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Updated Bison Proposal Submitted

American Prairie has submitted a revised application to the Bureau of Land Management, requesting to expand bison grazing on federal and state lands in North Central Montana.

The original application generated more than 2,000 supportive public comments, making up 80% of the total. We have revised the application to further demonstrate the viability of bison restoration on public lands, while addressing the concerns raised in the unsupportive comments. 

We thank our supporters for their commitment to American Prairie as we work to provide more room to roam for our nation’s mammal, while conserving this unique landscape for future generations.

About the Revised Application

The revised application requests permission for bison to graze seasonally on five BLM grazing allotments and five state leases, totaling approximately 48,000 public acres, with only slight modifications to interior fences to improve pastures.  The revised application also requests a small demonstration project to showcase the sustainability of year-long bison grazing. Approval of the demonstration project includes authorization of year-long bison grazing for a single BLM allotment and one state lease covering 12,000 public land acres in an area that has previously been approved for use by bison.  

Read the Frequently Asked Questions for more details about the proposal. If you have questions, please email Betty Holder at American Prairie– you can also leave a message for Betty at 406-585-4600 ext. 805.

Grazing Proposal FAQs

What is being requested?

American Prairie is requesting to expand bison grazing using pasture rotation on five BLM grazing allotments and five state leases, totaling approximately 48,000 public acres. The revised application also requests a small demonstration project to further showcase the sustainability of year-long bison grazing. Approval of this project includes authorization of year-long bison grazing for a single BLM allotment and one state lease covering 12,000 public land acres in an area that has previously been approved for use by bison. This is an approximately 80% reduction in the scope of the original request.

What about fences?

American Prairie is proposing only slight modifications to interior fences to improve pasture conditions for bison. We continue to propose reconstruction of exterior fences and some interior fences to meet Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks wildlife-friendly standards. 

Why was the application revised?

The original proposal to BLM for year-long continuous grazing on 290,000 acres was based on sound science and received more than 2,000 supportive public comments. However, we recognize the growing need to resolve 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 revised proposal will help build more support while still allowing American Prairie to move forward with wildlife and bison restoration in this special part of the state.

Why expand bison grazing?

American Prairie has acquired almost 420,000 acres of land for bison and wildlife restoration. The total acreage– comprised of leased public land and American Prairie’s private lands– is enough to support at least 5,000 bison, but the herd needs access to American Prairie’s leased public lands to reach that potential population. The gradual expansion of the bison herd will enhance restoration of significant populations (many imperiled) of America's wildlife, rangelands, and riparian areas; and fuel new outdoor recreation opportunities.

How does the revised application impact American Prairie’s vision?

The previous grazing request was based upon advice by the BLM to help ensure a thorough cumulative effects analysis. The more limited scope of the revised application does not impact plans to expand our bison herd during the next ten years. In fact, the revised proposal is now more consistent with management priorities for the next decade.

What areas are impacted by the revised application?

The revised application impacts 6 BLM grazing allotments and 6 State grazing leases in Phillips County.  

Why do you need a demonstration project?

Many BLM grazing allotments are associated with a pasture rotation system. Scientists, managers, and ranchers have found that bison, when stocked at appropriate rates, do not require rotational grazing to maintain rangeland and riparian health because, in part, they cover more ground and forage at far greater distances from water than cattle. 

A demonstration project will provide a limited test area to showcase this science in an area that has already been approved for use by bison. The land health of the demonstration area would be reviewed by state and federal land managers to ensure all necessary rangeland and wildlife standards are being met. It would also be monitored by scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and open to the public and our neighbors to explore and review. 

We fully anticipate positive results. American Prairie has been conducting year-round grazing on our Sun Prairie Unit since 2014, and we have already met or exceeded BLM standards for range and riparian health. 

What does the science say about year-long continuous grazing?

Plants and animals of the mixed-grass prairie co-evolved with bison for thousands of years. The transition back to bison offers an evolutionarily-tested means to help the BLM meet and exceed the five standards for rangeland health, as stated in the BLM’s HiLine and draft Lewistown management plans. In addition, science shows that at low to moderate stocking levels, rangeland health can be maintained with year-long grazing. Due to the potential for drought in the region, American Prairie is proposing the bison stocking rates on their deeded land is calculated using the Natural Resource Conservation System (NRCS) method for low moisture years. Furthermore, all BLM permittees and State lessees (including American Prairie) are required to meet rangeland health standards regardless of the class of livestock or grazing system/season.

What gives American Prairie the right to make this request?

American Prairie holds priority grazing privileges on the BLM grazing allotments, which were acquired through the purchase of the associated base properties – properties that were purchased by American Prairie, along with State grazing leases, from willing sellers in free market transactions. American Prairie currently leases the grazing to cattle ranchers, however, it is well within their legal right and furthers their mission to request a change of livestock to bison and a change in the grazing season.

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. American Prairie bison grazing was first approved on these areas in 2005. Further, range health has been sufficiently maintained on the portions of the area that have been grazed year-long by bison since 2014.

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

This proposal has a minimal impact on ongoing economic and demographic trends. 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, 1% of the current 82,000 cattle. The annual change in the number of cattle in Phillips County has often exceeded 1% and is driven by much more significant events including market conditions, weather, and the individual choices of ranchers. The grazing receipts collected by the BLM and State for the leased AUMs would not change under the proposal. Per capita fees to the State would increase with the proposal because the annual fee for bison is almost three times per animal what it is for cattle.

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. They also meet the legal requirements for disease testing by the MT Department of Livestock, have been very responsive the few times bison 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.