What You Need to Know - Grassroots War Against American Prairie Rages On
Formerly known as American Prairie Reserve, American Prairie (AP) originated in 2001, intending to rewild millions of contiguous acres in north-central Montana. AP is a non-profit organization. Founders and supporters envision creating an American Serengeti by restoring the area to what Lewis and Clark might have seen when they passed through in 1805. The project is centered on the reestablishment of large, free-roaming, “genetically pure” herds of bison over millions of acres.
The Success of American Prairie Depends Upon the Eradication of Family Farms and Ranches
The success of AP depends entirely upon the eradication of hundreds of family farms and ranches in the area. AP cannot “stitch together,” as they put it, the contiguous land they covet without doing so.
AP broadcasts alleged wide support for the project, but in truth, 80% of their land purchases have been funded by fewer than 10 donors—many of them foreign. In other words, AP is little more than an elaborate scheme to create a zoo-like theme park to fulfill the Wild West fantasies of the ultra-wealthy. This will take place at an immense cost to multigenerational ranching communities and potentially the western ranching industry as a whole.
Ranchers Support Wildlife and Preserving the Ecosystem
Despite the picture that environmental extremists try to paint, ranchers are not generally “anti-wildlife.” The issues that stakeholders have are very specific to AP and its mission. Their issues are stemming from very real concerns about the reestablishment of wild bison herds. Ranchers have concerns about the scale and manner in which AP wants to do it. It boils down to how AP’s plans would impact the essential industry of production agriculture.
Two of the most pressing issues are:
• Livestock health and safety
• American Prairie seeking unprecedented special treatment from the BLM regarding grazing
State of Montana and Surrounding Communities Take a Stand
AP severely overestimated the sway their big money and highly polished front would carry. They also underestimated the utter grit and tenacity of Montanans. The communities surrounding the proposed reserve are not taking AP’s plans sitting down.
Communities impacted by AP’s plans have taken action in several ways to limit them. Northern Fergus County implemented official “Negative Bison Easements.” These negative easements guarantee that involved ranches will not run bison on their lands. Over 75 family farms and ranches are participating.
Save The Cowboy
A diverse coalition of area groups have risen up to combat AP. Save The Cowboy is one such group. Over 1,100 signs posted in ranching communities surrounding the AP reserve say, “Save The Cowboy; Stop American Prairie Reserve.” These signs leave little question for passers-through about how locals feel.
Save The Cowboy’s website states:
“This area is viewed as pristine today because of 100 years of agriculture caring for it, and over 80 years of cooperation between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to improve and protect it. It is managed for multiple use under stringent standards, and is recognized as a world class hunting, fishing, and hiking area while also providing forage for production livestock that helps feed our nation and beyond. All of this was accomplished long before American Prairie Reserve ever cast their eyes upon it.”
Montana Natural Resources Commission
The Montana Natural Resources Commission (MTNRC) spearheaded a collaborative effort to compile the Repurposing of Federally Reserved Taylor Grazing Districts for Wildlife Rewilding: A Statutory, Administrative, and Legal Analysis. This analysis is a 100-plus-page report that details all of the issues with AP’s plans.
Amassing Land & Grazing Preferences
After its founding, AP gathered wealthy donors and began acquiring land in 2004. They used donor funds to purchase ranches and with them, the attached grazing preferences on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Even though American Prairie broadcasts that they only buy from “willing sellers,” locals have said that some of their methods for amassing land have been less than ethical. It needs to be noted that the issue with AP has never been what they want to do with their private property. The greater concerns are about their plans for the BLM grazing preferences attached to the land.
Currently, American Prairie consists of 117,611 acres of private lands and 334,817 acres of federal and state lands, which also encompasses the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Increasing Bison Population
The first 16 bison were brought to the reserve in 2005 and American Prairie has gradually added to their numbers. They are working toward the long-term goal of having 10,000. Today they have 813 bison spread out into three herds in the Dry Fork, White Rock, and Sun Prairie areas.
Bison Can Threaten Health of Domestic Livestock, Other Wildlife
The main concern with bison is that they carry and spread brucellosis. Brucellosis is an infectious bacterial disease that causes spontaneous abortion in cattle and can therefore be devastating for animal welfare and ranch production. Brucellosis can be transmitted between domestic wildlife and livestock. This highly contagious bacterial infection has been an issue for ranches near Yellowstone National Park.
A fact sheet from APHIS states:
“The presence of brucellosis in free-ranging bison and elk in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA), Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park and the area around those parks, threatens the brucellosis status of the surrounding States and the health of their cattle and domestic bison herds, which are free of the disease. Reintroduction of the disease into a brucellosis-free State could have a serious economic impact on domestic livestock markets and potentially affect export markets.”
