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Biden admin hit with legal challenge for green-lighting massive plan to take ag lands out of production


FIRST ON FOX: The state of Montana filed a legal motion against the Biden administration over its decision to permit a billionaire-backed organization to lease large swaths of public property for non-agriculture uses.

In a motion for summary judgment filed with the Department of Interior’s Office of Hearings and Appeals late last week, Montana alleged a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rule issued in 2022 unlawfully prioritizes non-production “conservation herds” over livestock production and the state’s rural ranching communities. In July 2022, BLM granted a request to the American Prairie Reserve (APR) to graze bison across leased federal lands.

“The BLM’s final decision granting a general use permit to graze bison is a direct attack on rural communities — attacks that have become a hallmark of the Biden Administration,” Knudsen told Fox News Digital in a statement. “The BLM has bent over backward to circumvent the law and approve APR’s plan to turn hundreds of thousands of acres of productive ranch land into a nature preserve for the wealthy.” 

“From shutting out Montana ranchers during the comment period, proposing to copy and paste directly from APR’s website, and ignoring federal law and its own regulations, it’s clear Biden’s BLM intended to rubber stamp this proposal from the start — no matter the impact on and opposition from local communities,” he continued.

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Austin Knudsen

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said the Biden administration has “bent over backward to circumvent the law.” (Fox News Digital)

Knudsen called on the Interior Department’s appeals board to step in on the case and force BLM to rescind the rulemaking. BLM and APR have a month to respond to Montana’s motion filed Friday.

BLM’s decision granted APR the ability to graze bison across 63,500 acres of federal lands that the group has leased over the past several years. The group first made the request in 2017 and revised its request in 2019.

Overall, APR has completed a total of 37 transactions to create a “habitat base” of 460,800 acres in Montana, of which 124,098 acres it privately owns and 336,702 acres it leases from the state and mainly federal government. The transactions are part of the group’s overarching goal of creating a 3.2 million-acre ecosystem connecting private and leased lands to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northern Montana.

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According to the group, the giant conservation project would benefit both wildlife in the region and the public. Instead of asking the federal government to manage the project, APR states that its goals are fueled entirely by private philanthropy and voluntary land exchanges.

“We’re not asking the federal government to create anything, we’re not asking the federal government for any money,” Pete Geddes, APR’s vice president and chief external relations officer, told Fox News Digital last year. “Instead, we’re engaged in private philanthropy and voluntary exchange by buying ranches from people who would like to sell that to us.”

“It’s an area that doesn’t have a lot of people in it and has been depopulating for a long, long time,” Geddes said. “So, the thinking was, perhaps there’s greater potential for less conflict over conservation in this part of the world.”

Yellowstone Bison Calf

A herd of bison grazes in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. An estimated 800 bison currently roam on some of AP’s property, a number the group hopes will swell to several thousand as part of its wildlife restoration plan. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

In a statement Monday, Geddes said APR was confident in the facts of the case.

“The Attorney General, like everyone is entitled to his opinion,” Geddes told Fox News Digital. “This case, like all others in which he is engaged, will be judged based on the facts and empirical evidence.”

The American Prairie Foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars in recent years, according to recent tax filings, thanks in large part to its donors, which include well-known Wall Street and Silicon Valley magnates. Last year, the group reported financial contributions in excess of $63 million, up 53% year-over-year.

Hansjorg Wyss, a Swiss financier and mega-donor of liberal causes, deceased German retail mogul Erivan Haub, John Mars, the heir to the Mars candy fortune, and Susan Packard Orr, daughter of the Hewlett-Packard Co. co-founder, have all donated to AP, Bloomberg previously reported. APR, though, said about 3% of its contributions have come from international donors.

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However, Knudsen, other state officials including Gov. Greg Gianforte and local ranchers have criticized and opposed APR’s plans, arguing such a nature reserve would remove key land from production and negatively impact surrounding privately-owned lands.

Opponents of the project have particularly focused their ire on one of the group’s chief proposals to release wild bison onto the property, giving visitors “a chance to witness the majestic species.” That is the proposal that the Biden administration green-lit in part last year.

A grassroots group, the United Property Owners of Montana, has expressed concern that free-roaming bison may infect surrounding livestock with brucellosis, an infectious disease commonly found in bison and elk populations, which could be extremely costly for ranchers if spread to their cattle.

Hansjorg Wyss, a Swiss financier and mega-donor of liberal causes, has contributed to the American Prairie Reserve.  (Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Oceana)

And Montana Department of Agriculture Director Christy Clark previously said the plan would remove “large chunks of land from production agriculture,” likely decrease agricultural production revenue and harm support industries in the area like machinery sales and ranch laborers.

“Despite the public outcry against BLM’s anticipated decision, BLM rubber-stamped APR’s proposal, making a few small tweaks and ultimately awarding APR coveted general grazing permits to graze bison on public lands,” Montana argued in its complaint Monday. 

“BLM permitted this bison grazing by reclassifying bison as ‘domestic indigenous livestock’ and claiming that this new term of art — that appears nowhere in [federal regulations] — allows BLM to treat cattle and bison interchangeably for the purpose of issuing general grazing permits,” the complaint continued. “This defies both law and logic.”

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“Whether APR classifies its bison as conservation animals, non-production animals, or as wildlife, the fact remains that they are not livestock for purposes of the laws that provide for grazing activities.”

BLM declined to comment.



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