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Livestock, ag groups oppose grazing changes MT at Flat Creek Allotment

Cattle and Beef Industry News
Jan 29, 2016

Hereford cattle graze on the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory near Miles City, MT.
USDA/Keith Weller

 Livestock and agricultural groups including the Montana Stockgrowers Association, R- CALF and the Montana Farm Bureau have filed written protests to a Bureau of Land Management proposal to change the land-use provision on the Flat Creek Allotment in Phillips County, MT. At issue is a change in the class of livestock from cattle to bison, removal of interior fencing and allowing bison to graze year around.

Currently the grazing permit for the allotment designates cattle as the approved species.

The American Prairie Reserve (APR), a Bozeman, MT-based wildlife group, submitted the change request. APR has been purchasing private ranch land and acquiring BLM grazing permits for several years in an effort to create a private wildlife reserve for bison. The stated mission of APR on its website is “to create and manage a prairie-based wildlife reserve that, when combined with public lands already devoted to wildlife, will protect a unique natural habitat, provide lasting economic benefits, and improve public access to and enjoyment of the prairie landscape.”

The notice of proposed change was issued in late December by BLM Field Office Manager Vinita Shea. The notice provided for a “right of protest and appeal” whereby any applicant, permittee, lease holder or other affected person could file a written protest. The protest period closed Jan. 20.

In the notice, Shea wrote, “In the absence of a protest, this proposed decision will become my final decision without further notice.”

Jonathon Moor, Public Affairs Specialist with the BLM in Lewiston, MT, told WLJ the office received 125 protests. He noted that those letters were required to state a clear reason why the proposed decision is in error so the BLM could address the protest points.

A number of state and national agricultural organizations expressed opposition when the proposal was announced in 2015, and several issued formal letters of protest to the latest proposed decision.

Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) Natural Resources Director Jay Bodner told WLJ his organization was submitting a formal protest. He noted some of the concerns included removing interior fencing to allow a common pasture that would include private and BLM land. In addition, MSGA voiced concern over bison getting out of the remaining exterior fences and infringing on private land or other BLM permittee allotments.

Montana Farm Bureau (MFB) submitted a letter to Shea noting the organization voiced opposition in April 2015 when the initial application for changes was made. MFB President Bob Hanson wrote, “Our members are very concerned with the idea of and movement toward establishing a ‘wild’ bison herd in Montana. We think this decision symbolizes the BLM’s endorsement of doing just that.”

The letter from MFB, the state’s largest agricultural organization, noted it is especially concerned with the term “indigenous” bison in indicating the class of livestock. The group said that under Montana law, bison are considered “a species in need of management,” citing Montana Code Annotated 87-1-216, and thereby is under the authority of the Department of Livestock and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“For all intents and purposes, we believe they should be classified and referred to strictly as ‘bison’ to avoid any confusion or ambiguity regarding Montana state law,” Hanson said. “Nowhere in state law are bison classified or referred to as ‘indigenous bison.’” Further, Hanson said, “It appears APR and BLM freely manipulate the term considering bison are not listed as a class or kind of livestock in the BLM Hi-Line RMP [Resource Management Plan] Appendix.”

Hanson went on to say the approval of year-round grazing to foster economic development for the community and private ranchers is wrong. “This decision does the exact opposite,” he said. “It ensures, for the foreseeable future, these allotments are merely an extension of APR’s boundaries and serves no economic benefit to any rancher or citizen of Phillips County or the State of Montana.”

R-CALF also submitted a formal protest asserting the BLM overstepped its authority saying, “R-CALF USA believes the BLM’s proposed decision is contrary to the BLM’s stated objective of promoting the improvement of rangeland ecosystems for the purpose of sustaining the western livestock industry.”

Citing information from APR’s website, R-CALF said the conservation group states its purpose is to “maintain a fully-functioning prairie-based wildlife reserve.” In its protest points, R-CALF—like MFB—says BLM regulations exclude bison from animals eligible to be included as livestock on BLM grazing permits. Only cattle, sheep, horses, burros and goats are listed as species considered livestock.

