Photo courtesy of Dennis Linghor
Conflicting perspectives about returning wild bison to areas
of Montana where they used to roam aren't mutually exclusive
By Steve Woodruff
for Mountain West News
June 21, 2012
"If we could bring back dinosaurs, like in 'Jurassic Park,' would you want to do that too?"
That question, blurted by an angry rancher, seemed an absurd response to something I’d said about the benefits of restoring a herd of wild, wide-ranging bison to an expanse of public land in northeastern Montana. The cattleman was horrified by the prospect of giving wild bison a home on the range.
That cattleman and I joined scores of Montanans participating in a recent series of meetings organized by the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The agency is taking the first steps toward bringing bison back as honest-to-good wildlife, and the recent meetings focused on issues FWP should consider in an upcoming Environmental Impact Statement and proposed Statewide Bison Management Plan.
Bringing back bison – even on the limited scale Montana is talking about – is an exciting prospect that most Americans surely would consider the crowning achievement in our nation’s remarkable, century-long record of wildlife restoration. Wild bison restoration promises ecological, social, cultural and economic benefits. But the idea appalls cattle ranchers, who packed FWP's meetings in eight cities – less to help shape the process than to protest against it.
"Jurassic Park" came up more than once in those meetings. And the more I think about it, the less absurd and more illustrative that question seems.
Indeed, the dinosaur question highlights two conflicting perspectives:
- Wild bison existed in a bygone era and have no place in this one because they are a threat to life as we know it. We should let their bones fossilize for the wonderment of future generations. The fact that wild bison once roamed Earth doesn’t mean they should again. We have plenty of domesticated and captive bison, and anyone who wants to see one in a natural setting can go to Yellowstone National Park.
- Bison are one of the many wildlife species hunted to near extinction by the beginning of the 20th century. We’ve since restored elk, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, moose and all the rest – all but bison. Why did we stop short? We not only have the opportunity to bring back bison but also the responsibility to do so. It's a choice of correcting or perpetuating one of the egregious acts in American history – the commercial slaughter of bison.
The first perspective explains a lot, starting with why we're only now talking about restoring bison – decades after happily restoring other big game animals. If you accept the species’ fate as sealed, restoration is a moot point.
That first view also accounts for attitudes against bison restoration that the same people reject when applied to other wildlife, such as elk or bighorns. Because cattle almost immediately occupied bison’s niche on the land, talk of restoration seems threatening to cattle ranchers and others involved with the ranching economy. All this folds into a view that equates bringing back bison with wiping out all of the progress and benefits of the past 150 years. In a sense, the difference between restoring bison and dinosaurs is merely the extent to which we turn back the clock.
The second perspective is rooted in the so-called North American Wildlife Conservation Model. That model holds wildlife as a public trust shared by all – meaning wildlife cannot be taken or eliminated for the benefit of some, not even powerful interests. Trustees have a responsibility to restore depleted resources held in trust and to manage them sustainably. Ecological balance, hunting, recreation and tourism are among the benefits touted under our wildlife conservation model. Those benefits have proved substantial for other wildlife, so it’s only natural that wildlife advocates believe bison restoration will yield great benefits as well. The latter perspective regards the wanton slaughter of bison by our ancestors as a tragic mistake that can be rectified.
Reconciling these conflicting perspectives may be impossible. The passion and polarization certainly ran high at the recent Montana meetings, with scant recognition of common ground. But we don’t have to reconcile the conflicting perspectives. We can more or less accommodate both of them.
Start by recognizing that the days of innumerable bison on the landscape are indeed past and cannot be reclaimed. Most of the bison’s former habitat no longer exists as bison habitat. It’s developed, fragmented and occupied by people. The "Jurassic Park" perspective reflects an unrealistic notion that restoring some bison someplace means restoring them in great numbers everyplace. That's impossible, and nobody seriously proposes to try, anyway. Wild bison numbers, as a percentage of Montana’s 2.5 million cattle, will always be a fraction of 1 percent. By explicitly acknowledging the limited degree to which bison restoration is possible, proponents can help nearly everyone who equates bison with dinosaurs sleep peacefully at night.
Much – perhaps most – of the opposition expressed at the recent meetings across Montana came from people far removed from wherever wild bison plausibly might be reestablished. Their fear? That bison will roam too far and wide. That’s another fear that should be easily allayed.
That concern may be rooted in semantics. To differentiate the truly wild bison from those owned as livestock or confined behind secure fences, advocates began referring to "free-roaming" bison. That phrase sounds good but is subject to interpretation. Opponents envision bison wandering wherever. But all wildlife is managed in balance with people and other resources. That management invariably includes limiting the range to suitable places. Perhaps a better term for wild bison is "wide-ranging."
We can designate an area or areas for bison restoration and manage them in ways that encourage bison to wander freely where they’re welcome, discourage them from areas they’re unwelcome and eliminate them in areas where the potential conflicts are simply too great. Montana does this quite successfully with, say, mountain lions. It certainly can do it with bison.
