American Prairie Reserve petitions for variance from Phillips bison ordinance

Thursday, October 24, 2019
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A contested case hearing, open to the public, will be held at the Malta City Hall Gym in Malta, Mont., starting on Nov. 12. The hearing is regarding a petition for variance made by the American Prairie Reserve related to disease testing, monitoring and identification of bison.
          Photo courtesy of National Park Service

From November 12 – 14 in Malta, a contested case hearing will be held over a petition for variance made by the American Prairie Reserve (APR) for two sections of a bison ordinance passed in Phillips County in 2016

This variance request is related to disease testing, monitoring and identification of bison.

Specifically, APR has requested variance from Section 7(1)(b), which requires: “All bison/buffalo must be tested and certified, by a state veterinarian to be disease free,” and from Section 7(1)(e), which requires “bison/buffalo must be branded, tattooed, tagged or otherwise identified to track its health status,” according to the Phillips Conservation District’s website.

Phillips County community members passed the Phillips Conservation District’s Bison Grazing Ordinance on June 7, 2016 (2016-1) with 79% voter approval (1,168 in favor and 315 against), according to the Phillips Conservation District’s website.

APR cites its reason for petitioning for variance to be great practical difficulties and unnecessary hardship.

Those granted intervenor status (i.e., able to intervene on the behalf of the conservation district) are the Phillips County Livestock Association and the South Phillips County Cooperative State Grazing District, according to Barbara Chilcott, an attorney for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. DNRC’s big-picture role is to provide assistance to conservation districts statewide.

The hearing will be overseen by a Board of Adjustment appointed by DNRC, as required by State statue, said Chilcott. For example, when a petition for a variance is filed, the statute requires that the DNRC Appoint a Board of Adjustment with the approval of the conservation district, she explained.

This is the first time, to Chillcott’s knowledge, the Board of Adjustment has been appointed to decide a petition.

The three-person Board of Adjustment includes Dale Krause, Jay Bodner and Dave Hinman, who were appointed by DNRC and approved by the Conservation District. The Board will serve until it reaches a final decision on the petition.

The Board has appointed Rob Stutz, Agency Legal Services Bureau, Montana Department of Justice, as hearing examiner to preside over the hearing, according to DNRC’s public notice filings.

The hearing is open to the public and set to begin at 9 a.m. Nov. 12 at the Malta City Hall Gym (39 South 2nd Street).

Implications for other counties

While each county is unique, other conservation districts have passed similar bison grazing ordinances. A total of six conservation districts have already passed bison grazing ordinances, which include McCone, Valley, Phillips, Fergus, Choteau and Carter counties, said Jennifer Anderson with the Phillips Conservation District. Petroleum County is putting an ordinance on their ballot, Anderson added.

APR either currently holds, or has plans to hold, land in a total of seven counties, which are Petroleum, Philips, Valley, McCone, Fergus, Blaine and Garfield.

To date, the APR has completed 29 land acquisitions and holds 419,291 acres of both public and private land, of which 102,244 acres are private land (24%) and 315,047 acres are public land (76%). APR’s stated mission “is to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States” through purchasing private land to stitch together a 3.2 million acre area.

Raising funds for hearing

To help with attorney fees for the upcoming hearing, volunteers held a fundraiser on Oct. 12 at the Milk River Pavilion for those intervening APR’s petition. A group of community members opposing APR’s petition voluntarily put on the fundraiser.

“It was a family event,” said coordinator Katie Brown. “Our goal was to raise $20,000, and we raised $50,000 and have more donations coming in. It was beyond our expectations.”

The volunteers planned the event in just four weeks’ time. The fundraiser featured live music, auctions, free food, and rodeo-style events.

“It was organized by a group of young people that wanted to help,” said Vicky Olson, a longtime Phillips County ag producer. “They called it the Hi-Line Heritage event. It was a roaring success. Most of the events were designed for the kids to have a good day, and they sure did.”

Brown added that many kids and teens at the event emphasized the importance of agriculture to the next generation.

History of bison introduction

APR first introduced bison to their landholdings over a decade ago. In 2005, APR imported 16 bison from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, 20 in 2006 and 22 in 2007. In 2008, APR imported 10 bison from the Nature Conservancy Kettle Grasslands Preserve in Iowa. In 2010, APR imported 93 bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, 72 in 2012 and 73 in 2014, according to APR’s website.

“With the rapid population growth of the herd, we reached the carrying capacity of the Sun Prairie region in 2015 and will be expanding the herd onto our 22,000-acre Sun Prairie North property in 2016,” APR writes on its website.

APR originally asked the Bureau of Land Management for yearlong bison grazing on 18 land allotments and 20 state leases for 290,000 acres of public land, while also asking to remove fences as part of the APR’s grazing strategy. APR’s revised application, which is pending, asks to currently be able to graze bison seasonally on five BLM grazing allotments and five state leases, totaling approximately 48,000 public acres.