Conservation Public Lands & Waters

New Bison War: Should Buffalo Be Reintroduced to the West?

Andrew McKean Avatar

Photo by Jonathan Larsen/Diadem Images/Alamy

The badlands and sagebrush prairies south of my house, where I hunt mule deer and graze cow-calf pairs with my neighbors, don’t look like a battleground.

But this folded sea of gumbo knobs, prickly pears, and dust devils is the setting for a gathering conflict that pits wildlife advocates against ranchers. There’s nothing new about that clash, but what’s different about this discord is how it stitches together three very different eras: the old West of cowboys and Indians, the current West of graduate-degree ranchers and pedigreed cattle, and the new West of ecologists who see in this wide, empty land a perfect place to restore the keystone native species of the plains.

At the heart of the battle are bison, and the question of whether or how to return free-ranging buffalo to public grasslands in eastern Montana. This conflict divides my little town of Glasgow, Montana (pop. 3,300), pitting hunters who would like the chance to pursue buffalo in the same places they now hunt antelope against ranchers who view the wild bovines as competition for grass and a threat to the fences that hold their cattle. And it divides me, equal parts conservation–minded hunter and taxpaying rancher.

Returning Bison to the Plains
The issue isn’t an abstraction. There is a pressing need to find a permanent home for hundreds of wild bison that have overpopulated the fragile mountainous habitat of Yellowstone National Park, 300 miles to the southwest. Wildlife agencies and private conservation groups suggest that these surplus animals—some of the few genetically pure bison remaining on the planet—should be returned to the Great Plains, where tens of millions of their ancestors lived until a century ago. Returning bison as apex herbivores, they say, will promote grassland health and biodiversity.

Ranchers, and those who depend on the cattle economy, say the appropriate fate of these wild bison—“wooly tanks,” some call them, for their habit of running through fences—is a slaughterhouse, not relocation. They worry that these Yellowstone animals could spread brucellosis, a disease endemic to the park’s bison that can cause beef cattle to abort their calves. Fundamentally, they say, there is no longer room in the West for wild buffalo. Barbed wire and homesteads have replaced itinerant Indian tribes and frontier hide hunters. And free-ranging bison.

But there’s a larger threat that is seldom articulated: Ranchers worry that wild bison could displace cattle from the range and upend the fragile cow-country economy that relies on subsidized livestock grazing on public land. They recall the last time bison were in the headlines. It was in the 1980s, when the idea of the “Buffalo Commons” was circulating. That was a proposal to “rewild” the plains, replacing humans with buffalo and prairie dogs to restore ecological balance and create a potentially appealing tourist destination.

Buffalo as Symbols
It’s important to keep that context in mind anytime bison are mentioned here. To traditional ranchers, a bison isn’t just a wild cow. It’s code for the systematic dismantling of the ranching culture. But bison are equally emblematic to wildlife advocates, who view the animals as the single species capable of restoring wildness to one of the largest ecosystems on the continent, the short-grass prairie that stretches from central Canada south to Oklahoma.

Of course, these Great Plains have been irreversibly altered in the two centuries since Lewis and Clark paddled through here and marveled over endless herds of buffalo. Grasslands have been converted to grain fields, and beef cattle have replaced bison as the bovines that define the region.

“We don’t talk about bringing back the dinosaurs, but that’s exactly what big herds of free-roaming buffalo are,” John Brenden, a Montana state senator and a leading bison opponent, told the Associated Press. “Their time has passed.”


Photo by: Jeff Wilson

Buffalo Country
There are a few sizeable sections of the plains that are relatively unchanged since mastodons, and later bison, occupied this landscape. That area happens to be my backyard, an empire of sagebrush that sprawls from the Missouri River north to the Canadian border in eastern Montana. It is predominantly public land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

There are reminders here of the historic presence of bison, if you know where to look. You can find bison skulls in the eroded banks of prairie streams. The edges of car-size granite boulders, left on the open prairie by retreating glaciers, are polished smooth by generations of hip-scratching bison. And below some of the steepest scarps out here, you can sometimes find drifts of bison bones and stone spear points, relics of prehistoric buffalo jumps and butchering parties.

There is a certain wildness to this country—that’s what attracted me and keeps me here—the heart of a hunter’s domain. But nearby there’s a satisfying sense of order, too, imposed by ruler-straight section-line fences, miles-long strips of durum wheat, and close-knit communities that promote inclusion and a sense—expressed as a sort of pioneer pride—that the rest of the world has forgotten us out here on this last American frontier.

History Lessons
Another culture that shares these plains with ranchers is on the opposite side of the bison issue.

They’re American Indian tribes—Sioux, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre—that have been lobbying to receive many of Yellowstone Park’s surplus bison. Tribal leaders find themselves in a new range war with ranchers as they try, through the courts and the Montana legislature, to enable the restoration of wild bison to reservations as well as non-tribal public lands.

