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The verdict is in: APR grazing plan benefits public lands

by Damien Austin and Scott Heidebrink
| July 25, 2021 12:00 AM

On July 1, the Bureau of Land Management advanced American Prairie’s request to graze bison on six federal grazing allotments in Phillips County, saying the proposed action will not have a significant impact on the land.

This assessment is an important and exciting update, which further points to the numerous benefits our bison grazing plans offer. Put succinctly, the Environmental Assessment says the changes in management, “…will benefit local wildlife, improve land and water quality, and create new local jobs, all without impacting the value of the ranching economy.” If you ask us, these advantages represent the core reasons to pursue management changes like this.

American Prairie’s application includes grazing bison on five allotments with a deferred rotation system. Changes to the number of pastures and pasture configuration are included in the requested changes. This will leave approximately 38 miles of existing interior fences in place and remove 30.4 miles of existing interior fencing to improve management and to accommodate the differing grazing preferences and pattern of bison when compared to cattle.

The Bureau’s assessment states this action would positively impact a host of species and, “decrease wildlife habitat fragmentation…improve big game migration and also improve habitat for special status species, such as greater sage-grouse, that rely on large and contiguous areas of habitat to support home ranges and/or migration routes.”

Additionally, changes have been requested on the Telegraph Creek allotment. This allotment has been approved for bison grazing in the past and has had bison grazing on it for more than six years. Requested changes are for season of use, from rotational to year-round and for removal of approximately 2.5 miles of fence. This would leave approximately 5 miles of interior fences in place. It’s also important to note that American Prairie has been conducting year-round grazing on our Sun Prairie unit since 2014, and we have met or exceeded all BLM standards for range and riparian health.

The Bureau’s assessment makes it clear that the proposed action could actually improve at-risk riparian areas. The EA states that “at-risk riparian areas could experience improvement with changes in class of livestock. In contrast to cattle, which demonstrate a strong selection for riparian areas, lowlands, and water resources, bison will select higher elevations for grazing.”

Finally, there is the local economy to consider. Our proposed action will not negatively impact the ranching economy; In fact, it will bring more job opportunities to our community. The EA clearly states that “change in use from cattle to indigenous livestock under Alternative B would not impact traditional ranching and existing livelihoods within the project area because, as described above, there would be relatively limited economic changes that would occur, compared with the existing baseline economic conditions.” Additionally, “Implementation of the proposed change in use would result in a gain of the equivalent of four full-time jobs at the county level…while labor income, value added, and total output would all see increases at the county level.”

All in all, the application will help to further bison conservation, fuel new outdoor recreation and hunting opportunities, drive new visitation and tourism in the region, all while having minimal impact on traditional agriculture and diversifying the regional economy. As our neighbors and community members review the EA, please consider the report’s findings about the benefits of fence removal, the authorized seasons-of-use update and the positive economic impact to the community. American Prairie has a team of local employees that have been successfully managing bison for more than 15 years and will continue to do so under these proposed changes.

Damien Austin is the Vice President and Reserve Superintendent and Scott Heidebrink is the Senior Bison Restoration Manager for American Prairie Reserve.