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Bison: Still Not Back From The Brink

The rescue of America's national land mammal is considered one of the greatest conservation success stories ever and yet it's hard to find many wild herds on the map

Charles M. Russell's masterpiece portrayal of bison along the Missouri River not far from where a national wildlife refuge is named in his honor and where the American Prairie Reserve is re-establishing a wild herd. Title of the painting is "When the Land Belonged to God."  See it at the Montana Historical Society.
Charles M. Russell's masterpiece portrayal of bison along the Missouri River not far from where a national wildlife refuge is named in his honor and where the American Prairie Reserve is re-establishing a wild herd. Title of the painting is "When the Land Belonged to God." See it at the Montana Historical Society.
During the 20th century, Montana took pride in bringing several species of large mammals, especially big game, back from the brink of extinction. But bison, likely once the most abundant large mammal in the state, were a forgotten species. Today, there are no public wild bison herds year-round in Montana. 
 
Of course, there are lots of bison in Montana; but they are not wild and only a few are public trust wildlife—belonging to all of us. 

Most are privately owned in commercial herds. They are managed much as cattle, under regulations of the state Department of Livestock. Management practices lead to domestication—simplifying and disorganizing the wild bison genotype. 

The ambitious American Prairie Reserve has several hundred bison, with an intent to minimize management interventions, thereby retaining the inherent bison wildness. This goal will require a large bison population that is allowed to wander freely over a large and diverse bison range. American Prairie Reserve is a work in progress. Aside from bison in Yellowstone National Park, APR is currently the best possibility for conserving wild bison anywhere south of Canada. But, under Montana law, APR bison are classified as private livestock overseen by the Department of Livestock. 

Then there are about 350 bison on the National Bison Range near Moise. These are public trust bison managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, Montana law classifies them as display animals in an exhibition pen. With the small herd size, limited range and intensive management, including annual roundups and culling, these federal bison are being gradually domesticated. 

In Montana, Native American reservations also have bison. Not public bison, they belong to other nations and are managed according to their needs. Most are in commercial herds managed much like livestock. A few tribes have cultural herds, managed less intensively. But with small herds on small ranges, ongoing domestication is indicated for these herds also.

Today, over 4000 bison in Yellowstone National Park are, by far, the wildest herd of bison south of Canada, and the wildest herd of the plains bison type anywhere on its native range. They visit Montana seasonally, migrating out of Yellowstone just as other big game do. Under a plan instituted by Governor Steve Bullock, some Yellowstone bison would be allowed to stay in our state; but, as yet, all have returned to the park each year.

The Montana legislature has declared Yellowstone bison as infected with a dangerous disease, brucellosis, and has transferred authority for their management from the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department to the state Department of Livestock, where the mandate is to promote private interests of the livestock industry.

In Montana, management of Yellowstone bison consists only of culling animals with hunting or capture, and limiting bison to a small area of the state. Most captured animals are sent to slaughter. A few are placed in quarantine for a year or more. Graduates of this process become the most expensive bison on earth. 

Once declared brucellosis-free, these animals may be used for conservation purposes. However, no quarantine graduates, or any less expensive bison, have been used to establish a public, wild bison herd in Montana. 
Yellowstone's bison are icons of one of America's greatest wildlife conservation rescue stories.  Many also view them as sacred.  Descended from a small number of animals that miraculously escaped the near extinction of the species, they have a strange dubious status.  They are the only animals in Yellowstone that are not allowed to naturally migrate out of America's national park because of intolerance from Montana's livestock industry.  This photograph was taken at Rose Creek in the Lamar Valley. Image courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Yellowstone's bison are icons of one of America's greatest wildlife conservation rescue stories. Many also view them as sacred. Descended from a small number of animals that miraculously escaped the near extinction of the species, they have a strange dubious status. They are the only animals in Yellowstone that are not allowed to naturally migrate out of America's national park because of intolerance from Montana's livestock industry. This photograph was taken at Rose Creek in the Lamar Valley. Image courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Notably, none of the above management of Yellowstone bison applies to elk. Yet the National Academy of Sciences, the premier scientific body in the US, concurred that elk are the true threat of brucellosis transmission to private cattle. 

Bison are listed in Montana law as a big game species. This legal category is used only to manage the hunt for Yellowstone bison, under ultimate authority of the Department of Livestock. Recently, there were over 10,000 applications for only about 70 available bison permits to hunt near Yellowstone. The demand for bison hunting/harvesting is there; but the supply is limited with no public bison herds year-round in Montana.
Moreover, Montana has no bison herds befitting a biological definition of “wild."

Biologically, genetics of a wild bison herd must be influenced by a preponderance of natural selection to maintain the wild genotype. This requires a large herd wandering over a large, diverse range where natural selection can predominate over genetic effects of small herd size and from human interventions that weaken and replace natural selection. 

