Officials back bison grazing plan for Montana reserve

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Federal officials have given preliminary approval to a conservation group’s contentious proposal to expand bison grazing on public lands in north-central Montana.

The Bureau of Land Management said there would be no significant environmental impacts from the proposal covering about 108 square miles (280 square kilometers) south of Malta.

That sets the stage for possible final approval of the American Prairie Reserve’s plan following a two-month comment period that began July 1.

The Bozeman-based group in 2019 had scaled back its original request to graze bison across more than 450 square miles (1,165 square kilometers) following opposition from ranchers who worry about being pushed out of the area.

The group’s long-term goal remains unchanged: A 5,000-square-mile (12,950-sq. kilometer) expanse of public and private lands with at least 10,000 bison.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte criticized federal officials for scheduling a single virtual meeting, on July 21, before a final decision could be made.

The meeting coincides with harvest season and as ranchers are dealing with severe drought, Gianforte said. He called for hold in-person meetings in each of the affected counties — Phillips, Choteau, Fergus, Petroleum and Valley.

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