Montana ranchers oppose creation of the largest nature reserve in US | TheFencePost.com

Montana ranchers oppose creation of the largest nature reserve in US

American Prairie Reserve wants to establish a free-ranging bison herd in central Montana by purchasing over a half million acres of land and controlling over 3 million acres of public land.

Montana cattlemen are playing defense against the American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit with a mission "to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States."

"When complete, it will protect nearly 3.5 million acres of prairie ecosystem (for comparison, Grand Teton National Park is 310,000 acres)," the group boasts in a press release.

Already covering almost 400,000 acres, APR is in northeastern Montana, near Malta, and adjacent to public lands. The organization wants to establish a free-ranging bison herd in central Montana by purchasing over a half million acres of land and controlling over 3 million acres of public land.

A proposal to modify 18 public grazing allotments in eastern Montana to allow APR bison has been under review with the Bureau of Land Management, and recently got a month extension for public comments.

While the extension comes as a relief to cattle producers in the area, the extent of the potential problems is nothing short of frustrating according to Jackie Jensen, who's family has been ranching in the area for 35 years.

"These people have absolutely no goals of maintaining fences," Jensen said.

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The fencing discussion has been all over the board, Jensen said. APR officials have discussed fencing options, including electric fences, which according to Jensen is not feasible.

"They are going to try to stop a buffalo with electricity?" Jensen questions. Plus, the rugged area the bison would be in has limited electric options, so solar would be the only option, she said.

The elk hunting in the area is prime, and bringing in any fencing opens the question of how will that impact the elk population.

"We are trying to rally up the hunters, but until an actual fence is built, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation won't get involved," Jensen said.

BISON AS WILDLIFE

Another topic of concern is APR's plans to eventually get the bison classified as wildlife, Jensen said.

"In the state of Montana, private citizens cannot own wildlife. All buffalo will become wildlife," Jensen said, sharing the history of the elk, and the once private-owned elk farms that were forced to sell or put their animals down, once elk were classified as wildlife.

"We really need the commercial buffalo people to come out against this," she said.

While future problems with the plan are on producers' minds, the way APR and BLM have gone about the process has also been frustrating, Jensen said.

The BLM held four scoping meetings this spring on the possible changes. According to BLM statements, about 400 people attended the meetings, but producers, with a stake in the plan, found the timing less than ideal with calving season, so BLM management agreed to extend the scoping period for an additional month to June 11.

The timing was only one piece of the frustration.

APR has hired a public relations firm from the East Coast, and everything, including the meetings, is scripted and controlled, according to Jensen.

"(The meetings) were not an open forum," Jensen said, adding that all comments had to be written on a note card and submitted during the meetings.

Working closely with BLM, the group is trying to avoid an environmental impact review on the 18 allotments, according to Jensen.

"Have you ever met an environmental group that didn't want an environmental impact study?" Jensen questioned.

The extension is apparently not concerning at all to APR leaders.

"We have already seen generous engagement and public support across the state for our application," Betty Holder, reserve land manage for APR, said in a statement in regard to the public comment extension. "A comment extension provides additional time for the public to request a fact-based analysis of our proposal's public benefits for wildlife, economic diversification, access and recreation."

But cattle producers are hoping the extension will allow for more comments on the issues involved with not only bison grazing, but also APR, and the fact that this change would give the group control of over 3 million acres of public land, according to Kay Van Norman, from Bozeman, Mont.

APR is 74 percent funded by four wealthy donors under the name, Friends of the American Serengeti. They've leveraged donations and a tax-free status to purchase hundreds of thousands of acres," Van Norman said.

"Now they want the BLM to change the rules on your public land so they can graze year round, tear out interior fences, and fence along the wild and scenic Missouri River. If BLM changes its rules for APR then they're actively empowering APR to bulldoze Montana families and communities."

PROTECTING THE LAND

Van Norman said that BLM rules are set to protect public lands, and bison, like cattle, are capable of doing damage by overgrazing.

"APR is here to stay but they should be required to play by the rules. APR can still drive tourism — grazing year round without interior fences on their own property all they want, while following BLM rules on public lands," she said.

After scoping comments are received and reviewed, a draft environmental assessment will be released to the public for a 30-day review. During that time the BLM will host more meetings to gather input from the public.

The BLM plans to analyze the 18 grazing allotments in one "environmental assessment" to consolidate efforts across the district and is asking the public to provide input on what needs to be analyzed. The most helpful comments are those that describe specific issues upon which the BLM should focus, the agency said.

"There are so many environmental cross overs; everyone is bending to the money," Jensen said.

Speculation that those involved with APR are working to gain control of the oil and mineral rights has also been part of the discussions, according to Jensen.

Jensen and Van Norman are hoping the public comments come pouring in.

"The public comments can come from anywhere," Jensen pointed out.

Scoping comments can be emailed to blm_mt_scoping_ncmd@blm.gov or mailed to: APR Scoping Comments, BLM Malta Field Office, 47285 Highway 2, Malta, MT 59538.

The comments should also be sent to Sen. Steve Daines at steve@daines.senate.gov and Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke, http://ryanzinke.com/

Scoping comments may be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, the BLM said. Do not include in your scoping comments personally identifiable information that you do not want to be made public, the agency said.

"A BLM rule change would hand central Montana to APR on a silver platter, with absolutely no incentive to co-exist with agriculture. Our public lands are to be preserved for the American people — not bent to the will of a special interest group. APR's agenda shouldn't be allowed to circumvent the only protections our public lands are afforded," Van Norman said.

-Eatherton is a freelance writer from Beulah, Wyo. When she's not writing, she's riding her horse or playing with her grandson. She can be reached at teatherton@msn.com.