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US to take longer look at contentious Montana bison proposal

July 13, 2021 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Federal officials will give the public more time to comment on a contentious proposal to expand bison grazing on public lands in north-central Montana, officials said.

The move comes after Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte criticized the Bureau of Land Management for holding just one virtual meeting on the proposal, which covers about 108 square miles (280 square kilometers) south of Malta.

Ranchers in the area have been resistant to plans by Bozeman-based conservation group, American Prairie Reserve, to assemble a 5,000-square-mile (13,000-square-kilometer) expanse of public and private lands that would hold at least 10,000 bison.

John Mehlhoff, area director for the Bureau of Land Management, said the open comment period would be extended through Sept. 28 because of heightened interest in the proposal.

The agency did not agree to Gianforte’s request for at least five in-person meetings in surrounding counties. It gave its preliminary approval of the proposal earlier this month and found the plan would not have a significant economic or environmental impact.

Massive herds of bison once migrated through the area but were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century.

The American Prairie Reserve has been buying up ranchland in Montana since 2004. It owns 165 square miles (430 square kilometers) of private land and holds leases on about 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of state and federal land.

In April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would consider in coming years whether to reintroduce wild bison to the million-acre (400,000-hectare) Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, located next to the private reserve. That would be at odds with Republicans in the state who want to limit where bison can roam.