The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By A.J. Etherington
The Courier 

BLM District Manager Answers Questions on APR Request

 

April 25, 2018



The Bureau of Land Management North Central Montana District Manager Mark Albers, spoke to the Courier about American Prairie’s grazing. As has been reported in previous editions, the American Prairie Foundation Inc. is attempting to remove interior fencing on their BLM leased lands, fortify the external fencing with an electric wire, and they are applying to graze bison year-round.

The BLM’s role in that request began with a scoping period in which the agency is seeking input from the public on what issues, if any, should be considered in the environmental assessment (EA). Albers clarified that nothing in the scoping period would determine if the agency would conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) as was previously reported in the Courier last week. The scoping input from the public would only determine the agency's actions on the EA then the EA would determine if an EIS is conducted.

Albers clarified that the EA would have one of two outcomes: Either the agency would certify a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) and move ahead with allowing American Prairie’s request, or they would initiate the environmental impact statement. If an EIS is initiated the timing could delay the process by years as the in-depth analysis is conducted. Albers told the Courier that he would be the decision maker for whether the process warranted a FONSI or an EIS.

Albers discussed the scoping process as looking for input on, “real substantive issues,” adding that they are looking for issues such as fencing concerns and socio-economic impact concerns from the public, adding that they want the public to provide input on significant impacts that should be assessed in the EA. As Albers put it, they want the public to, “please give us things we can sink our teeth into to analyze.”

The BLM decision-making process would, therefore, go from the scoping period, to an environmental assessment, then from an EA to whether a FONSI or an EIS is conducted, and from there to a decision on the APR grazing request. Albers said the decision would be based in the findings of BLM regarding the public comments, the analysis of BLM and the judgement of the personnel involved and himself as it relates to the findings of the EA.

The District Manager also contended with the idea that it would be appropriate to go directly to an EIS in the case of large impactful actions like installing a large dam, but that in the case of APR, Albers said, “this is basically a grazing action, and we do hundreds of grazing actions a year. It’s different, it’s odd, and it involves people who are not normally a part of this process, but at the crux of that it is still a grazing proposal and grazing proposals require an EA. So, I think it would be doing everyone a disservice to jump to an EIS.”

Albers expressed concern that such an action would establish a precedent for future actions that would require an EIS for more mundane or routine grazing requests. “We’ve got to be careful of what precedents we set and what level of analysis we undertake.”

Confronted with the idea that American Prairie’s request ran contrary to land management precedents not only supported but promoted by BLM for decades Albers responded by saying, “Absolutely rotational grazing has worked really well. It brought us out of the open range days. It brought the range back in good condition, but there is a lot of new science coming out that says that’s not the only way to manage these prairies.”

Albers took on directly, concerns that American Prairie is receiving unfair treatment from BLM stating, “We’ve heard from a lot of folks that they feel we’re giving unfair treatment to APR. Well I would say to that, that any operation out there that says they want to adopt something akin to what APR is doing or some part of it, bring us a proposal. Come in, show us what your proposal is, why you think that will work and why you think it will fit into your operation and show that at the end of the day that you meet standards and guides. We’ll absolutely consider that.”

According to BLM’s website, the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act set up grazing districts for the management and regulation of rangelands. Then in the 1960s such laws as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969; the Endangered Species Act of 1973; and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 changed public management of rangeland by BLM.

BLM’s website states, “The agency began to improve the management or protection of specific rangeland resources such as riparian areas; threatened and endangered species; sensitive plant species; and cultural or historical objects. Consistent with this enhanced role, the BLM developed or modified the terms and conditions of grazing permits and leases. The agency also implemented new range improvement projects to address specific resource issues.” This is the environment in which BLM is currently assessing American Prairie’s request.

Albers stated that under current language of the Taylor Grazing Act, an applicant is no longer required to be engaged in the livestock industry, but just needs to be a corporation or individual licensed to operate in the United States and use the land for grazing livestock. Under current Montana law, APR’s bison are livestock and not wildlife and as such APR can maintain BLM grazing permits by running their bison on those properties irrespective of whether they are engaged in the livestock industry or not.

Albers refused to engage in speculation about American Prairie’s greater goal of establishing a 3.5 million acre preserve encompassing the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge and the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. He stated, “We view that as a highly speculative goal which would take a myriad of decisions and changes by many, many levels of government for anything like that to happen. What we have in front of us today is a proposal for a grazing change from cattle to bison and the intended fencing changes and so that is what we get to assess.”

Albers acknowledged points of contention in the agriculture community but clarified that BLM has nothing to hide in this. “We want this to be as open and transparent as possible,” said Albers explaining, “that is why we are doing scoping.”

In last weeks article on BLM's scoping meeting it was noted that those meetings are not generally held in response to a grazing action. Albers reaffirmed that assertion in an effort to show openess.

The BLM District Manager also took to task the idea that the assessment was tainted because it was being prepared by a third-party contractor being paid for by American Prairie by stating, “this is a common practice in other parts of BLM. For instance, in water and gas development. We ask the proposal proponent to pay for that analysis by a third-party contractor. We do that instead of tying up inordinate amounts of staff time so that we can continue to work on other projects.”

“All we can do is our very best to keep this open and get the information out there that is relevant to do our best to keep this on an even keel,” said Albers, discussing the agency's role in moving forward and conducting the EA.

The comment period for scoping is still open until May 9 (this was previously reported as May 29 in last weeks edition of the Courier). Furthermore, following BLM’s EA a second round of comments and meetings will be held specifically on the findings. Scoping comments can be emailed to blm_scoping_ncmd@blm.gov or mailed to APR Scoping Comment, BLM Malta Field Office, 47285 Highway 2, Malta, MT 59538. Comments are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, so do not provide personally identifiable information you do not want made public.

More about APR's request is in the works from the Courier.

 

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