FILE - In this April 25, 2012, file photo, a herd of bison move through land controlled by the American Prairie Reserve south of Malta, Mont. The group announced Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 that it is scaling back its request for bison grazing on public lands following strong opposition from surrounding landowners. (AP Photo/Matt Brown, File)

APNewsBreak: Group cuts bison plan for huge nature reserve

September 24, 2019 - 1:33 pm

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A conservation group trying to create the largest nature reserve in the Lower 48 U.S. states said Tuesday it was scaling back its request to expand bison grazing in Montana, following strong opposition from ranchers and Republican lawmakers.

The group's long-term goal remains unchanged: A 5,000-square-mile expanse of public and private lands with at least 10,000 bison in the north-central area of the state.

But that would happen more slowly than anticipated after the idea encountered resistance from landowners worried the reserve was displacing ranching families who have lived in the area for generations.

The American Prairie Reserve's revised application to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would allow bison to graze on about 94 square miles (243 sq. kilometers) of public lands instead of the 450 square miles (1166 sq. kilometers) originally requested.

The Bozeman-based group does not want neighboring landowners to feel "bulldozed," reserve vice president Pete Geddes told The Associated Press in advance of the public announcement.

Founded in 2001, the reserve is located along the Missouri River near the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

"We want our neighbors to feel very comfortable with our management," Geddes said. "It's fair to say we have some work to do on what we call our 'Montana reputation.'"

In addition to paring back areas where bison grazing would be allowed, the revision would allow only seasonal grazing on most of the land instead of the year-round grazing originally requested. It reduces the amount of interior fencing to be removed — to allow bison and other wildlife to roam more freely — from 300 miles to 40 miles.

The changes would allow the group to increase its herd of about 850 bison by an additional 1,000 animals, said Betty Holder, the group's land acquisition manager. That plan would remain in place for a decade before more changes are sought, according to the group's application.

"They're starting to feel the pressure," said state Rep. Dan Bartel, a Republican from Lewistown who wants the land to remain in agricultural use.

"We still have concerns about how the American Prairie Reserve is moving forward with public lands," he added.

The revised plan is subject to approval from the Bureau of Land Management. The agency has received the request and it's under review, spokesman Al Nash said.

"Our job remains the same," he said. "We'll do the appropriate environmental analysis and make a decision based on law, regulation and policy."

There is no timeline for a final decision. The original application had been pending since November 2017.

American Prairie Reserve already holds leases on the public lands in question, which also include state land overseen by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Since 2001, American Prairie has raised more than $100 million toward creating a reserve that would be larger than Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks combined.

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