Taylor Grazing Act

Central Montana Coalition investigates historic law and bison compatibility
Thursday, December 17, 2020
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“Save the Cowboy, STOP American Prairie Reserve” banners are visible across the State of Montana and in regions where the American Prairie Reserve does not own land, such as the one shown here in Judith Basin near Benchland. Photo by Melody Montgomery

Taylor Grazing Act

The American Prairie Reserve (the APR) currently runs bison on its Sun Prairie Unit. The APR had sought to add 290,000 acres for bison grazing in 2017. In 2019, the APR revised its application to request permission to graze bison seasonally on five BLM grazing allotments and five state leases, totaling approximately 48,000 public acres. This application to the BLM is pending. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Taylor Grazing Act

Using the information from the investigation into the Taylor Grazing Act, the Coalition had a legal analysis prepared. Shown here is the hardcopy, and the full document is available online at www.savethecowboy.net/report.

With an area of 1.1 million acres spanning approximately 125 miles along the Missouri River, Montana’s Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge (the CMR) is the second-largest wildlife refuge in the continental United States.

The CMR was created initially as the Fort Peck Game Range in 1936, and connects on its west end with the 377,000 acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (the Monument), which was established in 2001.

The CMR is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (the BLM). Both of these federal entities fall under the Department of the Interior.

While this public land and wildlife corridor (i.e., the Monument and CMR), has existed for decades, since the start of the 21st century the region has become the target area of a nonprofit entity.

Like the Monument that was established in 2001, also established in 2001 was the Prairie Foundation, later renamed the American Prairie Reserve (the APR). Its stated mission is “to create the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage,” as written on the APR’s website.

This mission involves gaining control of the private land surrounding existing public land.

While the APR is classified as a non-profit, the land it purchases through donors remains private land.

The APR currently holds, or has plans to hold, land in a total of seven Montana counties. These are Petroleum, Phillips, Valley, McCone, Fergus, Blaine and Garfield, as explained by the APR’s Senior External Relations Manager Beth Saboe in a conversation with the Judith Basin Press in 2019.

In order for APR to amass its goal approximately 3.5 million acres of Montana, an area approximately the size of Connecticut, the APR must purchase hundreds of Montana family ranches.

Eighty percent of the APR’s overarching goal for its land mass is already freely accessible public land belonging to the people of the United States, when taking into account the existent CMR and Monument.

Regarding the other 20 percent, to date, the APR has completed 29 land acquisitions and holds 419,000 acres of both public and private land.

Regarding the private land acquired by the APR, more than one historic Central Montana ranch has been consumed south of the Missouri River.

In 2016, the APR purchased the 50,000-acre PN Ranch in Fergus County for $21.5 million, according to the real estate company Hall and Hall. The PN Ranch is 22 miles north of Winifred. This notable ranch was among the oldest working ranches in Montana. It is located where the Judith River joins the Missouri River.

In 2017, the APR purchased the 46,000-plus-acre Two Crow Ranch in Petroleum County for $7.95 million, according to Rocky Mountain Ranch Realty. The Two Crow connects to the CMR.

After these purchases, members of Fergus and Petroleum counties became involved since the APR was now in their backyard.

“For us struggling north of the river for over a decade trying to maintain our economies while the APR purchased ranches, the energy that came from Fergus and Petroleum counties was a godsend,” said Valley County Commissioner John Fahlgren.

Banners to band together

Considering that the second-largest wildlife refuge in the continental United States already exists in the APR’s target area, several individuals have begun to question the APR’s end goal and sincerity.

To help protect and preserve agriculture and food production, a group of concerned individuals began a campaign called “Save the Cowboy” and created banners to bring awareness to the threat the APR poses to agriculture and Montana. To date, 1,189 banners have been distributed.

“The banners helped gain a lot of momentum,” said Fergus County Commissioner Ross Butcher, “but we still need to voice our concerns.”

This group, Save the Cowboy, and others, held fundraisers to raise money to investigate the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934.

“We knew we could not match the APR dollar for dollar [regarding the purchase of ranches], so we looked to the law,” said Laura Boyce, a central Montana rancher who, among many others, has assisted in fundraising for the analysis of the Taylor Grazing Act, specifically as it applies, or not, to the grazing of bison on public lands.