The decline of natural selection simplifies and disorganizes the wild bison genotype, leading to domestication. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, in its 2010 Status Review of North American Bison, declared domestication as a primary threat to the future of wild plains bison. 

Domestication is intense in private, commercial bison herds; but is also widespread in the far less numerous conservation herds of bison. 

Some geneticists suggest a minimum of 1000 bison on at least 100 square miles of quality, diverse habitat is needed to forestall gradual domestication of plains bison. However, other geneticists suggest many more bison are needed for natural selection to overcome long-term, small-population effects on the genotype.

Western artist Charles M. Russell, famous for depicting early Montana, devoted many works, serving as social commentary, to the plight of bison. Russell’s work today adorns the state capitol in Helena. One of his greatest masterpieces, “’When the Land Belonged to God," portrays bison crossing the Missouri River. 

The dream of bison restoration is not new. More than 100 years ago, the government of Montana was more friendly to the idea of restoring wild bison. In 1911, the legislature and governor established a wildlife preserve for pronghorn, with an apparent intent to reintroduce bison to the area. The “Snow Creek Antelope Preserve” was on the south side of the Missouri River between Snow and Hell Creeks.

William Hornaday had attempted to get federal support for the Snow Creek Preserve through Congress, but was thwarted by the Montana Woolgrowers Association. The Preserve languished and some of it was flooded by Fort Peck Reservoir. It was located near today’s Hell Creek State Park and Campground, now within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge about 24 miles north of Jordan. 

In 1937, Olaus Murie of the Fish & Wildlife Service was sent to investigate the new Fort Peck Game Range, now the C. M. Russell Refuge. His report recommended restoring wild bison on the Refuge. But it never happened. 
Margaret and Olaus Murie who lived most of their lives in Jackson Hole. Murie was a prominent forerunning elk biologist who helped advance modern ecological thinking and was once president of The Wilderness Society
Margaret and Olaus Murie who lived most of their lives in Jackson Hole. Murie was a prominent forerunning elk biologist who helped advance modern ecological thinking and was once president of The Wilderness Society
Renowned hunter advocate, now long-time retired career biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Jim Posewitz, has written extensively about the intent of generations of Montanans to bring back wild bison. These efforts have been directed at both state and federal agencies. 

More recently, Montana, through its Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department has tangled unsuccessfully with the possibility of bison restoration. Beginning in 2001, there have been numerous plans, reports and public meetings addressing or referring to bison restoration. Several commitments to bison restoration have been unfulfilled and ignored. 

A vague plan and environmental impact statement was tendered in 2015, but has not progressed toward a decision. Analysis of public comments on this EIS have not been available.

In 2015, the Montana legislature provided directions to Fish, Wildlife & Parks for restoring wild bison while protecting and indemnifying private property. But this law has not been used.

Despite this disappointing record of more than a century, three polls of Montana voters show about 70 percent support for reestablishing public, wild bison on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Effectively the largest Refuge outside of Alaska, the CMR is our best remaining opportunity for establishing a legally and biologically wild herd of public bison. It is surrounded by much contiguous federal multiple-use land, bison-friendly private land of the American Prairie Reserve, and a limited amount of other private land. 

Arguably, the Montana Constitution mandates bison restoration. In its Preamble, Montanans seek equality of opportunity. Thus access to use and enjoy truly wild bison should not be unduly constrained, expensive or rare. In Article IX, the legislature shall provide remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion of natural resources; the legislature shall provide for restoration of historic, scientific, cultural and recreational objects for their use and enjoyment by the people; and the opportunity to harvest wild game is a heritage to be preserved.

Montanans are proud of their state, its wildlife and its wild environments. But if there be no place for wild bison in all of Montana, then surely we have crossed a line between the last best place and the once best place.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bailey is coordinator of the Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition and author of the book American Plains Bison: Rewilding An Icon. He thanks Doug Coffman for bringing to his attention the saga of the Snow Creek Antelope Preserve.
Jim Bailey
About Jim Bailey

Dr. Jim Bailey is a retired professor of wildlife biology and management at Colorado State University, where he specialized in big-game management and nutrition. Today he is coordinator of Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition (mtwildbison.org). Much of his professional work, published by graduate students, involved bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Prior to Colorado State, Jim had substituted at the University of Montana, for a professor on sabbatical leave. He has also worked at the Illinois Natural History Survey and with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. Early experience of Jim and his wife, Nan, in Montana led them back to the Bozeman area where Jim became involved with the Yellowstone bison controversy. This led to writing and publishing American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon in 2013 (Sweetgrass Books, Helena). 
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