Utah has proved wild bison are manageable and even compatible with cattle ranching. Utah established a modest herd of wild bison in the Henry Mountains back in 1941, and those bison have co-existed with cattle since. If Utah can do that, surely Montana can do something similar on a larger landscape and better habitat.
What's realistic and moderate is establishing one to several modestly significant, genetically viable and sustainable herds of wild bison in appropriate places, and managing those bison to reduce or eliminate conflicts. If we do what we reasonably can to restore some wild bison in native habitat, we’ll satisfy most people’s sense of conservation ethics, even as we ensure agricultural interests are minimally affected – if at all.
What’s an appropriate place? Bison need three basic things: Grass, water and space. The first two are relatively easy. Space is the tricky part.
Space for wild bison is essential, first because grazing animals need to wander lest they empty their grassy larder. Second, wild animals by definition wander freely – otherwise, they’re captive, not wild. We have plenty of captive bison in America but few that are wild. Space also is a factor in hunting. Regulated hunting is the preferred, time-tested and most beneficial way to manage wildlife populations. Hunting ethics dictate fair-chase methods, which preclude shooting confined animals. Ample space for bison ensures fair-chase conditions for hunting.
Finally, adequate space reduces potential conflicts with anyone who considers bison as welcome as a T. rex. With enough space, most people will have to go looking for bison to even see one.
Montana's wildlife agency is only beginning its analysis, so it may be too soon to say where and how many places the grass, water and all that space may be found. Several Montana Indian reservations are good candidates. In fact, the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes this spring began their own restoration effort on the Fort Peck Reservation with 61 Yellowstone bison presented to them by the state.
Beyond the Indian reservations, one obvious place for wild bison stands out. It’s the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, straddling Fort Peck Lake on the Missouri River in northeastern Montana. The American Bison Society and the World Wildlife Fund have identified the refuge as North America’s top prospect for bison restoration.
Known as the CMR, the refuge is one of the largest undeveloped landscapes in America – 1.1 million acres of prairie, rugged breaks and timbered draws. It’s high-quality, historic habitat. Bison were plentiful there up to the mid 1880s. Water and grass are abundant.
As a national wildlife refuge, the CMR is public land managed under a mandate to serve wildlife as first priority. Wildlife conservation also ranks among the multiple uses mandated for millions of acres of additional public lands adjacent and near the CMR. That’s important because wild bison could and sometimes would wander off the refuge.
The CMR and surrounding public lands are open to public hunting. In fact, the CMR ranks as one of the most popular hunting areas in Montana. Because of this, wildlife managers could manage bison numbers effectively – far more effectively than at Yellowstone National Park, where hunting is prohibited.
Even with all that wide-open, publicly owned space dedicated to or suitable for wildlife, ranchers worry that bison exposed to brucellosis or other diseases could infect cattle anyplace the two species interact. It's a speculative risk never documented in nature, but one that can be addressed and managed by starting with well-tested, disease-free bison; monitoring for disease; and continuing inoculation of cattle.
Damage to property – most likely fences – is another potential conflict. Although elk may be at least as hard on fences as bison, the potential cost is a legitimate concern. One practical solution might be for bison advocates to get their checkbooks out and help subsidize fence building and maintenance.
That leaves competition for grass on public lands as the final substantive problem to resolve. Wild bison eat grass that could fatten cattle. This is less an issue on the CMR, where livestock grazing is a traditional use but secondary in priority to wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation has been developing grazing agreements with CMR grazing permittees, whereby willing ranchers receive a payment in exchange for their agreement to give up their annual grazing permit. That program has much potential – to date agreements on more than 55,000 acres of refuge land have been reached. The American Prairie Reserve, meanwhile, has bought whole ranches adjacent to the CMR, along with their public-land grazing rights. In Utah’s Henry Mountains, the a sportsmen’s group compensates willing ranchers for grass eaten by bison on public lands, an arrangement hailed as a success all around.
With its great expanse, quality of habitat and large amount of surrounding public land, the CMR is the ideal place to restore wild bison. Other sites may emerge in the FWP analysis, and additional sites may increase or add to conflicts to resolve. The point is, all the real conflicts involving bison have solutions, even if none of the philosophical, rhetorical and hypothetical ones do.
Ironically, anyone who lives or travels in the West sees bison everywhere. They’re on signs and billboards, license plates, advertising and letterhead. Their heads, hides and images are d?cor for homes and lodges. Buffalo burgers are on menus at every tourist stop in the region.
The one place we don’t see our most iconic animal is living wild and free on the prairie.
Restoring some wild bison somewhere out on the prairie poses no threat to the West and our traditions. Far from it. Bringing back some bison somewhere in their native prairie is an opportunity to complete our long, proud tradition of wildlife restoration.
Steve Woodruff is a writer and former newspaperman in Missoula working with the National Wildlife Federation to restore bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.