The Latest Threat to Wild Bison

Bison in Montana. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The 2021 Montana Legislature is shaping up as a threat to public-trust resources — our air, water, public lands and wildlife. Under law and policy, elected representatives are the major “trustees” of these resources. Trustees are obliged to provide benefits for owners of the resources — all the people.

Under accepted policy, states exert primary control over most wildlife. Exceptions are endangered species, migratory birds and possibly wildlife in designated Wilderness. Thus, states manage wildlife on federal lands, including National Wildlife Refuges.

This situation threatens any future for public-trust, wild bison in Montana. Previous legislatures have attempted to eliminate any possibility of restoring wild bison, but have been thwarted by governors’ vetoes. However, Montana has a new governor, and such vetoes may not be forthcoming.

Most bison in Montana are private livestock in commercial herds or on American Prairie Reserve. They are managed under the Department of Livestock.

As sovereign nations, four Native American Tribes have bison on their reservations. These bison must fulfill nutritional, commercial and cultural needs of the Tribes. They have been managed much like livestock.

Bison at the National Bison Range are “display animals in an exhibition pen” under Montana law.

Public bison from Yellowstone Park are only seasonal visitors. There are no public-trust, wild bison year-round in Montana.

Nationwide, domestication is the most serious threat to a future with wild bison. Domestication occurs in small, intensively managed herds, including all but the Yellowstone Park herd above. Small herds gradually lose genetic diversity. This loss, in combination with intensive management weakens and replaces natural selection, diminishing and disorganizing the wild bison genome. Domesticated herds become ever more dependent upon continued human interventions and maintenance.

The Montana Constitution mandates restoring natural resources and historical and cultural objects, and preserving our right to harvest wild game. The legislature has responded by providing guidelines for restoring wild bison while protecting private properties. Yet, the Bullock administration, in deference to the livestock industry, failed to restore bison.

In 2008, the U. S. Department of Interior began a Bison Conservation Initiative to preserve the wildness of bison. However, almost all federal herds are small, on small fenced ranges. Only the Yellowstone herd is an exception. Lack of large federal landscapes with wild bison limits the Bison Initiative.

In Montana, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is the largest federal refuge within historic range of plains bison. The Refuge welcomes bison restoration, but cedes the right to restore bison to the state.

The Montana Constitution, public-trust doctrine, previous state legislation, a federal Bison Initiative, the C. M. Russell Refuge plan, and the largest federal refuge are all in place to bring back Montana wild bison. But the 2021 Legislature threatens to make restoration impossible. Will Montanans allow this? Contact your legislators.

Jim Bailey is the coordinator of Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition. He lives in of Belgrade, Montana.