Opinion

Leah LaTray

Leah LaTray and her son Cody

This is a cry for help from the north central Montana ranching community!  We need help and support so the ranching heritage of Montana in this area is not silenced forever by the American Prairie Reserve.  Please urge Senators to pass House Joint Resolution 28 (HJ 28) “urging the BLM to deny the bison grazing proposal by the American Prairie Reserve” on 18 huge historic BLM cattle grazing leases in north central Montana.

I am a rancher in Central Montana. Ranchers love their cattle. Seeing a group of calves bust out running in a mob with their tails up over their backs gives everyone pause to smile and welcome their tenacity for life.  Green grass coming and fat calves keep us going year after year. I love to work cattle on a good using horse and at the end of the day, I love Montana and our farming and ranching communities we hold so dear.

I come - from every side of my family tree - Montana ranchers.  My aunt is Georgia LeVeque who is 95 years old and on Flat Creek south of Ulm (our family homestead ranch, her son and his wife (Dale and Lilly LeVeque) have the ranch there now and have a fantastic operation.  My Mother, Carol LaTray has been in agriculture her entire life north of Lewistown.  My Dad, Les LaTray, was a cowboy, a rancher and Metis - a French Breed - as Teddy Blue Abbott called my great grandfather Mose LeTreille in his book "We Pointed Them North." The LaTray homestead ranch was just north of the Moccasin Mountains by Lewistown on Plum Creek.

The American Prairie Reserve, with an end goal of taking millions of acres of historic Montana ranch grazing land out of production forever hits me particularly hard.  My Dad (and Mom) lost the LaTray homestead ranch to poor succession planning in the late 70's.  They were downsized from 2500 acres to 250 acres - the 250 acres of which I personally own today.  My point is that I know what happens when ranch families lose their land!  I know what is does to the future generations of kids and families: it takes them completely out of agriculture - forever! The ranching way - the cowboy way - silenced forever.

I was lucky enough to meet Alan Vanek in 2009.  His family is also 4th generation ranchers and they do still have the land, which has allowed me to continue to run a ranch, have cattle and live the way my family has always known, the way that runs deep through my veins... passionately deep.

Yes.  Ranching is a beautiful way of life and also a most difficult, physically demanding way of life at times.

We just endured record breaking dangerously cold weather and through all of that, had 200 baby calves hit the ground and only lost four of them - only three to exposure.  If you want to talk about tough?  Thirty-five below zero and saving a wet calf when it's born is tough work but miraculously... I love it    I am not a big person.  I'm 46 years old and my hands will be eat up with arthritis I'm quite sure, from pulling freezing up slimy calves into a calf sled at three o'clock in the morning, yarding the wet body of a limp calf onto a calf warmer and shoving a feed tube down it's throat with warm milk replacer just to keep it going until it's dry enough to take back to the cow.  From throwing a heavy saddle on a colt that's way too tall for winter riding but a good son-of-a… gun when a heifer is calving and she won't come in and it's 25 below zero.  My shoulders hurt from mucking out jugs of frozen afterbirth and bedding them with deep straw so the next heifer will have a clean bed to calve on.

Enough of my rant about how I love ranching.  It takes a special kind of tough and heart to endure the elements and keep going year after year.  That's why, when the ranching community hears of an out-of-state organization who is requesting unreasonable, sweeping changes to historic Montana BLM grazing leases, we get a little bit fed up.  When that organization says that their end goal is to remove ranchers from 3.5 million acres of historic grazing land, we get a little bit angry.

But our voice is not always strong.  Our work to be a voice, to be heard is an unpaid, volunteer position.  We aren't fancy talkers.  We aren't lawyers.  We are real people fighting for our future.  We are true Montanans.

The American Prairie Reserve (APR) is a special interest, out-of-state conservation group whose end goal is to remove ranchers from 3.5 million acres in the Missouri River Breaks of north central Montana and replace them with free roaming buffalo.  The group is targeting this area primarily because the native prairie is 90 per cent intact, thanks to generations of ranchers, and serves as an ideal template for their experiment to see if 3.5 million acres is big enough to run an unmanaged buffalo herd.  Yellowstone Park has proven this to be a real challenge and a huge management problem for both park officials and neighboring ranches and communities.

The APR has acquired quite a lot of land, mostly north of the Missouri River and south of Malta, the historic PN Ranch north of Winifred and the historic Two Crow ranch north of Winnett.  Over a year ago, American Prairie Reserve was pretentious enough to request unprecedented changes in use on 18 historic Montana Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grazing allotments. They requested to remove interior fences on these allotments and run buffalo instead of cattle year around.  These requests left ranchers in the area dismayed and angered that the BLM would even consider it.  By protocol however, the BLM has to consider those requests and is still in the process of an Environmental Assessment (which many feel should be a full blown Environmental Impact Statement) after a landslide of public comments.

Most recently, Dan Bartel (Montana House District 29) sponsored a resolution (House Joint Resolution 28) in the Montana Legislature urging the BLM to deny the bison grazing proposal by the American Prairie Reserve.   The resolution already passed a vote in the House on March 1st, 2019, moving it on for consideration in the Senate.

This resolution reflects the thoughts and is the voice of the agriculture communities affected by the American Prairie Reserve’s vision.  Their vision that would silence Montana ranching heritage on 3.5 million acres forever.

The Prairie Reserve is squealing that this resolution is an infringement of their private property rights.  I disagree strongly.  This resolution is simply urging the BLM to reject the unprecedented, unreasonable requests by the APR for change in use on 18 huge BLM allotments.  It is urging the BLM to reject preferential treatment requests by the APR for huge, sweeping changes on historically well managed, well conserved BLM allotments.  What’s wrong with that?  Any BLM lease holder does have the right to request change in use on BLM.  However, the magnitude of change that the APR is requesting is unreasonable and should be denied.  Dan Bartel (HD 29) is simply standing up for the ranching community by sponsoring this resolution and bless him for it.

This resolution reflects the voice of generations of Montana ranchers standing up to out-of-state groups who have no roots here.  It’s a Montana thing!

How is HJ 28 infringing on APR property rights?  This is not their private property we are talking about.  It’s public land.  They can do what they want with their private land.  No problem.   The APR, as an out of state, internationally funded, non-profit organization swoops in here requesting that the hugely successful infrastructure of generations of people be torn down for a scientific experiment for unmanaged buffalo.   It is “the responsibility of the BLM to ensure the future vitality of these public parcels is protected” (HJ 28)

What if the APR’s experiment with their buffalo fails? Who will rebuild the infrastructure that has been destroyed by them?  At what expense?

The APR “has requested that the BLM fundamentally shift long-established grazing practices on the 18 BLM allotments, which encompass 250,000 acres of public property.” (HJ 28)

I urge everyone to contact their Senator in support of HJ 28.  Pass this resolution as a message that unreasonable requests for change by anyone, any business or any non-profit on BLM that “shifts long-established grazing practices” be denied.