SOUTH OF MALTA — Jim Posewitz is confident he will see a huntable herd of free-roaming, wild bison somewhere in Montana in his lifetime.
"We'll have to hurry, though," he said, smiling.
Posewitz is 76.
A Montana conservationist, hunter, author and promoter of hunter ethics, Posewitz has lent his voice to the National Wildlife Federation's push to have bison restored to the 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana.
"What better place, what better species and what better time?" he said.
The Posewitz principle
Posewitz's belief is rooted in the history of American sportsmen and their participation in the restoration of other game animals to the nation and to the CMR landscape, such as bighorn sheep and elk.
Posewitz also sees restoration as righting a historic wrong.
It is estimated that 30 million bison once roamed the Great Plains. Hide hunters and a push to drive Plains Indians to reservations prompted their wholesale slaughter. By 1884, the animals were gone from Montana except for a few in captive private herds. By 1895, roughly 800 bison remained worldwide.
"Here on the same landscape where the most egregious wildlife slaughter in history occurred, we have the opportunity to put the last piece on the pyramid of wildlife recovery," Posewitz said. "Not only can we do this for buffalo, but given what we've done to this place, we are obligated to return them."
Eyeing the CMR
As Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks embarks on a three-year study of the possibility of returning wild bison to the state, the National Wildlife Federation is already pushing for the CMR to be the place.
"I've been hunting all of my life, and I can't imagine there would be anything cooler than hunting a bison in the Missouri Breaks," said Kit Fischer of the NWF. "I think this is something that every hunter in Montana has a moral responsibility to support."
NWF's push shouldn't be confused with the current Fish, Wildlife and Parks study of possibly placing disease-free Yellowstone bison on two state wildlife management areas (WMAs) and two reservations. Those are separate actions.
While hearings are being held in three cities across the state on the WMA plans, FWP is also evaluating the restoration of a huntable population of bison somewhere in the state by 2015. Before then, the state will prepare an environmental impact statement, providing numerous opportunities for public comment.
In the hot seat
Arnie Dood has been tasked by FWP with leading the discussion of bison restoration. A 35-year agency veteran, he has worked on endangered species programs for grizzly bears and gray wolves, so he's no stranger to controversy.
Discussion of the reintroduction of bison to the landscape has raised special problems. Foremost among them, Dood said, is that a vast majority of the public don't view bison as "wildlife."
"The idea of wild bison, people have a hard time getting their minds around it," he said.
"People's idea of what's possible is based on what they've seen in other places," he said, "like bison behind a fence or in Yellowstone National Park."
Bison reintroduction is also complicated by fear. Yellowstone Park bison have been linked to the transmission of the disease brucellosis to cattle near the park's borders. The animals are also seen by some as half-ton brutes capable of tearing out fences and injuring people or livestock.
"This whole issue has been so politicized," Dood said.
He points to Utah's Henry Mountains as a place that has already found a way to meld bison, conservation groups, hunters and ranchers in a cooperative effort. Bison were reintroduced there in 1941. Now, a bison hunting tag in the Henrys is sought after as a once-in-a-lifetime hunt. And the wild bison prove hard for hunters to find, let alone shoot.
"That's a lesson that we need to follow," he said. "We need to sit down and work with people."
Several Montana organizations have gone on record as opposing any reintroduction of bison to Montana. The Montana Association of Conservation Districts passed a resolution in 2009 opposing a wildlife reserve with bison until a study is completed analyzing the impacts on the area's natural resources, economy and communities.
The Montana CattleWomen is opposed to free-ranging bison, claiming that such a move would be a taking of private property rights. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is also opposed.
Billboards have been erected across the northeastern Montana prairie, saying: "Don't buffalo me, No federal land grab."
Conservation groups like the National Wildlife Federation have set the stage for possible reintroduction of bison by buying out grazing leases on 50,000 acres of the CMR, essentially removing cattle from the lands. The American Prairie Foundation has purchased ranches next to the CMR and introduced a small herd of bison to its property.
"It would be hard to argue why we shouldn't introduce bison as part of native species restoration," said Randy Matchett, a CMR wildlife biologist.
The idea is nothing new, he noted. People were calling for bison to be returned to the CMR as far back as 1935. But he said that no matter how big a landscape the bison are returned to, the management challenge will be how the animals on the fringes of that habitat are dealt with.
Dood agreed, saying that the focus during public meetings will be on what management would look like if bison are on the landscape. He said people have to get away from the idea of high fences and treating bison like livestock.
"Fences are one way, but there are other, more positive -- and less expensive -- ways to manage wildlife," he said.
One possibility he mentioned would be to allow any bison that wanders outside its boundaries to be legally killed.
Fischer said there's no reason the reintroduction of bison can't work without harming cattle ranchers and farmers.
"There is no reason Montana isn't big enough for a vibrant ranching community and a wild bison population," he said.
Hunters are key to moving to the next step, he added.
"I think that energizing sportsmen in the state is the one way we can turn the tide and get bison back on the landscape," he said.
A bison refuge
Could the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge act as an eye-of-the-storm calm spot for bison in Montana, a federal haven in an unfriendly political landscape?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the CMR, won't pursue bison reintroduction on its own. If FWP's planning is successful, the CMR would conduct its own environmental assessment.
"To me it is all about empathy for our neighbors," said Rick Potts, the refuge's manager. "We've got to find a way to be sensitive in the application of wild species. But I believe a way exists."
Posewitz remains upbeat about seeing bison freely roam Montana's prairie once again, despite what seem to be insurmountable cultural and political obstacles.
"We always thought it was undoable, because of a cultural cliché: 'Well you ain't bringing back the buffalo,'" Posewitz said. "That doesn't apply anymore."