases. We also requested year-long bison grazing for a single federal grazing allotment and one state lease in an area previously approved for bison grazing. The year-round grazing pattern would allow us to further showcase the long-term sustainability of bison’s preferred grazing strategy.

What gives American Prairie the right to make this request?

American Prairie holds priority grazing privileges on the BLM grazing allotment which were acquired through the purchase of the associated base properties from willing sellers in free market transactions. American Prairie currently leases the grazing to cattle ranchers, however, federal law says anyone with federal grazing privileges can request to modify their grazing strategies so long as basic rangeland health is maintained.

What has the BLM said about the proposal?

The BLM issued a preliminary “Finding of No Significant Impact'' in their draft Environmental Analysis, published in July 2021. This is essentially preliminary approval to advance our proposal without requiring additional environmental review. Further, the BLM’s scientific and socio-economic analysis demonstrated that our proposal (represented as Alternative B) would benefit local wildlife, improve land and water quality, and create a few new local jobs, all without impacting the regional ranching economy.

What areas are impacted by the proposal?

Our application impacts six BLM-administered grazing allotments totaling 69,310 acres and provides for 7,969 animal unit months (AUMs). The entirety of the proposal is located in Phillips County, and will comply with a disease management agreement unanimously approved by Phillips County officials and American Prairie earlier this year intended to create more collaboration with the county and livestock producers.

How will public lands be impacted by the proposal?

The Draft Environmental Analysis says the proposal will help the Bureau of Land Management meet their basic standards for rangeland health. The analysis goes further to suggest bison grazing would improve land health and restore sensitive riparian areas traditionally grazed by cattle. Socio-economically, the proposal will connect more people to public lands by fueling additional visits by tourists, hunters, educators, students, artists, scientists, and wildlife watchers.

What are the benefits of removing fences?

American Prairie has proposed to remove roughly 30 miles of interior fences to better accommodate the grazing preferences and patterns of bison. We would also upgrade exterior fences and some interior fences to meet Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks wildlife-friendly standards. The Bureau of Land Management analysis identified that removing these fences will reduce habitat fragmentation, improve big game migration, and improve Greater-Sage Grouse habitat on public lands where the bison are grazed. 

How does the proposal impact the agriculture economy in the area?

The Draft Environmental Analysis concluded our proposal would create jobs and have no negative impact on the ranching economy. In Phillips County, where the entire revised proposal is located, there were a reported 82,000 cattle in 2018. This proposal will result in up to 1,000 cattle being replaced by bison, or 1% of the current 82,000 cattle. This impact is a drop in the bucket compared to the average cattle fluctuation in Phillips County which is driven by more significant events including market conditions, weather patterns, and the individual choices of ranchers. 

This negligible impact is consistent with American Prairies' economic impact more regionally. Agriculture has been and will continue to be the primary contributor to the regional economy, but American Prairie can help diversify this economy by creating more outdoor opportunities and bringing in more people to experience the prairie.

Who supports this proposal?

During the 2018 scoping period, this grazing proposal received robust public support from hunting and public access groups, wildlife scientists, some local residents, formal land and wildlife managers, economists, private property advocates, and supporters of grasslands from all around Montana and the country. More recently at the July, 2021 virtual public meeting hosted by the Bureau of Land Management, 20 members of the public spoke in support and just five spoke in opposition.

Why return bison to public lands?

American Prairie has access to almost 420,000 acres of land for bison and wildlife restoration. The total acreage – comprising leased public land and the American Prairie's private deeded lands – is enough to support at least 5,000 bison, but the herd needs access to graze these public lands to continue to grow in size and health. The BLM analysis has demonstrated that our proposal can enhance the restoration of other imperiled wildlife, improve rangeland conditions, and fuel new outdoor recreation opportunities.

Has the BLM and State approved bison grazing on public lands before?

Yes, bison grazing on public lands is an established practice. The BLM has approved bison grazing on 39 other BLM allotments in six Western states. In fact, American Prairie has been approved to graze bison on two BLM allotments and two State leases in Phillips County, totaling 19,314 leased public acres and 2,694 AUMs. Our bison grazing was first approved in these areas in 2005.

Why was the application revised in 2019?

American Prairie originally submitted a more comprehensive bison grazing proposal to the BLM in 2017 covering 290,000 acres of public lands. Although it was based on sound science and received over 2,000 supportive public comments, we recognized the need to resolve local concerns and provide more opportunity to publicly demonstrate the sustainability of year-long bison grazing with our neighbors, land managers, and other interested members of the public. The more limited scope of our revised application is also now more consistent with our management priorities over the next decade.

Why seek year-round grazing?

Currently, many BLM grazing allotments are associated with a pasture rotation system to manage cattle grazing.  However, the plants and animals of the mixed-grass prairie co-evolved with bison for thousands of years and did not require this system. The transition back to more natural bison grazing patterns offers an evolutionarily-tested means to help the BLM improve rangeland health and boost the richness and diversity of native plants and animals.  

Scientists, managers, and ranchers have already found that bison, when stocked at appropriate rates, do not require a rotational grazing system to maintain rangeland and riparian health because, in part, they cover more ground and forage at far greater distances from water than cattle. American Prairie has also demonstrated this in practice. We began year-round bison grazing on our Sun Prairie Unit in 2008 and have met or exceeded BLM standards for range and riparian health ever since.

Will this proposal impact disease transmission?

Not likely. The health of our herd and of the Phillips County Livestock Industry is a top priority for American Prairie. American Prairie sources animals from herds that have been brucellosis free for decades and show no clinical signs of disease for several decades. We test, vaccinate, and quarantine every animal before it is integrated into the herd in accordance with Montana and federal laws. American Prairie is committed to a robust disease management program and has recently boosted our information sharing and collaboration with the Phillips County Conservation District and livestock producers through a settlement agreement.

Is American Prairie in good standing with BLM and State?

Yes, American Prairie has consistently met BLM permit and State lease obligations – including paying fees and maintaining rangeland, soil, and riparian health– and complied with other permit requirements. American Prairie also meets the legal requirements for disease testing by the MT Department of Livestock, have been very responsive when bison have escaped from their pasture, and allocate a significant amount of time and funding to build and maintain fences. There are no known instances where American Prairie bison have harmed or attempted to breed neighboring cattle, spread disease to neighboring cattle, or caused damage on the neighbors’ property other than fences, which American Prairie repaired. Likewise, we know of no instances where American Prairie bison harmed people.

What are the next steps?

The Bureau of Land Management will collect public comment through September 28th. After that, they will issue a decision whether to finalize the proposed action (Alternative-B) or modify it based on comments and additional analysis.