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Proposed federal policy change could prohibit livestock grazing on wildlife refuges

The federal government is in the process of updating its policies regarding management of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Montana ranchers are worried the new rule could prohibit cattle grazing on refuge lands.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service closed public comment on the proposed policy changes earlier this month. With new guidance on everything from mosquito control to land acquisition, the Service says the update will provide needed clarity and consistency to management decisions that have been complicated by climate change and biodiversity loss.

But one proposed change– which would see the service prohibit agricultural uses on refuge lands, except when management goals could not be reached naturally– has the Montana ranching industry worried.

Lesley Robinson is a Vice President of the Montana Stockgrowers Association and a rancher near Dobson. Her family has grazing permits on more than forty thousand acres of the Charles Russell Refuge. She says grazing helps meet refuge management goals and a prohibition would be a significant hit to ranching outfits.

“That would have a huge economic impact for us and everyone else who grazes on wildlife refuges,” Robinson said. “We come from rural areas, and just changes like that could have a big impact on the whole community.”

Presently, ranchers can apply for special-use permits to graze livestock on refuge lands. Those permits are then approved or denied on a case-by-case basis. The proposed update would create a “default position” of prohibiting grazing.

The state’sFish Wildlife and Parks agency and the nonprofit Montana Wildlife Federation also submitted comments urging the service to reconsider the language of the proposed rule.

A spokesperson for the US Fish and Wildlife Service told MTPR the agency is reviewing comments, but does not have a timeline for finalizing the rule changes.

John joined the Montana Public Radio team in August 2022. Born and raised in Helena, he graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Media Arts and created the Montana history podcast Land Grab. John can be contacted at
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