Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will be holding a public meeting to address the restoration of wild buffalo in Lewistown on Tuesday and Wednesday. Lewistown, the geographic center of Montana and the hub of the Judith Basin, is the perfect site for wild buffalo restoration conversation.
Pioneer rancher, and statesman Granville Stuart left a vivid account of the change that swept Judith Basin late in the 19th century:
“It would be impossible to make persons not present … realize the rapid change that took place …. In 1880 the country was practically uninhabited. … 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.”
Others noticed as well. Theodore Roosevelt, who was hunting and ranching near Medora, North Dakota, wrote in 1885:
“ A ranchman who ... made a journey of a thousand miles across Northern Montana, along the Milk River during the whole distance he was never out of sight of a dead buffalo, and never in sight of a live one.”
What happened on our Montana landscape was one of the most shameful destructions of wildlife in human history – we had become the bone-yard of a continent.
One witness to the shameful wildlife slaughter in the Judith Basin was a 16-year-old youth from Missouri who, like Stuart, arrived there in 1880 – Charles M. Russell. A fellow cowboy, Wallace Coburn, described Charlie:
“Barbed wire fences. Sheep, and the gradual settling up of the country are sources of sorrow to the cowboy artist, and he longs for the days … when you could ride straight across country to the music of the buffalo, wolves, and the tom-tom of the Indian sun dance with nothing but nature’s handiwork to attract the eye and tickle the heartstrings.”
Charlie saw a good part of it go and then said:
“The West is dead! You may loose a sweetheart, but you won’t forget her.” Well, with a photographic memory and artistic genius Charlie would not let us forget. Among the images he blessed us with was a masterpiece that pictured buffalo crossing the Missouri and climbing out on the breaks. He called it “When the Land Belonged to God.”
This year we observe the 150th anniversary of both Charlie’s birth, and Montana’s birth as a territory. We live with a restored wildlife abundance that is by any measure among the greatest environmental achievements in human history. Everything Charlie painted is back out there in the wild – except one species. Today, nothing prevents us from finishing the saga of wildlife restoration - except the cultural will to just simply do it. We have the animals and we have a place for them.
We have a moral responsibility to the buffalo. It has endured more abuse historically and in contemporary times, from what we call civilization, than any other species.
What Charlie put on canvas we now are capable of putting out on the landscape. It is time to return buffalo to the wild and to do it with pride and with dignity. Let’s do it.