For Indians, bison are as essential now as they were 130 years ago, when the removal of the animals hastened the end of free-ranging tribes and spawned the modern reservation culture. Tribes want to restore bison herds to feed and employ tribal members and give them a sense of historical completion, their gift to a species that for centuries gave prairie tribes food, shelter, and a world view that revolved around the hides and horns and meat of buffalo. (Click here to read more about America’s “left behind” species.)

“Bison are a connection to our ancestors,” says Mark Azure, director of fish and wildlife on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation west of Glasgow.

Conservationists are mostly on the Indians’ side, and they think they have found the right moment and place to begin the restoration. They want to translocate a herd of Yellowstone Park bison to the 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in the Missouri River Breaks. This first step is actually pretty sensible—wildlife refuges are mandated with managing native wildlife, and nothing could be more native (or in need of management) in eastern Montana than wild bison. The CMR is already known for its world-class elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep, and it’s not a reach to imagine that a huntable herd of wild bison could live here, too.

But what excites conservationists, and troubles ranchers, is that the CMR represents a foothold on the plains that could enable bison to be returned to a wider landscape, one occupied mainly by beef cattle. Much of the prairie north of the CMR all the way to the Canadian border—an area nearly the size of Indiana—is managed by the BLM, whose principle function is to award permits allowing ranchers to graze cattle on public lands. Many conservationists are urging the BLM to amend these coveted grazing permits—they traditionally pass down from generation to generation of the same ranch family and are fundamental to the financial security of most Western ranches—to include wild bison. In dry years, there won’t be enough grass to feed both beef and bison, and ranchers worry that once buffalo are allotted some of this precious forage, their cattle could lose out.

Competing Perspectives
As a hunter, I anticipate the opportunity to someday draw a tag to hunt a wild bison.

I think limited numbers of bison could roam here, in small scattered herds whose numbers and movement could be controlled through public hunting. That management strategy has worked elsewhere, in Utah’s Henry Mountains and South Dakota’s Black Hills, where ranchers grudgingly share the range with bison. I’m convinced that, given the opportunity, hunters would flock here from around the world for a chance to hunt wild bison in places they haven’t roamed in 130 years. That revenue could be good for our rural economy.

But as a rancher, I share my neighbors’ worries about competing with herds of wild bison for precious grass. I worry about my fences, and my liability should a herd of wild-eyed “wooly tanks” tear through one, allowing my cows to graze my neighbor’s high-dollar wheat. I worry about my county’s tax base, and our ability to fund schools and roads, if the ag economy dries up.

The sustainable solution is probably between the two poles, but the battle lines in my town are so stark that it’s hard to hold a rational conversation about bison management here. A friend of mine, a banker who helped arrange the loan for me to buy my ranch, told me that he could no longer do business or be seen socially with me if I publically endorse bison relocation.

My friends in the conservation community can’t understand why I’m not fully supportive of bison restoration. But they don’t live in a town where pickups are festooned with bumper stickers that say, “Don’t Buffalo Me!” and “No Federal Land Grab.” And they don’t own a ranch that depends on federal grazing leases.

It occurs to me that most issues worth fighting for are simple in their clarity. The issue of whether to restore bison to the plains of Montana is anything but clear, and my own perspective depends on whether I’m viewing it with the eyes of a hunter or a rancher.

Walk into almost any rancher’s house in Montana and you’ll see some reverential nod to bison. It might be a weathered skull dug out of a cutbank and now decorating a mantle. Or it might be a faded Charlie Russell print of bison grazing the fenceless plains, framed on the dining-room wall. Even Montana’s license plate features an iconic bison skull.

That’s how many eastern Montanans would like to keep bison: as artifacts and hollow-eyed skulls. Meanwhile, Yellowstone Park’s surplus bison keep growing in numbers, waiting for a future that could bring either a kill-floor bolt to their head or a return to the open plains of their ancestors.

Because the issue of bison restoration is so polarizing, Outdoor Life asked both proponents and opponents of free-ranging bison to contribute their perspectives. Here are three commentaries on the topic. Do you have an opinion on restoring bison to public land in the West? Please comment below.

Common Sense Management is the Solution to Yellowstone Park Bison

by John C. Brenden, Montana State Senator, District #18

The entire problem with bison in Yellowstone Park is mismanagement. I could take the poorest rancher (if there is one) in Montana and have him be the manager of Yellowstone Park and the bison problem would be cured in a year.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s officials managed bison. That is, bison numbers correlated with the amount of feed or pasture available. Then the big environmental movement hit in the ‘70s and created the situation we have today, too many bison for too little pasture. Buffalo are no different than cows, horses, or other livestock—when there is too little to eat animals will go where there is food. A good rancher does not have 5,000 cows on a 1,000-cow pasture! That is the problem in Yellowstone Park.

