Bison deserve a home on the range

 

You sleeping relick of the past
if I but had my way
I’d cloth(e) your frame
with meat and hide
an(d) wake you up to day.

– C.M. Russell, 1908

Montana cowboy artist and favorite son Charles M. Russell penned those wistful words underneath a sketch he made of a sun-bleached buffalo skull poking through prairie grass. But that was 104 years ago, at a time when returning buffalo to the Northern Plains had to seem about as likely as reanimating the weathered bones he drew.

Russell’s lifetime -- 1864-1926 -- witnessed the commercial slaughter and near-extinction of buffalo, elk, deer, antelope and nearly every other edible, usable or annoying critter inthe West. Russell lived barely long enough to witness the beginning of America’s wildlife conservation movement. Perhaps he hoped that the movement would succeed, but he surely couldn’t predict the extent to which it has.

It’s hard to overstate that success. Today, our country has abundant wildlife. We’ve brought back the big game, waterfowl, predators, furbearers, raptors and upland birds that Russell and his contemporaries wrote off as gone for good. Here in Montana, they’re thriving in the wild, except for one -- the buffalo.

We have bison aplenty in Montana, but they’re privately owned and raised as livestock or held captive behind high fences for tourists to photograph. And some 4,700 wild bison are hemmed in inside Yellowstone National Park, confined not by fences but strict state policy. Nowhere in Montana -- or anywhere else in North America, for that matter -- do bison roam free in their native prairie habitat.

But change is on the horizon of eastern Montana’s mixed-grass prairie.

Montana is taking the first step toward restoring wild bison. The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently completed a series of meetings across the state, to identifying public issues to include in an environmental impact statement and comprehensive plan for managing bison -- as wildlife, not livestock or park escapees.

Meanwhile, in May, Montana presented the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes with 63 genetically pure bison captured from Yellowstone National Park to start a herd on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana. Those bison were welcomed to their new pasture with cheers and tears of joy.

Not everyone’s cheering, though. Many ranchers oppose restoring bison even on public land. Some have gone to court in an attempt to block Montana’s gift of bison to the Fort Peck tribes. Stock growers see wild bison as a possible source of diseases, a destroyer of fences and a competitor for grass that cattle could eat. In a recent public meeting, one rancher likened the proposal to restore wild bison to the movie “Jurassic Park.”

Their opposition may be overblown, but the ranchers do have valid concerns. The National Wildlife Federation advocates bison restoration but is making it clear that it hears and understands the concerns of ranchers. The National Wildlife Federation has pledged to work hard to resolve potential conflicts. We must ensure that bison restored to the wild present no threat of disease, and that, when they cross onto private lands, they don’t create more problems than other wildlife do.

Given that commitment, we should focus on where and how to restore wild bison, not whether we ought to do so. The “where” is easy:  It’s hard to imagine starting anyplace other than the vast national wildlife refuge named after Russell himself.

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge sprawls over 1.1 million acres of prairie and rugged breaks. This remote, wild, high-quality native bison habitat has the three things wild bison need: grass, water and space. The refuge is largely surrounded by public lands, and its primary mission is wildlife conservation. It’s just waiting for bison to make their comeback.

Ranchers can help guide restoration, but first they’ll need to agree to take a seat at thetable. Conservation and stewardship are matters of balance, not all-or-nothing approaches. Stock growers must know that better than anyone. Indeed, most ranchers understand thatthe “no livestock grazing on public lands” position espoused by some environmental groups is an extreme opinion, held by very few.

But conservationists think that the “no bison on public lands” position taken by thelivestock industry is equally extreme.  Saying there’s no room for wild bison anywhere in Montana’s 147,000 square miles defies common sense.

We won’t be seeing wild bison in great numbers or in many places. Even the West’s wildest prairies are too fragmented or developed for that. But just as we’ve done with other wildlife, we can restore wild bison to prairie habitat on the Russell refuge and some tribal lands.

Restoring bison may spark debate now. But when future generations look back, nobody will doubt we did the right thing. We have an opportunity with bison that earlier generations could only dream about. It’s time to seize that opportunity.

Tom France is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He the National Wildlife Federation’s regional executive director and counsel atthe Northern Rockies and Prairies Regional Center, in Missoula, Montana.

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