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Guest view: Bison restoration need not be a divisive Issue

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Jim Bailey

Retired biologist and author Jim Bailey believes Yellowstone's participation in the bison slaughter goes against the park's mission.

A recent guest editorial “We must return buffalo to the American West” by representatives of three Montana Tribes promotes and attempts to justify wide restoration of wild bison on public lands, mostly Bureau of Land Management lands and on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The proposal is limited to “landscapes where there is a confluence of both Tribal and public interests”; but primarily promotes Tribal interests and neglects national goals for bison restoration. Authors of the editorial neglect historical and existing issues relating to and inhibiting bison restoration in Montana, including the Montana legislature’s legal rejection of bison restoration in the state.

Here, I focus on the Tribal proposal for shared management of bison on the CMR Refuge.

Tribal interests and national goals for bison are not entirely compatible. Tribes have important cultural, spiritual, nutritional and commercial needs from bison restoration. Information on Tribal management of reservation herds is difficult to obtain. But available evidence indicates a preponderance of intensive management with mostly small herds, leading to domestication of bison.

National directions and goals for bison on the CMR are found in the Refuge Conservation Plan, in the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, and in the Department of Interior Bison Conservation Initiative (2008, 2020). Refuge resources are to be managed to benefit the general American public, and to restore biotic diversity, genetic integrity and ecological relations on refuge habitats. Among hundreds of public, private and Tribal bison herds in the USA, only those in National Parks and Wildlife Refuges have this clear, reliable mandate. Notably, a goal of the Interior Bison Conservation Initiative is to “establish large, wide-ranging bison herds on appropriate large landscapes”.

The 2010 Status Review of American Bison identified gradual domestication as a major threat to the future of plains bison. Domestication is the opposite of wildness. It occurs as the genetic basis for wild characteristics is diminished and disorganized. In contrast, wild bison herds are large, to thwart loss of genes, and are influenced by a preponderance of natural selection – with a minimum of artificial management.

Across the USA, and specifically in Montana, Tribes already have far greater resources for achieving their needs for bison than do the National Parks and Refuges for preserving wildness of plains bison.

The Intertribal Buffalo Council comprised of 69 Tribes in19 states recently claimed to have at least 20,000 bison on about 1550 square miles of habitat. Moreover, Tribes have received excess bison from federal agencies, almost annually, for decades. This practice, including expensive bison from Yellowstone quarantine pens, will continue.

In contrast, National Parks and Refuges manage only 14 bison herds and under 10,000 bison. Only 2 herds have the genetic standard of 1000 animals on a large landscape. The CMR Refuge, largest federal refuge within historic range of plains bison, still has no bison. It offers the greatest opportunity to facilitate goals of the Department of Interior Bison Conservation Initiative.

Within Montana, seven Tribes have bison herds, although the herd at Rocky Boys reservation is new and small. In contrast, there are no public-trust, wild bison, year-round in Montana. Yellowstone bison are only seasonal visitors from Wyoming.

Across the nation and within Montana, Tribes have abundantly more resources and opportunities to build their herds and fulfill their needs for bison. In contrast, without public-trust bison on the CMR, belonging to and managed for all the people, federal goals for bison restoration and conservation may never be fully achieved.

Fulfilling national goals for bison restoration is already in jeopardy. Opportunities should not be further compromised with attempts to merge and dilute both Tribal and national plans on the CMR Refuge. National and Tribal goals for bison restoration should proceed on parallel, but separate tracks, supported by all Americans including Native Americans.

Jim Bailey is the coordinator of the Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition. See more at


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