The Taylor Grazing Act, ratified in 1934

The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act and subsequent acts stem from eras of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression; these laws were created to stabilize the ranching and livestock industries. The Taylor Grazing Districts are mapped in the document. The document is not designed to say bison cannot graze on land managed by the BLM, but there are multiple considerations that need to be taken into account, said the organizers.

“In the Taylor Grazing Act, there are a lot of protections for grazing and food security,” said Deanna Robbins, another Central Montana rancher who helped raise funds for the document’s creation.

At its core, this legal document analyzing the Taylor Grazing Act, prepared for the Montana Natural Resources Coalition, requests the completion of a compatibility analysis demonstrating the compatibility of indigenous species (i.e., bison). The APR’s plan for managing bison must be compatible with livestock grazing and land management as specified in federal land management policy, as pointed to in the document.

The Montana Natural Resource Coalition

Regarding the APR’s leases to graze bison on public land managed by the BLM, two grazing allotments are already in place in Phillips County; there are five proposed allotments pending.

To examine the practicality of these leases, more individuals have banded together to examine historic laws governing land use and grazing, which were created through Acts of Congress.

This group is the Montana Natural Resource Coalition (the Coalition). It is composed of county commissioners, legislators, and others. The Coalition was created to participate in state and federal policy making decisions, and serve as a conduit between local, state, and federal governmental agencies.

Using the information from the investigation into the Taylor Grazing Act, the Coalition had a legal analysis prepared, Repurposing of Federally-Reserved Taylor Grazing Districts for Wildlife Rewilding: A Statutory, Administrative and Legal Analysis.

Stillwater Technical Solutions created this document. Its principal author is J.R. Carlson, and Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson P.A. conducted legal review of the document. It is available online at (www.savethecowboy.net/report)

Overall, the investigative document was created to provide a means to step back and look at the policy and processes to ensure the rules are being followed by federal land management agencies, said its organizers.

“The document offers something that empowers agricultural producers. It is to provide a well-organized reference manual,” said Boyce.

“The document came from our desire to protect our grazing and our rural, agriculturebased communities,” said Robbins. “We believe in following the rules.”

Delivering D.C. the Document

In June 2020, the document/legal review of the Taylor Grazing Act was handdelivered to Washington D.C. by the Coalition’s committee members Ross Butcher, John Fahlgren, Dan Bartel and Jim Carlson.

Butcher is a Fergus County Commissioner and president of the Coalition. Fahlgren is a Valley County Commissioner with 32 years of experience working for the BLM. Bartel is a State Representative (HD29). Jim (J.R.) Carlson is the director of Stillwater Technical Solutions, a consulting firm that specializes in land management, and the principal author of the document.

These individuals voiced slightly different reasons for standing behind the document, but overarching themes that arose from each individual conversation were protecting food security and Montana’s economy, for which Agriculture is the largest industry in the state.

As Butcher put it, “Agriculture is truly a national security issue … When you displace an acre of agriculture, you’re displacing food out of the food chain.”

Butcher understands nutrition. Up until four years ago, he and his family owned and operated a health food store in Lewistown. Additionally, his father had one of the first organic ranches in the area, years before his time, Butcher said.

In addition to nutritional sustenance, agriculture is a key to Central Montana’s economy, as discussed by Bartel.

“It would be very difficult to sustain a formidable economy if agriculture is taken out of the equation,” said Bartel.

“The Taylor Grazing Act is designed to protect livestock and multiple uses of the land, but bison are not mentioned in the Taylor Grazing Act,” said Bartel. “What the APR is proposing in its re-wilding efforts could be likened to one big experiment that undermines years of data.”

Fahlgren, who also attended the trip to D.C., said, “The first permit for bison authorized by the BLM should have required major federal action.”

Butcher, also when discussing the trip to D.C., said, “We requested meetings with the DOI, BLM, and FWS. We were unable to meet with Forest Service due to COVID-19. These were the first in-person, out-of-agency meetings these departments had taken since the start of the pandemic.”

“This approach provides a foundation – a document to study, and the DOI seemed supportive,” said Fahlgren. “Overall, the APR’s bison grazing proposal is treading water … Questions would basically have to be settled in a lawsuit.”

APR’s History of bison introduction

The APR introduced bison to their landholdings 15 years ago.

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

In 2017, the APR 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.

In 2019, the APR revised its application to be able to graze bison seasonally on five BLM grazing allotments and five state leases, totaling approximately 48,000 public acres.

This application is pending.