'Save the Cowboy, STOP American Prairie Reserve'

Ag producers give many reasons for displaying banners
Thursday, September 19, 2019
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A pair of horses on Lewistown’s Main Street helped spread a message of support for cowboys and opposition to the American Prairie Reserve during the Living With Wildlife Conference last winter, for which the APR was a co-sponsor.

Photo courtesy of Danica Rutten

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Save the Cowboy organizers offered a playful pun during last-year’s Montana Bale Trail (‘What the Hay’), which celebr-hay-tes hay. Photo by Melody Montgomery

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“Save the Cowboy, STOP American Prairie Reserve” (APR) banners have been showing up across the state, as shown her near Grass Range in Central Montana. To date, 1,079 banners have been distributed.

          Photo by Jacques Rutten

Since summer 2018, banners stating “Save the Cowboy, STOP American Prairie Reserve” have been showing up across the state and are clearly visible in Central Montana. In some places, it seems there are signs every couple miles along a given stretch of highway. Altogether, 1,079 banners have been distributed to date, with more requests coming in, said the organizers.

“The banners are all over the state. I even have a request from a gal in Wisconsin,” said Deanna Robbins, a rancher in Roy and one of the architects behind the Save the Cowboy Banner, along with group of other ranch women.

“The best thing that happened from the banners is that people started asking questions. Before this, the APR was just cruising, and the banners kind of put a stop to that,” said Robbins. “The goal behind the banners is to tell people, don’t be fooled.”

Robbins is a co-founder of the United Property Owners of Montana, a property rights advocacy group. She has partnered with agricultural producers in APR’s target region to call attention to the threat APR poses to the agricultural industry, she said.

APR’s overall goal is to stitch together over 3 million acres of private and public lands, according to APR’s Senior External Relations Manager Beth Saboe. At the present, the APR has completed 29 land acquisitions and holds 419,000 acres of both public and private land.

In response to being asked about the banners, Saboe said, “Certainly we have seen the banners. They’re in the project area and near the reserve. It seems misguided, but that is their First Amendment right. I think the APR has been an easy scapegoat. Most APR land has not been taken out of cattle production to date and is leased to cattle ranchers. We’ve helped several young cattle ranchers get a start in the business thorough these leases and have helped others stay in business.”

Robbins and others may not see it this way, especially when it comes to the APR’s request to change Federal grazing leases from cattle to bison.

In a different context, while discussing the APR in general, Robbins said, “We feel the APR is not being honest. The facts are on our side, and it’s just a matter of getting them out there,” said Robbins. “What APR really wants is a takeover of Federal land and control of how it’s managed.”

Public Land key to APR

Saboe said 20 percent of the land in APR’s anticipated roughly 3-million-plus acre area will be privately owned by the APR, and the remaining approximately 80 percent will stay public land. She added that 86 percent of the land in the seven counties with APR’s presence will not be owned by APR. These seven counties are Petroleum, Philips, Valley, McCone, Fergus, Blaine and Garfield.

APR’s anticipated private ownership of 20 percent of 3.2 million acres calculates to 640,000 acres. To put this in one perspective, the average-sized farm/ranch in Fergus County is 2,589 acres, according the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2017 Census of Agriculture. Based on Fergus County’s average ranch size, 640,000 acres of private land, not counting BLM leases, would total 247 ranches, using basic math to give an idea of the land mass.

The average-sized farm/ ranch in Garfield County is 8,519 acres, for Petroleum County it is 5,698 acres, for Phillips County it is 4,352 acres, for Blaine is its 4,155 acres, for McCone it is 3,065 acres and for Valley it is 2,926 acres, according to the USDA. Together, the average ranch in these seven counties would calculate to 4,472 acres. By the same math as above, 640,000 acres would total an average of 143 ranches across these seven counties.

As APR purchases ranches, they can also purchase the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leases on public land attached to them.

“APR wants the rules changed to year-round grazing for their bison, rather than seasonal. The private land they own is a pretty small piece in proportion,” said Robbins. “They want to buy as little land as they can and control the Federal Land.”

Concern over bison

Glenna Gillett of Winnett said she displays a Save the Cowboy banner because, in addition to removing families, income to communities and children from schools, APR’s mission introduces a clear threat to cattle.

“Our concern is the bison and the effect brucellosis can have on cattle,” said Gillett. “This disease is spread when bison comingle with cattle and causes cows to abort their calves, which has detrimental effects on our annual income, which is based on our calf crop.”

According to the USDA, brucellosis was first recognized as a human disease on the Island of Malta, which is off the toe of the foot of Italy. By odd coincidence, a significant portion of the APR’s land holdings is near a very different Malta (Malta, Montana), thousands of miles away and across the Atlantic Ocean. Brucellosis is known to cause contagious abortion in cattle and undulant fever in humans, meaning the temperature rises and falls like a wave.

Gladys Walling of Winifred said she displays the banner to make people aware of the threat by the American Prairie Reserve to the cowboy, which is representative of agriculture in Montana.

“Agriculture is Montana’s number one industry,” said Walling. “To me, the banner means the opposition of many Montanans to the APR’s plan for a 3.5-million-acre ‘American Serengeti,’ and the huge threat of a herd of 10,000 bison to the surrounding area ... When my husband and I purchased land with allotments on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, we worked with the BLM in managing those allotments.In a dry year, we limited the number of cattle and moved our cattle out earlier … The APR is requesting that the BLM allow them to graze bison year around and remove interior fencing on their Federal allotments connected to their private property. My hope is that the BLM will continue leasing with good management of these allotments and deny the APR’s request.”

