American Bison Restoration: No Easy Task for the National Wildlife Federation

History has not been kind to the American bison. Though as many as 40 million bison roamed the Great Plains when European explorers first arrived, the herds were decimated in the centuries that followed. By 1900, only 1,000 free-roaming bison remained. For the last few years, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has explored various methods for reintroducing wild bison into areas of Montana and Wyoming — once native habitats for the animals. We spoke with Kit Fischer, Sportsmen’s Outreach Coordinator for the NWF in Missoula, about some of his organization’s recent bison restoration efforts.

Wenger Blog: What are the primary factors that have contributed to the decline of free-ranging bison herds?
Kit Fischer: Westward expansion and high powered rifles.  Bison historically ranged as far east as the Ohio River valley. But as early pioneers continued west in search of gold, silver and productive farmlands, bison were quickly gunned down for their meat and hides.  As a commercial market developed to capitalize on the estimated 60 million bison on America’s Great Plains, the animals were gunned down by the thousands by market hunters –including the famous Buffalo Bill Cody.  He was reputed to have killed 4,280 buffalo in 17 months.  This was considered at the time “the taming of the West.” There have also been recent claims that disease may have been a factor in the bison’s near extinction. 

WB: How does the NWF plan to effectively return bison populations to their native habitats in northeastern Montana?
KF: The 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Montana straddles the Missouri river and Fort Peck reservoir and represents the best opportunity for large landscape bison restoration in North America.  In addition, two large tribal reservations, Fort Peck and Fort Belknap offer tremendous opportunities.  The challenge we are facing is more of a social than a biological problem—fears of disease, damage and loss of cattle grazing are top concerns to area ranchers.  We are actively working with the local community to ensure that any restoration effort will be done to preserve local values and improve local economies. 

WB: How have Native American tribal groups aided the NWF’s bison restoration efforts?
KF: Native American tribes have been close partners with NWF on bison issues for many years.  Bison hold a strong place in the culture of many American Indian tribes.  Fifteen years ago, NWF signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the InterTribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC; now the InterTribal Buffalo Council). The groups have worked together to end the draconian methods once used to eliminate bison that roamed outside of Yellowstone National Park, and advocate for more common sense measures to address brucellosis within the Yellowstone herd.  As a result of that work with ITBC and numerous individual Tribes, fair chase public and tribal hunts were instituted on U.S. Forest Service lands adjacent to the park and a quarantine process was established that has led to reintroduction of wild bison to other areas, including the Fort Peck Reservation in northeast Montana.  NWF is now partnering with the Fort Belknap Reservation in north central Montana and the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming to facilitate the transfer of disease-free wild Yellowstone bison to those reservations.

WB: Who are some of the other key players (agencies, organizations, stakeholders, etc.) that are aiding the restoration process?
KF: The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks will ultimately determine if wild bison deserve a place on the Montana landscape.  In addition, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (which manages the CMR National Refuge) will have a say in when and if bison are reintroduced.  Another conservation organization, The American Prairie Reserve, is actively buying land (over 200,000 acres deeded and leased) north of the CMR and growing their own private bison herd, which they hope will someday be used for restoration purposes.  

WB: Once the populations are restored, how will NWF ensure that herds are thriving in their new homes?
KF: Some of the largest bison herds in North America grazed for centuries in Montana’s northern plains.  Similar to other wildlife species (deer, elk, bighorn sheep), bison will be managed and funded by the state through hunting opportunities.  This would ensure that the carrying capacity of the landscape and damage to any private property would be controlled.  By managing bison similarly to Montana’s other big game species, this would provide hunters and wildlife viewers an opportunity to re-imagine wild bison in a fashion much different than what folks are used to seeing in Yellowstone National Park. 

WB: How can the public get involved with bison restoration projects?
KF: Our primary goal leading up to any restoration attempt is to reduce the potential conflict between bison and livestock.  NWF’s Wildlife Conflict Resolution program is designed to provide a win-win situation for wildlife and ranchers.  We provide ranchers an opportunity through willing seller / buyer agreements to enter into a grazing agreement to waive their grazing right and provide more room for bison to roam in Montanan’s northern plains.  For more information on this program, visit NWF online; for general information on our bison restoration program, visit our page on ‘Restoring Bison to the American West’. People are free to contact me directly at fischerk@nwf.org.

By Brad Nehring

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