APR’s Communications and Outreach Manager, Hilary Parker, defended the organization’s request to remove interior fences on the leased land saying it is a way to accommodate the way bison graze, saying bison roam farther from their water source than cattle.

She said the changes to the Flat Creek Allotment are not a step toward freeroaming bison and the animals are managed as livestock. However, she told WLJ that doesn’t mean the group wouldn’t consider a free-roaming bison plan in the future if the state proposed one. Montana has considered establishing a free-roaming bison herd, but hasn’t taken any action. “If the state decides it wants wild bison in that area, we would consider taking the fences down and would consider allowing those bison to go under state management,” Parker said.

The bison are currently contained by exterior wildlife friendly fences. These have a bottom wire high enough above the ground to allow antelope to go under it and an electric “hot” wire across the top that is supposed to contain buffalo.

In the proposed decision notice, Shea said the rationale for her opinion in part was APR’s proven positive record on the Box Elder and Telegraph Creek Allotments which have been amended to accommodate the group’s bison. She wrote, “Removal of interior fencing will likely be a benefit to wildlife species by removing manmade barriers and reducing habitat fragmentation, especially when combined with the addition of 6,130 acres of private lands not previously part of the allotment which will be returned to rangeland habitat.”

APR shares some of the same concerns as ranchers when it comes to maintaining a healthy rangeland, according to Parker. However, the organization doesn’t believe in the Savoy rotational grazing system followed by many ranchers. She acknowledged this is one of the areas where APR and livestock producers have a different mindset. “Bison just interact with the land differently,” she said.

The conservation group has radio collar data that, according to Parker, shows the animals’ movement. In addition she said they invite people to come see the condition of the rangeland where bison graze.

The APR bison herd started with just 16 head and now includes about 620 animals. Parker said the group continues to expand its land and BLM lease holdings in anticipation of continued herd growth. The proposed decision would not change the recommended animal unit months, according to Moor, who said the permitted number is 1,247.

APR makes no apologies for being well-funded, and from small one-time gifts to large contributions it has raised in the neighborhood of $75 million. That money has helped the group complete about 23 transactions so far.

Parker said the purchases have been from willing sellers, who for a variety of reasons have decided to get out of the ranching business. She acknowledged the project is viewed as controversial by some, and noted that is because it is changing the scope of how the land is being used.

“We may be benefiting from that change, but we didn’t start the change,” Parker told WLJ. “We’re not trying to run people off or bullying in any way.” That said, she noted APR is benefiting from people not coming back to the farms and ranches in the area. “We recognize we have different uses for the land, different ideas about use of the land, but we are in no way antirancher.”

And while APR wants to be rancher-friendly, there are conflicts. Peggy Bergsagel, whose family has the Billie Lou Arnott Ranch that borders APR land south of the Flat Creek Allotment, said they have had problems with a bull buffalo “standing off” with Hereford bulls. Bergsagel said they tried to contact APR but received no response and finally called the county sheriff who shot the buffalo.

Parker said they have met with surrounding landowners and told them if bison are on private land or leases to shoot first and ask questions later. “If they feel they or their animals are being threatened, shoot.” Bergsagel, however says although shooting the animal was the result, she wasn’t aware taking that action was approved by APR.

Moor told WLJ Shea will take a hard look at the protest points, and to ensure all protests are adequately considered, there is no set time frame for a decision. He said after reviewing the protests, Shea will have three options: issue a final decision, which would be open to a public appeal period; issue a revised proposed decision, which again would be subject to protest by qualified interested parties; or a new Environmental Assessment could be prepared, which would be subject to the normal public engagement opportunities afforded under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Bodner said the protest period is an administrative process and typically, based on previous actions, agencies don’t deviate very much from their original decision, either in the protest or appeal processes. He said at that point, the individuals or groups opposed to the decision will make a decision of whether or not to take legal action. — Rae Price, WLJ Editor

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