Dee Boyce, who ranches between Lewistown and Grass Range, also displays a Save the Cowboy banner. It is his hope that the banners will help people realize the damage that this APR can do, he said.

“I want the people in Lewistown and anywhere else to stop and think how they’re going to replace production agriculture as we know it. Agriculture is an important thing to this community and to me as a producer. For these people to introduce or want to introduce free-roaming bison would basically put every rancher within reach of them out of business,” said Boyce.

According to Saboe, one of the APR’s units, the Sun Prairie Unit, has BLM approval for bison grazing, which was approved over a decade ago, Saboe said. APR has requested approval for bison grazing on additional 18 properties, which is pending. Saboe foresees this will be a decades-long project.

Boyce said, “They say they can control bison but nobody ever has, so how are they going to keep them out of my hay fields and grain fields? Free-roaming bison are basically illegal, and the APR wants it changed so that they do not have to comply with the same rules.... These grazing permits have been developed with the conservation practices that go along with them for 50 years, and they want to tear that all down. When they’ve run the ranchers out, who is going to sustain the town?”

A sign of solidarity

The banners stretch all the way to the North Dakota border, with some even being displayed in Western Montana, said Robbins. They are available online or by phone (see end of article for information). The group requests a small donation to cover costs. Bumper stickers are also available, for which 570 have been distributed to date, Robbins said.

“We aren’t making any money on the banners. We are selling them for cost. The demand has kept up,” said Robbins. “Any money we are raising right now will be used for investigating the Taylor Grazing Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.”

Robbins explained that this relates to the APR’s request to change grazing rules on Federal land to year-round grazing for bison and being able to take down interior fences. Agricultural producers like ranchers, on the other hand, abide by the BLM’s existing rules of seasonal grazing and pasture management, she said.

Importantly, the signs serve to show solidarity and express the human element, which is largely lacking in the narrative that APR tells the public, Robbins said.

“We watched a video narrated by Tom Selek several years ago, and most people watching it would have believed that nobody was really here. The video never shows a ranch. It rarely shows a person, and totally ignores that there are families on the land with lives and communities that support and depend on them,” said Robbins.

Roger Siroky, a rancher out of Roy, near Bohemian Corner, also displays a banner on his property. He does so to raise awareness.

“I think a lot of people were uninformed even a few months ago. The signs help to raise awareness. These signs are one way to say, Wait a minute,” said Siroky.

“I am pleasantly surprised when I’ll be somewhere and see a sign where I don’t expect one. They provide a sense of unity and voice,” Siroky added.

Siroky is very doubtful regarding the APR’s statements that tourism will flourish due to the reserve. He foresees just the opposite effect - towns drying up without agriculture to sustain them.

“All these businesses, ranches and farms, they all complement each other so you have a vibrant community, with all the various businesses and services that serve that community. It is total fallacy how the APR is going to have all the tourism. It’s going to destroy the economic vitality and financial workings of the whole area. As people leave, there are less people. This business shuts down, and then that business shuts down until you have a few people left as an island without the infrastructure remaining to serve a producing community, and it simply goes down hill. It gets to be a domino effect,” said Siroky.

A long road ahead

As a non-profit, APR accepts donations, and donors can claim tax deductions. To date, APR has raised around $150 million, Saboe said.

Several contend that this gives APR an unfair advantage when ranches come up for sale. But Saboe said APR does not overpay for its purchases.

“We do not pay outrageous prices for properties. That is absolutely not true. We pay the appraisal value and have walked away from bidding wars,” she said.

Agricultural producers may not see it this way.

“There are a lot of kids who want to come home and ranch. We see the land around here priced really high for the recreational value, and Ag won’t pay for it. Not everybody has enough money set aside to sell at a lower price,” said Robbins “Making a go in ranching is challenging, and the APR’s ability to raise funds and receive grants makes it all the harder for ranchers to compete for land.”

“Having the traditional use of the Federal grazing districts is a large part of many of these operations out here, and it certainly plays a role in growing protein for a hungry world,” Robbins added.

With respect to feeding a hungry world, there is genuine concern. By the year 2050, the world population is estimated to increase by over 35 percent and total 9 billion people; the Earth will need to feed 2 billion more people. To feed this population, food production will need to double, according to National Geographic.

“If we were paid in correlation for our efforts in Ag, APR wouldn’t stand a chance,” said Robbins. “If APR succeeds in bringing in free-roaming bison, grizzly bears and wolves, it will create a real strain on our ability to run a profitable farm or ranch,” said Robbins.

While concerns are clear, many have donated to the APR and post positive comments regarding their agenda. Robbins understands the appeal to outside investors, but she’s not buying.

“It’s such a marketable pitch - this big American Serengeti,” said Robbins. “They don’t have to stick to the truth much, and people fall for it,” Robbins said.

“Agricultural producers have protected this land. It is pristine due to 100 years of agriculture caring for it,” Robbins added.

To get a “Save the Cowboy. Stop American Prairie Reserve” sign, you may contact Deanna Robbins (406-464-2281), Laura Boyce (406-462-5691), or Coke Knox (406-462-5668), or email info@upom.org.

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