The Bureau of Land Management has approved a controversial bison sanctuary to grow an additional 63,000 acres on BLM land. The decision has caused some division between a desire to protect an iconic part of the American west and worries about local economy.
The American Prairie non-profit aims to create a wildlife refuge stretching 3.2 million acres throughout the plains and prairies of Montana.
Beth Saboe, American Prairie's senior public relations manager, explains: "A lot of this land is existing public land and what we’re seeking to do is to buy private land and then connect that with existing public land to create one contiguous space or corridor for wildlife and people to enjoy."
Bison are mounting a comeback from the verge of extinction nearly a century ago when fewer than two dozen roamed the range.
American Prairie's Bison Restoration Manager Scott Heidebrink says there are now around 400,000 in production herds and 30,000 in the wild.
"These grasslands in north central and northeast Montana evolved with bison on the landscape," he said. "So the plants, the animals, everything is adapted with that grazing in mind. So to put bison back on the landscape we can return some of those natural systems and that natural grazing pattern to the landscape."
Conservationists hope the American Prairie refuge can see its wild bison herd grow by at least 20% to more than 1,000 by 2025.
While the American Prairie Reserve has received praise across Montana and the country, there are many who are not in support of the bison grazing. Tensions are high in Montana's Ag community as well as in communities surrounding the BLM land.
Ross Butcher, Fergus County commissioner and chairman of the Montana National Resource Coalition, fears the wildlife refuge will threaten the economy and culture of Ag communities throughout central and eastern Montana.
"The idea of these conservation groups having an ability to preserve this prairie in a pristine fashion better than the folks that are here," he said. "Yet the reason they chose this area is because the people that are on the land take care of it and they are good stewards of the land because they understand that if they don't have viable, productive land that they are not going to be able to stay in business."
Extended interviews with Ross Butcher and Leah LaTray:
With Montana's ranching industry already hurting from a multi-year drought, many working in all areas of the agriculture industry fear expanding the refuge will come at the expense of their livelihood.
Anna Morris, Hoven Equipment location manager based Lewistown, says the American Prairie's purchase of the historic PN ranch in Winifed was the start of their concern and later led to the "Save the Cowboy" movement.
"In 2021, under the Montana Ag statistics, gross farm income was $4.7 billion in the state of Montana. There's roughly 93 million acres and of that 58 million are in Ag production so 3.2 million taken out of Ag production is about 6%. If you take 6% of $4.7 billion out of Montana's revenue that's roughly $2.8 million a year lost," Morris said.
Fifth-generation rancher and Fergus County resident Leah LaTray says the BLM plan will hurt the local economy.
"I can fairly say every rancher spends 800-900 dollars a year for every cow that they have on the ground," LeTray said. "So if you do the math and what the prairie reserve is displacing even with the 65,000 acres that they are claiming the BLM granted them to run wild buffalo. Well, how many cows are they displacing? And you know those cows pay the community back."
Leah LaTray also fears the impact from American Prairie buying land as many ranchers rely heavily on these leased pastures.
But American Prairie plans to work alongside the surrounding communities and property owners. APR's senior public relations manager said: "We have always had an open door policy and we are seeking to be good neighbors and an additive to those local communities. We don’t see this as an us versus them."
Those who wish to appeal the Bureau of Land Management's decision have until Aug. 27 to do so.