A 2008 survey conducted in the Greater Yellowstone Area found 1,500 brucellosis-positive bison in a total herd of 2,100 animals. While this has been some time ago, it serves to illustrate how prolific and threatening brucellosis can be if left unmitigated.
Ranches bordering Yellowstone have had to draw blood from their cattle to test for brucellosis before selling them, adding another logistical and financial burden to ranches that might already operate on slim profit margins.
American Prairie has imported bison from certified brucellosis-free herds. However, the bison can still catch the disease from other animals and then spread it further. Ranchers normally vaccinate against brucellosis, but according to the USDA, the vaccine typically protects only 70 to 80 percent of vaccinated animals against average exposure.
“Hands Off” Management Approach
American Prairie’s website states that their bison team does “routine disease sampling of a portion of the herd” and that their health monitoring program exceeds the requirements of the Montana Livestock Department. However, their website also touts their “hands-off” management approach, and it is unclear how a disease outbreak would be handled.
Locals have said that AP’s low bison birthrate is common knowledge around the area, suggesting that overall herd health may already be a concern.
Issues Beyond Disease
The “hands-off” management plan poses a real threat to surrounding cattle producers for many reasons, not just the potential spread of disease.
Sam Fuhlendorf is a professor at Oklahoma State University and has worked across the country in both ranching and wildlife conservation issues.
He stated: “There’s nothing magically good or evil about bison. The most important decision is how many animals will be out there. If a bison can get out, it will. But the key is not making them want to get out of wherever they are.”
The realities of biology make it highly unlikely for bison to all stay where they are “supposed to.” Young bison bulls that are kicked out of the herds by senior bulls will congregate together. Unaware of property lines, these young bulls will find somewhere to go. When they move, they tear down fences and damage crops in the process. Further, carefully developed cattle breeding programs can rapidly be destroyed. Bison can be crossed with cattle; a young bison bull can easily best a domestic bull in a fight for dominance, and then potentially impregnate an entire cattle herd.
Feigned Concern for “Diminished Wildlife”
The American Prairie website states: “Although this region was once known for its abundance of wildlife, current wildlife populations are greatly diminished.” First and foremost, they are developing large herds of grazing animals that will compete directly with existing wildlife for forage and water resources.
In addition, American Prairie has expressed support for large carnivores “naturally recolonizing” the region to help maintain what they refer to as a “natural balance.” The website states, “American Prairie is still missing two top grassland predators: wolves and grizzly bears. These species naturally prey on bison and in doing so help keep bison populations in balance with other native ungulates and within the capacity of the landscape’s available forage.”
This statement does not align with well-known wildlife management concepts. According to the National Park Service, “Wolves and grizzly bears can kill adult bison, but predation has little effect on the bison population. Bison usually face their attackers and defend themselves as a group, making them more difficult to kill than animals like elk that run away. The size of bison also plays a role in persuading predators to look for an easier meal.”
Realistically, the large carnivores that American Prairie wants to reestablish would very likely pass up bison for animals like deer, antelope, elk, and bighorn sheep—and ranchers’ livestock—at every opportunity.
Their intentions for the reserve don’t bode well for the overall wildlife population.
Montana Attorney General Weighs in on Special Treatment from BLM
Aside from concerns about the health and safety of livestock, the biggest problem with American Prairie is their push for unprecedented special treatment from the BLM regarding grazing allotments. AP requested that the BLM officially change the type of livestock allowed on six BLM grazing allotments from cattle to bison.
The BLM does not officially recognize bison as livestock, but the state of Montana does. Essentially, AP wants to blur the lines of respective animal classifications, enjoy the benefits of bison as livestock, and yet manage them as wildlife.
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen wrote in a letter:
“Now they’ve conjured a new classification – indigenous livestock – and insist that bison fit inside,” Knudsen said. “The law requires more than clever linguistic re-jiggering. APR doubtlessly paid a lot for the legal brain that suggested, ‘We only need to stop calling bison non-livestock and call them indigenous livestock.’”
AP’s sly semantic shell game doesn’t stop there. The bison population management plan includes opportunities for people to hunt bison, just as other species of wildlife are routinely hunted. However, the website states: “Because bison are classified as livestock in Montana and confined to large fenced areas on American Prairie’s deeded lands, we refer to these public opportunities as harvests rather than hunts.”
In addition to their requested animal categorization favors, for the bison to roam freely, American Prairie wants to remove the divide fences that facilitate proven rest and rotation grazing practices, and instead allow the bison to roam and graze year-round.
