Gianforte administration seeks stay of American Prairie bison grazing decision

Posted at 12:45 PM, Dec 23, 2022

HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office has filed a legal brief calling for delaying a proposal for expanded bison grazing on public land in north-central Montana, the latest step in the state’s attempt to block the plan.

The brief calls on the U.S. Department of the Interior Board of Land Appeals to put a stay on the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of American Prairie’s plan to graze bison behind fences in BLM land in Phillips County, south of Malta. It argues the department hasn’t fully addressed the state’s concerns about potential harm and the public interest.

American Prairie – a nonprofit formerly called American Prairie Reserve – proposed bison grazing on 63,065 acres. The BLM’s decision, issued in July, would allow bison on six of the seven areas the organization proposed – including two that are already approved for bison. The seventh location would remain open only to cattle. The state filed an appeal of the decision in August.

BLM leaders said their action was justified by an analysis that showed the plan wouldn’t have a significant environmental impact. They also identified some potential benefits for wildlife habitat and vegetation.

However, the state argued the decision went beyond the BLM’s authority because American Prairie’s plan was focused on conservation and wildlife management instead of livestock production. They said denying a stay would infringe on their ability to manage state trust lands, and that it’s in the public interest to delay action until the case is resolved.

American Prairie says they plan to increase their bison herd from around 800 animals to 1,000 by 2025. They say allowing bison grazing would benefit wildlife, water quality, and rangeland conditions. However, some ranchers and landowners have expressed strong opposition, saying the plan could have significant economic impacts on the livestock industry.

The organization first submitted a plan for bison grazing in 2017. They scaled it back significantly in 2019, saying they wanted to address public concerns and have more time to demonstrate how their grazing system works. They say their grazing plan is in line with federal, state and local laws, and that they've worked on a disease management agreement with Phillips County officials.