Is the BLM neutral about bison?

Guest Opinion of Ron Poertner

Landowners in Phillips County have been rankled for some time over efforts by the American Prairie Reserve to turn millions of acres of north central Montana’s landscape into a pristine setting featuring free roaming bison and top predators once native to the area.

The rub is primarily over the Bureau of Land Management’s naïve approach in dealing with APR’s plan to create an American Serengeti in the middle of cattle country.

Everyone knows that APR can only succeed in its efforts as long as BLM continues to approve the conversion of grazing leases from cattle to bison on federal land. BLM claims it had no choice but to approve APR’s initial bison grazing request. That decision was clearly wrong and sets a precedent that landowners see as death by a thousand cuts.

Ironically, BLM evaluates APR’s requests for domestic bison grazing as a routine livestock issue, yet APR publicly markets its bison initiative as a mega wildlife reserve/tourist destination. BLM is simply unwilling to analyze APR’s effort for what it truly is.

Hey, BLM! News flash! This is not about a landowner running a few head of domestic bison on private properties and associated BLM leases. This is about a mega-million dollar effort by APR to establish a multimillion-acre reserve that, if successful, will essentially give a private entity significant influence over millions of acres of public land in north central Montana.

APR president, Sean Gerrity, wants to create a large and seamless wildlife complex of about 3.5 million acres that consists of BLM lands, a million acres of the Charles M. Russell Refuge and lots of state land sections, all coupled with 500,000 private acres owned by APR.

Now here’s the real kicker. Gerrity tells us that should bison be declared wildlife at some future date, he would be pleased to donate his bison to the public as APR would no longer have a need to own and manage them. They would be managed just like deer and elk by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Gov. Steve Bullock is apparently willing to include state lands in the mix, and he seems to be on the brink of defining bison as a native species – a declaration that would line up perfectly with APR goals.

In the interim, the state BLM director needs to revise the BLM optic in this matter and suspend action on all of APR’s grazing requests until a comprehensive management strategy is developed that addresses the full range of issues and impacts associated with what’s happening in Phillips County. We are at the 11th hour in this mess and it’s pretty obvious that BLM needs to step up and install some side boards on APR’s prairie reserve plans.

Ron Poertner, of Winifred, is secretary of Missouri River Stewards.

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