Bison Will Graze on 63,500 Acres of Federal Land in Montana

Supporters say it will benefit land and wildlife while creating jobs.

Brown bison in green grass
Exploder1 / Getty Images

There’s a lot more room for the bison to roam.

After four years of federal consideration, bison will be permitted to graze on 63,500 acres of federal public lands in Montana.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted the grazing request by American Prairie, a nonprofit focused on creating the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States.

Until now, American Prairie had acquired more than 450,000 acres of land for bison and wildlife restoration. The group estimates that the new grazing rights will increase the bison herd from approximately 800 to 1,000 animals by 2025.

“Those acres are comprised of our private (deeded) land holdings, but the majority is leased public lands which were acquired in the purchase of the private land,” Beth Saboe, senior public relations manager for American Prairie, tells Treehugger.

“In order to successfully grow the size of our bison herd, they need access to those public lands where we hold grazing privileges.”

The grazing privileges were linked with cattle, so the group had to ask the BLM to modify the terms of the agreement to include bison. If the federal organization finds that the health of the land will be maintained, they typically grant the permit, Saboe says. Through history, the BLM has granted grazing privileges to bison more than 40 times in the western U.S.

American Prairie bison have been grazing on public lands for more than a decade.

“And, on the public lands where they are grazing, we are meeting and even exceeding federal rangeland and riparian requirements,” Saboe says. “So now, we are looking to expand what we have already successfully been doing for the past decade.”

The decision permits American Prairie to graze bison in fences on six BLM allotments in Phillips County, Montana, where the group has grazing leases. One common allotment that is grazed with another livestock operator would remain for cattle-only grazing.

The agreement authorizes the group to remove about 30 miles of interior fencing to allow better wildlife movement and accommodate the bison far-ranging grazing patterns.

Slow Recovery From Brink of Extinction

Although sometimes colloquially called buffalo, wild American bison are found only in North America. The continent’s largest land mammal was almost driven to extinction because of hunting and habitat loss.

There were an estimated 30 to 60 million bison until the late 1800s, when numbers dropped to fewer than 1,000. Because of conservation efforts, the population is now stable and the species is listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. About 31,000 bison live in herds throughout North America and another 400,000 or so are raised on ranches as livestock.

Bison are considered “ecologically extinct,” meaning the population is so low that the animal doesn’t play a critical role in the prairie ecosystem.

“The bison’s recovery has been slow and is far from complete. Moreover, most conservation herds are very small, numbering in the dozens to a few hundred, and are confined to small, fenced-in areas,” Saboe says.

“These conditions threaten the genetic health of bison and greatly hinder their ability to roam widely and display natural behaviors. This combination of genetic, ecological and behavioral concerns makes bison restoration a high priority for wildlife conservation in North America.”

Ranchers Disagree

Not everyone thinks bison restoration on federal lands is a great idea. The Montana Stockgrowers Association has appealed the decision.

“To say we are disappointed with the final decision would be an understatement. Ranchers have worked diligently for over a century caring for the public land livestock graze,” Jim Steinbeisser, MSGA president, said in a statement. “Ranchers are held to the highest standards by federal land agencies in the areas of range management, range monitoring, range improvements, and processes within the BLM’s grazing regulations, yet when concerns were raised regarding these areas in comments and protests, BLM did not acknowledge these concerns.”

Montana governor Greg Gianforte tweeted: “As we review BLM's bison grazing decision, we share Montanans' frustration with the agency's woeful and repeated failures to properly engage Montanans and act within the bounds of its authority on this issue.”

A 2021 analysis by the BLM concluded that the bison grazing wouldn’t have a substantial effect on the land or the local reaching economy. The analysis predicts that the decision would benefit wildlife, create new jobs, and improve land and water quality.

“After four years of comprehensive analysis and public comment, we are extremely pleased the BLM has approved this grazing application,” said American Prairie CEO Alison Fox in a statement. “This decision is grounded in sound science, complies with all local, state, and federal laws, and recognizes the important ways bison grazing has and will continue to improve rangeland health.”

View Article Sources
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  2. "Our Mission & Values." American Prairie.

  3. Beth Saboe, senior public relations manager for American Prairie

  4. "American Prairie Receives Final Approval for Bison Grazing Plan." American Prairie.

  5. "Frequently Asked Questions: Bison." National Park Service.

  6. "Where the Buffalo Roamed." National Park Service.

  7. "Extinction (Ecological)." Science Direct.

  8. "MSGA Files Appeal on BLM’s Final Decision Regarding APR Grazing Allotments." Montana Stockgrowers Association.

  9. "Take Action." Montana Stockgrowers Association.

  10. "American Prairie Reserve Bison Change of Use." U.S. Department of the Interior.