Rewilding Is Not Part of the Taylor Grazing Act
The issue goes far beyond the type of animals grazing BLM-managed land and the semantics of their categorizations. The economies of many western communities have been built upon ranchers grazing livestock on federally managed lands, as part of production agriculture. AP maintains that tourism dollars would make up for any loss of agricultural revenue, but that is highly unlikely. The gross value of agriculture in Phillips County alone neared $78 million in 2017.
Chuck Denowh is the policy director of United Property Owners of Montana.
In an opinion piece for the Billings Gazette, he wrote:
“The problem with American Prairie’s proposal is that “rewilding” is not a legal use of BLM land. BLM (originally the National Grazing Service) was created in 1934 under the Taylor Grazing Act, which reserved unclaimed public lands for agricultural production. BLM land is intended to benefit the public by ensuring an adequate and affordable food supply for the country.
If American Prairie is successful in removing their allotments from agricultural production to use them for rewilding and eco-tourism, a new precedent will be set that affects all BLM grazing land. We’ll see a rush by deep-pocketed (and taxpayer-subsidized) nonprofits to buy up ranch land in the West to take over BLM allotments to remove them from ag production. AMERICAN PRAIRIE is the test case that many environmentalists are watching closely.”
Attorney Karen Budd-Falen represents Montana’s South and North Phillips County State Cooperative Grazing District. She said, “I think the livestock industry really needs to watch this. I am a big private property rights supporter so if you want to sell your private land to whoever you want to sell it to, I think that’s great. But I think that BLM lands were set aside for grazing use and for stabilization of these rural communities, and I think this position is outside that realm. If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere else.”
BLM Issues Proposed Decision in Favor of American Prairie
In late March 2022, despite numerous objections from stakeholders and interested parties (including the state of Montana’s departments of Natural Resources and Conservation, Agriculture, and Livestock), the Bureau of Land Management issued a proposed decision authorizing a change of use on its federal grazing permits from cattle to bison. With the proposed decision, the BLM released an environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact (FONSI).
The proposed decision involves seven allotments over 63,065 acres of BLM administered lands, with a total of 7,969 animal units. Animal unit months (AUMs) are used to measure grazing use. For example, 100 allowed AUMs in an area could be 100 animals for 1 month or 50 animals for 2 months.
Seasonal grazing would be permitted on four of the allotments. Year-round grazing would be permitted on three allotments; this is something that has never even been remotely considered for cattle or sheep.
The Fight is Far from Over
The issue of the proposed decision initiated a 15-day protest period, after which the BLM is mandated to issue a final decision, which initiates the appeals process that takes place in the courts.
Many feel that the BLM failed to consider the broader effects. Montana Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President, Jay Bodner, said, "This Environmental Assessment (EA) really doesn't touch on the economics or the socio-economic impacts that at bison have on the landscape. We really do see that as a real deficiency in this document.”
Ross Butcher, Fergus County Commissioner and president of the MTNRC, expressed that, among a multitude of other issues, the BLM had not satisfied the requirement for compatibility analysis—a study of how a proposed management plan fits in with an area’s established uses.
A Matter of National Security
On the Lane Nordlund podcast, Butcher emphasized the importance of food production in the region, stating, “Food security is national security. There may be fewer people growing more food, but it’s testament to the skill set and the ingenuity of the folks that live out here. We produce food and fiber out here—that’s what we do.”
The passion and dedication Montanans have for helping feed the nation is obvious, and it truly benefits every one of us.
Good Neighbors? Not So Much
The AP puts on a great show of being good neighbors, proclaiming that 13,000 cattle graze on AP-held BLM allotments. While this paints AP in the light of being cooperative and just another part of the ranching community, the truth is that they are subleasing their grazing out mainly because those preferences are “use it or lose it.” BLM rules stipulate that non-use of an allotment for three years would result in the loss of those grazing preferences.
Subleasing the grazing for 13,000 head would generate a substantial amount of money. Even at the low estimate of $25 per AUM, 13,000 head multiplied by $25, for the usual grazing season of six months, is nearly $2 million per year.
It has been pointed out that since they are a non-profit organization, AP does not pay income taxes on pasture rentals. Interestingly, the most recent publicly available 990 forms do not seem to include income that corresponds to the amount that would be generated by subleasing grazing for 13,000 animals.
If the tax base of these areas is allowed to be undermined by romantic environmentalist zealotry, currently thriving rural communities will wither away and die, as will an important branch of our nation’s food supply. Make no mistake—it’s all part of the overall long-term rewilding agenda.
More Information About American Prairie HERE
Read About The Practice of Grazing Federally Managed Lands in the West HERE
Information Provided by Save The CowboyHERE
Listen to Podcast with Montana Natural Resource Coalition President and Fergus County Commissioner, Ross Butcher HERE
Full Repurposing Report HERE
Learn About Fergus Count's Negative Bison Easements HERE