The Bureau of Land Management has approved a request from the American Prairie Reserve to change a grazing permit on the 13,000-acre Flat Creek allotment to allow bison to graze on federal land year round.
Recently, the Montana Association of State Grazing Districts, Montana Public Lands Council, Montana Stock Growers Association , National Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, formally protested the decision. The organizations filed a protest to the BLM on the decision based on the agency’s failure to meet standards identified in the current land use plan including not completing baseline assessments, erring in their assumption of the AUM’s attributed to public lands, and acknowledgement that resource damage may occur due to this decision. The protest period closed on January 20th and BLM has not indicated when a response to the protests will be released.
Information from the Montana Stock Growers Association
Below is the Protest letter language as submitted – What do you think of this?
Dear Ms. Shea:
On behalf of the Montana Association of State Grazing Districts (MASGD), Montana Public Lands Council (MPLC), Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA), National Public Lands Council (PLC) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), I am writing to formally protest the recent decision on the Flat Creek Allotment. I am basing our protest based on the following sections:
Chapter 2, Section Conformance with Land Use Plan
BLM states “public lands in the project area are managed according to decision in the HiLine Resource Management Plan.” Under Section 3.2.19 Vegetation-Riparian and Wetland, it is stated that “Grazing techniques and practices will be implemented to reduce hot season (summer) grazing on riparian and meadow complexes within Greater Sage-Grouse Priority Habitat Management Areas (PHMA).” Our organizations fail to see how the proposed decision to allow year-round grazing and removal of interior fencing will conform to the current land use plan. In Section 3.2.24 Wildlife, it is stated, “Fences identified as potential barriers to wildlife movement or representing significant hazards for wildlife on BLM land will be inventoried. Fences will be prioritized for replacement or modification to maintain resource values including wildlife movements.” We request information regarding this inventory, including its completion and where it is available for review? In our view, an inventory, does not constitute a simple approximate 14.5 miles of interior fence, which is referenced in Chapter 4. If this comprehensive inventory that identifies potential barriers to wildlife has not been completed, this decision would not conform to the current land use plan. Currently, the American Prairie Reserve (APR) reports on their website the success of wildlife friendly fences are already in existence. They state “Using remote camera traps to take photographs and record 30-second videos, WWF biologists monitored wildlife passage under or over bison fencing on American Prairie Reserve to ensure that the fences do not inhibit the movements of other animals.”
Chapter 3, Section Relevant Past and Ongoing Actions
It is stated the allotment was reassessed in 2014, but that no final report or determination has been completed. In our view, it would seem questionable that BLM would finalize a decision that significantly differs from prior allotment management plans, without completing baseline assessments.
Section Resource Issue: Vegetation Rangelands
There is discussion regarding the private lands that will be included as part of this allotment decision. It states that “All of these lands are being returned to grass production if not already in it (See Table 2).” This statement shows that BLM does not have accurate records on this conversion of these cropped lands being converted to grass production. Without these accurate records, our organizations question the accuracy of the AUM’s attributed to the private land acres in Table 2. If these lands have not been converted to grass or if there have been recent reseeding to grass, the estimated forage production values will be much higher than the actual forage production. We also feel BLM has erred in their assumption that only 27% of the AUM’s are attributed to public lands, when these lands constitute 61% of the allotment acres.
Section Resource Issue: Big Game Migration and Winter Range, BLM Sensitive Species, and Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat
It is recognized this allotment is within the Sagebrush Focal Area (SFA) and the Greater Sage Grouse Priority Habitat Management Area (PHMA). While grazing is certainly compatible and beneficial to sage grouse, it is important to implement decisions based on sound management principles. BLM has typically supported, encouraged and in most cases required, grazing systems that allow for control of domestic livestock in a form of rest rotation systems. These time-controlled grazing practices tend toward increased herbaceous cover on rangelands, which is beneficial to wildlife and the resource itself. Now, it appears as though BLM is making a significant policy change questioning if grazing systems are even necessary, as stated in Chapter 4. Our organizations request BLM to clarify if all grazing allotments will now be based solely on stocking rates or if this grazing allotment will be treated differently and utilize different criteria.
Chapter 4, Section, How would the proposed action and the alternatives affect Water, Wetlands, and Riparian Resources
It states, “Compared to domestic cattle, bison wander more, will use steeper terrain, select and consume drier, rougher forage, and spend less time in riparian areas and wetlands.” This statement must include a reference to a scientific document or be removed. Without a reference, this is simply a subjective claim. Under the Cumulative Effects section, it states, “In conformance with Land Use Plans, grazing techniques and practices will be implemented to reduce hot season grazing on riparian and meadow complexes within Greater Sage-Grouse PHMAs.” BLM has failed to show how the Flat Creek Allotment decision meets the conformance standards under the Land Use Plan on riparian and meadow complexes.
Section, How would the proposed action and the alternatives affect greater sage-grouse habitat? Alternative B – Proposed Action
In the decision, it states “However, conversion to year-round grazing by bison throughout the allotment may impact the desired conditions for sage-grouse habitat (Table 3) if the allotment is not adequately monitored and swift actions are not taken to address deficiencies.” BLM has not adequately identified how it will meet this requirement, due to much of the infrastructure being removed from the allotment. It also states, “Year-round grazing may lead to increased shoreline and riparian trampling where bison tend to concentrate.” The acknowledgement that resource damage may occur due to this decision, once again deviates from past BLM grazing decisions. Once again, this must be a new BLM policy shift that will allow grazing permits to be approved, even if riparian standards are not met.
Chapter 4, Cumulative Effects – Past, Present, and Reasonably Foreseeable Actions
Lastly, this decision states “The mission of the American Prairie Reserve is to ‘create and manage a prairie-based wildlife reserve that, when combined with public lands already devoted to wildlife, will protect a unique natural habitat, provide lasting economic benefits and improve public access to and enjoyment of the prairie landscape’.” With the inclusion of the APR’s mission statement as an organization devoted to wildlife, BLM has not fully analyzed if the approval of this permit request meets the requirements under the federal statutes that authorize and administer the grazing program. According to the Taylor Grazing Act’s (TGA) legislative history, “the whole purpose of the TGA was to conserve the public range in aid of the livestock industry.” Secretary Ickes said, “We wanted to protect the range in the interest of the stock industry.” This was reiterated by the Tenth Circuit when it came to a similar conclusion in Chournos v. United States, stating, “The purpose of the Taylor Grazing Act is to stabilize the livestock industry and to permit the use of the public range according to the needs and the qualifications of the livestock operators with base holdings.” The Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976, and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA) in 1978, also confirm that grazing permits are intended for grazing purposes only. Both those statutes define “grazing permit and lease” as “any document authorizing use of public lands … for the purpose of grazing domestic livestock.” BLM needs to more fully evaluate, if this decision meets the about mentioned federal statutes and include the documentation by which it is based.
In conclusion, the livestock organizations would like to thank the BLM for the opportunity to submit these comments as a protest to the Flat Creek Allotment decision. Many of the requested changes in this grazing allotment have raised a number of resource concerns that we feel have not been fully vetted and analyzed by your agency. Due to these concerns, we request that BLM deny these requests for the proposed changes to the Flat Creek Allotment.
Montana Association of State Grazing Districts
Montana Public Lands Council
Montana Stockgrowers Association
National Public Lands Council
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
Contact: MASGD, 420 N. California St, Helena, MT 59601