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Bison are a source of continuing controversy with many Montana ranchers opposing their presence in the state.

The disdain for the American Prairie Reserve’s wooly-minded plan to put free-roaming bison back on the prairie continues to grow among rural Montanans who also find it incredible that a nonprofit organization is allowed to pursue its land-gobbling agenda with seemingly no objections from state or federal officials.

It is fair to say there’s going to be problems when an organization steam rolls into rural Montana communities with claims of a higher calling to displace farming and ranching with a 3- to 4-million-acre nature zoo. Only those who view things at 30,000 feet would sign up for such an outrageous plan.

Because area landowners and local officials expect little outside help in this matter, they have developed measures that address APR’s aspiration to establish a multi-million acre American Serengeti in central Montana.

To date, 133 landowners in north Fergus County have signed negative bison easements that preclude placing bison on their deeded properties for a period of 20 years regardless of future ownership. In addition, four conservation districts in central Montana have developed voter-approved bison ordinances that regulate the raising of bison as wildlife or as domestic livestock.

APR’s bison restoration effort hinges on the BLM’s willingness to convert grazing leases on federal land from cattle to bison — and there’s the rub. The BLM views bison grazing as a routine livestock matter and refuses to consider in its analysis APR’s clearly stated goal of establishing a huge wildlife reserve in the middle of cattle country.

A pivotal decision impacting APR’s future will soon be made by BLM and centers on APR’s request to convert 18 federal grazing leases from cattle to bison. The BLM will be examining APR’s bison grazing requests under an environmental assessment and area landowners will undoubtedly weigh in on that process once it begins.

BLM needs to carefully examine the advisability of enabling APR to create a privately operated game preserve on millions of acres of public land – land upon which other members of the public just might have opposing views on such a dedicated use.

For the time being, however, APR continues to spin its agenda with slick website pufferies that promise great hunting opportunities, a flourishing tourism industry and a big economic boost to the region. Whether catering to seasonal tourism by high rollers and the affluent proves to be a viable substitute for an established, multi-million dollar agriculture-based economy is unlikely.

One thing is certain: Rural landowners remain adamant in their belief that the days of free-roaming buffalo herds in Montana are over. Any plan that runs contrary to that precept is wrong-headed if not delusional.

Ron Poertner is retired from the military and lives in Winifred. The Bureau of Land Management is preparing a schedule for the environmental assessment of American Prairie Reserve's proposal to change grazing leases from cattle to bison. A BLM spokesman in Billings said the scoping process is expected to start in late winter or spring.