GREAT FALLS — At the Montana Cattlemen's Association annual "Cattlemen's Day" event, a packed room gathered to educate themselves on changes to the livestock industry.
The major talking point of the day was a healthy conversation between cattle ranchers and bison producers across the state.
The panel held input from bison producers, to Montana Cattlemen's ranchers, and representatives from the American Prairie Reserve.
"It’s easy for us to divide, to fight among us. But, at the end of the day, we are all working on improving the landscape and raising and providing healthy and nutritious protein for the consumer," explained Aaron Paulsen, former Rancher Manger for Turner Ranch.
Paulsen was said to be the most influential speaker of the discussion panel by multiple listeners. His take on bison grazing goes back to the trigger word, conservation.
"We hear it in mainstream media all the time... It’s important for people to remember, myself included that we have to be businesses. We have to be sustainable, we have pay the bills and we have to be profitable," said Paulsen.
That's the mission of the American Prairie Reserve. A non-profit organization based out of Lewistown, operating 700,000 acres of North Central Montana, with a vision of 5,000 square miles. In that, the APR runs shy of 1,000 head of bison through private land nestled near the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. Since the early 2000s, American Prairie has been a hot topic for agriculture producers in the areas surrounding its acquired land. "Save the Cowboy" signs grace byways and are staple billboards in rural Montana.
The growth of American Prairie is working into its second decade, with a mission to return an ecosystem to what it once was.
Westward expansion in the last two centuries nearly eliminated North American bison herds. Although the APR won't return population numbers to its former glory, its beginning to rebuild relationships with agriculture producers across the region.
Bison, are commonly misunderstood, from the negative connotation of conservation, spread of disease, and tribal influence. The APR is driving a deep holler of reparations for its introduction to The Treasure State.
"The American Prairie has seen some missteps over the years in how we talked about agriculture. We are working to really rebuild trust and relationships in communities. There’s never been an intention that American Prairie would replace agriculture," explained Corrie Williamson, Senior Outreach Manger for American Prairie.
American Prairie representatives attended the 2023 Cattlemen's Day event to gain insight on its mission and understand the misconceptions between bison and cattle.
"We really have shared values with the cattlemen around healthy animals, healthy landscape, and healthy people," said Williamson. "To be able to sit down and talk about those commonalities and recognize that large herbivores grazing our grasslands here in our state are important whether that’s bison or cattle."
Bison and cattle are similar yet different livestock according to the discussion panel. With similar grazing patterns, the APR and other bison ranchers alike are helping spread a message that grazing can help nurture grasslands into a thriving meal plan for livestock.
The regenerative farming approach requires time and effort, but Paulsen says, what you want out of it, is where a producer and industry can thrive.
"Taking any one species off our list just because we don’t agree with it… We need to look at different options and look the viability and the longevity of the property we’re living on."
With an ever changing market in agriculture, farmers and ranchers are looking for ways to generate extra revenue when hard times hit. Some, might venture into grazing sheep, or sell beef directly to consumers online. Whatever those steps might be, understanding how a species could benefit the producer is a way to have more tools in the tool belt.
"People need to peel back the layers of that onion and dig deeper and really understand what’s going on and try to make that effort…. The better they’re connected to it, the better they can form an opinion."
Despite conflicting opinions, American Prairie's mission for grazing bison remains in the hands of the landscape. Regenerating an ecosystem it doesn't even know what it looks like.
"All the tiny interactions, that when you take a bison off the landscape go with the animal, you’re also bringing back thousands of pounds of fur that is being shed on the landscape, birds, mice, and vols can use for nesting..." said Scott Heidebrink, Director of Bison Restoration for American Prairie. "There’s all these tiny interactions that we know are missing but we don’t necessarily know what those are yet because bison have been off the land for so long now."
The APR's research has not been concluded, nor does it appear to be going away. It's mission continues to grow and its land mass, expanding.
"The public doesn’t understand that North America is one of the largest ecograzing systems in the world," explained Brad Hamlett, Rancher and Montana State Legislator. "Unless you have grazing animals on that ecosystem, you’re going to have consequences you don’t like…"
With consequences to every decision man makes, the perception of American Prairie still casts a dark shadow over its work.
"There’s a rhythm to it and the rhythm can get disrupted when you have special interest groups in here that say you don’t want any cattle on the landscape anymore, we want to get rid of beef. It’s the exactly wrong thing to do," added Hamlett.
With nearly two decades under its belt in Montana, American Prairie is still cleaning up its message that's etched into the pastures of Central Montana. Similar to the cattle and bison, generational livestock producers and the organization must coexist with each other.
Each of the experts told MTN News, having a civil conversation, is the first step to bison and cattle living cohesively.