Phil Knight

The Promise of Wild Bison

  ~Phil Knight

Imagine hearing thunder miles away and discovering it was actually a bison herd, hundreds of thousands strong. Two hundred years ago on Montana’s Northern Plains, this was still possible.

The American plains bison was once the most abundant large animal in the world. Up to sixty million of the horned beasts roamed North America from Alberta to Florida. Montana was at the heart of this massive ecosystem, with bison herds found across what would become the Treasure State. Now Montana has no wild bison at all.

Wait, you might ask, what about those Yellowstone bison near Gardiner? There’s even an annual bison hunt there. Well, those bison are only visitors from the national park, and are discouraged from recolonizing their Montana habitat. In fact, thousands have been killed by Montana for trying to migrate out of Yellowstone.

There are a lot of bison in Montana, but they are all basically treated as livestock. Not one of them is classified as a native game animal, nor given free rein to wander across Montana’s abundant public lands.

If the Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition succeeds, bison will come back to Montana’s Northern Plains. Jim Bailey, author of the book American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon started the coalition this year with the Gallatin Wildlife Association.

The new coalition (mtwildbison.org) aims to build public support for bringing bison back to the huge Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) in Central Montana. Their immediate goal is at least 1,000 wild bison living on 100 square miles. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has repeatedly stalled on a plan to reintroduce the shaggy giants.

Next door to the CMR is the American Prairie Reserve which is working to restore bison to over 3 million acres by buying land with associated grazing leases and putting privately owned bison on the land. APR presently has about 850 bison and owns over 92,000 acres in 28 properties, with rights to nearly 308,000 acres of state and federal grazing lands. The APR stretches from west of Judith Landing to the north side of the CMR on Timber Creek. Their long term goal is 10,000 bison, more than twice the number found in Yellowstone.

Several Indian tribes in Montana also run bison on their land, honoring and continuing an ancient tradition and relationship between bison and people. The Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations both have herds of bison in Central Montana, and the Blackfeet Tribe’s Iinnii Initiative seeks to restore bison to the Blackfeet Nation’s land in Northern Montana. This past spring the Buffalo United Us conference in Polson brought together tribal, federal, state and private interests to promote wild bison restoration to Montana.

Seventy per cent of Montana voters are in favor of restoring wild bison. At 1.1 million acres of federal land, the CMR has the space and the habitat for thousands of the native animals. There are many other areas in Montana where bison could be reintroduced or allowed to return, such as the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (just west of the CMR), the Taylor Fork and Porcupine/Buffalo Horn areas near Yellowstone, parts of Glacier National Park, the Rocky Mountain Front and the Centennial Valley.

Bison have many detractors, such as ranchers that see them as a threat to their cattle due disease or competition for forage. Others fear the loss of the cattle ranching industry to a different type of ranching. But there are already big herds of private bison in Montana, such as the Flying D Ranch near Bozeman. We only lack wild bison.

Wild bison bring many benefits, especially to other forms of wildlife such as sage grouse, prairie dogs, swift foxes, burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, wolves and black-footed ferrets. They benefit and maintain native prairie plants. Wild bison could also greatly enhance hunting opportunities, with several hundred pounds of quality meat coming off each carcass.

Bison are resilient, tough survivors, and are prolific breeders. They are the symbol of the National Park Service and are the US National Mammal. Their lineage in North America goes back tens of thousands of years. Given a chance they will return to their age old role as the keystone animal on Montana’s northern plains.