HELENA – August 26, 2022
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen today asked a federal board to overturn the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision to grant a permit change allowing bison grazing in Phillips County. The permit is a part of the American Prairie Reserve’s broader effort to expand bison grazing on the plains across northern and eastern Montana.
Attorney General Knudsen’s appeal asks the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Hearings and Appeals to overturn the decision and issue a stay until the appeal is resolved to prevent irreparable harm to the grazing allotments and surrounding communities.
“The BLM’s decision ignores the real concerns of rural communities and ranchers who rely on the land in favor of elitist attitudes of those seeking to transform Northeast Montana into a wildlife viewing shed for tourists. Agriculture is not an easy way of life, but Montana ranch families—including my own—are proud of their history and heritage that is still a part of our state today,” Attorney General Knudsen said. “As American Prairie Reserve occupies more and more land here, it pushes out ranching communities, threatens our livestock industry and will ultimately add to the instability of the world’s food supply.”
BLM’s decision violates the Taylor Grazing Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Public Rangelands Improvement Act, which all aim to improve public range lands and uplift ranching communities. Conservation bison grazing would directly undermine these legislative goals. Additionally, BLM’s process in issuing its decision ignored numerous concerns and legal deficiencies raised by commenters and violated the Administrative Procedure Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
Grazing indigenous animals like bison can be accomplished through special use grazing permits, but BLM gave APR preferential treatment through bypassing that permit process, upending its statutory scheme and prioritizing outside groups over Montana ranchers.
“Few (no) cattle ranchers raise cows for the sheer glory of the bovine form, for their symbolic connection to American history, or for their contributions to the natural environment. But that’s precisely what APR intends to do here—manage a bison herd for purely conservation, ecological and nostalgic ends. Bison aren’t livestock under federal law,” the appeal states. “Such a shift in the use of the land harms not only ranchers—who can no longer use this federal land to graze their livestock—but entire rural communities who depend on livestock operations to earn their own living.”
The BLM failed to adequately consider these economic impacts on local communities as required by law as well as the interference a large bison herd would cause surrounding cattle operations. Additionally, BLM held a single virtual meeting “in the middle of the day, in the middle of the work week, in the middle of haying season—a time and format that precluded the participation of those individuals most impacted by the proposal and most likely to offer salient feedback.”
Last September, Attorney General Knudsen held a public listening session in Malta, Montana. More than 250 Montanans came to the meeting, including many local agriculturalists who said the BLM effectively ignored and shut them out from its public comment process.
Following that, he filed formal comments with the BLM that spelled out the legal issues with the agency’s inadequate review process and with the APR’s proposal itself, which are echoed in today’s appeal.
APPEAL OF JULY 28, 2022, FINAL DECISION FOR TELEGRAPH CREEK, BOX ELDER, FLAT CREEK, WHITE ROCK COULEE, EAST DRY FORK, FRENCH COULEE AND GAREY COULEE ALLOTMENTS. AUSTIN KNUDSEN Montana Attorney General DAVID M.S. DEWHIRST Solicitor General KATHLEEN L. SMITHGALL Assistant Solicitor General MONTANA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE P.O. Box 201401 Helena, MT 59620-1401 Phone: 406-444-2026 Fax: 406-444-3549 firstname.lastname@example.org, Kathleen.email@example.com
Francie M Berg
Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog