Conservationists and state agencies are now obsessing over the question of where to establish wild herds of bison in Montana. Talk has bounced from state land to Indian reservations to private reserves in eastern Montana. But the social and judicial hurdles keep going up, preventing any sort of lasting solution.
The National Wildlife Federation believes the 1.1 million acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge could be the answer. In a recent column for High Country News, regional director Tom France wrote that the refuge in central Montana "has the three things wild bison need: grass, water and space."
It also happens to be "a significant piece" of the bison's native habitat, says longtime conservationist and Montana author Jim Posewitz. "And by native habitat I mean habitat originally occupied by the buffalo since the late Pleistocene."
The National Wildlife Federation and others have already set the stage for such restoration. In 2009, the group expanded its Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program to the Russell refuge, working to retire livestock grazing allotments. The controversial program has contributed to the phasing out of cattle grazing on some 250,000 acres of refuge landmaking it available, in theory, for bison.
"We brought elk back to the [Refuge] by hauling them in," Posewitz says. "We brought bighorn sheep back to the [Missouri] Breaks by hauling them in...and we can see the net effect of all that was an exceptional wildlife resource living with reasonable compatibility with the domestic production of livestock."
Posewitz sees the refuge as an answer for more sentimental reasons. He recounts a story wherein Russell, working as a range cowboy in the late 1800s, lamented the decimation of the bison and wished he could have lived in Montana during the days of the Sioux. The bison are the last step in proving the strength of the country's conservation ethic, Posewitz says.
"We know we're not going to restore 30 million buffalo to the continent. But we think there can and should be one place where we can add the buffalo to the conservation pyramid of wildlife restoration."