When Lewis and Clark found the part of Montana now known as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, they were overwhelmed by the abundance of wildlife, especially bison. Capt. Lewis vowed in his journal to speak no more of the incredible numbers for fear no one would believe him. Seventy-nine years later they were gone — all of them. Now, 128 years later, we have a shot at restoring a remnant of the grandeur.
Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has scheduled a series of meetings as the first step toward developing a statewide plan for managing wild bison.
Today wild bison persist in a few enclaves, including Yellowstone National Park and the Henry Mountains of Utah. Descendants of wild bison mostly live behind a fence in a few refuges but mostly as privately owned livestock.
Montana pioneer Granville Stuart chronicled the breathtaking speed with which bison and other game were swept from the Judith Basin, writing:
“It would be impossible to make persons not present … realize the rapid change that took place … in two years,… In 1880 the country was practically uninhabited. One could travel for miles without seeing so much as a trapper’s bivouac. Thousands of buffalo darkened the rolling plains. There were deer, antelope, elk, wolves, and coyotes on every hill and in every ravine and thicket. In the fall of 1883 there was not one buffalo remaining … and the antelope, elk, and deer were indeed scarce.”
The near-extinction of buffalo and other game animals kindled America’s hunter-conservationist movement. With leadership from Theodore Roosevelt and other prominent conservationists, sportsmen rallied to support hunting regulations; end the commercial slaughter; promote wildlife management; and protect habitat. They then taxed themselves to pay for conservation.
Today, more than a century, later you can find deer “pellets” on the lawn around Montana’s state Capitol and goose droppings on every golf shoe in the country. We’ve been so successful at restoring and managing wildlife that many people aren’t even aware of how close we came to losing them all. Anyone who’s come of age in Montana over the past generation might easily assume that game has always been plentiful.
The benefits of wildlife restoration range from ecological integrity to food on our tables as well as values that feed the spirit. The job is one species short of being finished.
We won’t ever see wild buffalo in the numbers that awed Captain Lewis. Nor will our developed landscape prove hospitable to them in very many places. But surely we can find some home on the range for this iconic animal. One of Montana’s great virtues is that we always found space to accommodate what we value. If there’s any place where bison can and should be restored, it’s the wild million-acre plus C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will soon hold meetings to help shape an environmental assessment for a wild-bison management plan. It will give us all a chance to help decide that restoring wild, free-ranging buffalo is worth doing. We can address bison restoration as both a moral responsibility and a historic opportunity. There are certainly potential problems but we have found an equitable way with other wildlife. We can do it with bison.