Teddy Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota and Black Hills State Park in South Dakota (the biggest state park in the nation) manage their bison numbers to the carrying capacity of the land and they have boundaries, meaning fences. When their herd becomes too large for the pasture, they sell them for food or to other ranchers and organizations. This is called good management of the resource.

Disease Vectors
Most of the bison in Yellowstone Park carry brucellosis. This is a disease that causes a cow to abort its calf. There has been no documented transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle, but the possibility certainly exists. Agriculture is the largest economic driver in Montana, which along with Idaho and Wyoming are the only states that are not brucellosis free. These three states have designated surveillance areas around Yellowstone Park, and if brucellosis is detected, the entire infected herd is destroyed, and all animals sold outside the state must be tested. Texas, as I write this, wants to make sure all the livestock from Montana are tested and free of brucellosis. This takes time and costs a ton of dollars.

Transferring bison to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations or other places around the state is a big mistake. Why should Montana participate in helping spread brucellosis around the state? The two above mentioned reservations have had their own bison herds for years and they have always had problems keeping them in their pastures. This last winter the Fort Belknap had a couple hundred buffalo that went through the fences and ended up 30 miles from their pasture. These wayward buffalo cause all kind of damage and they can breed with cattle.

These reservation-escaping bison have been well documented in the press over the years. Any animal can get out of confinement, but not on a regular basis. The tribes have not been good neighbors in that respect, and I don’t say that out of bias or racism. If my Swede neighbors let their animals out that many times I would be unhappy with them as well!

The danger isn’t limited to disease. U.S. Highway 2 runs through my senate district. It is bad enough to hit a horse or a cow at night on the highway, but can you imagine hitting one of these woolly tanks (buffalo) that can weigh over 1,500 pounds?

Loss of Federal Grazing
The federal government for years has been taking away grazing allotments from ranchers. In 1986 the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge had 40,000 AUM’s (animal unit/month). Now there are 16,000 fewer AUM’s. That is like a 4,000-cow herd (large enough to feed 24,500 people annually) being taken out of business. Phillips County, in my senate district, produces enough beef to feed 344,000 people annually and enough grain production to feed 1.7 million people annually. That is just one of my 7 counties! Unthinking people want to take that sort of food production away so that we can have Bambi and the Seven Bison!

Common sense management is the solution to the Yellowstone Park bison. Selling, slaughtering (for food), and hunting should all be used in the bison solution. To you folks out of our area or in other states and countries, keep out of our business and we will do the same in your places!

For the record I do not own or manage any livestock!

State Senator John Brenden lives outside Scobey, Montana.

America’s Wildlife Conservation Movement Isn’t Finished Until Wild Bison are Restored

by Kit Fischer, National Wildlife Federation

Torn between the opportunity to finish the American hunter-conservationist movement’s restoration of big game by returning some wild bison to ideal habitat in Montana, and cattle ranchers’ fears that wild bison could somehow threaten their livelihoods, (Outdoor Life, August 2013) Andrew McKean wonders, “What’s a ranch-owning hunter to do?”

Well, for starters, how about taking some advice from a fellow ranch-owning hunter by the name of Theodore Roosevelt?

“Conservation and rural-life policies are really two sides of the same policy,” Roosevelt wrote a century ago. “And down at the bottom this policy rests upon the fundamental law that neither man nor nation can prosper unless, in dealing with the present, thought is steadily given for the future.”

America’s 26th president and most important of the early hunter-conservationists understood that wildlife restoration and economic prosperity aren’t an either/or proposition. We not only can have both, but we must have both.

In his article, McKean ably describes the angst of ranchers who see bison as competition for forage, a menace to fences and a potential vector for diseases that cattle and bison share. Those concerns may be overblown, but they’re understandable. And they’re also manageable. How do we know? Because we’ve been there, done that.

Too few Americans today understand that our abundant wildlife exists only because of herculean restoration efforts, led by sportsmen and –women. By the turn of the 20th century, Americans had not only wiped out nearly all the bison, but also most of the elk, deer, antelope, moose, bighorn sheep, waterfowl, upland birds, furbearers, and predators. Virtually all wildlife had been driven to extremely low numbers throughout the West a century ago.

When Roosevelt was in the White House, no more than 5,000 elk survived in Montana. Today we have 150,000. Thanks to habitat protection and modern wildlife management, we brought them back – along with all the other game. We brought them all back, that is, except wild bison. Until we’ve restored at least some truly wild bison to the prairies, the job of wildlife restoration is not finished.

Wildlife restoration is one of America’s greatest success stories, made possible through creative, balanced approaches to preventing or mitigating land-use conflicts. We can extend this success to include wild bison.

Of course, we’ll never again see vast herds of wild bison. We can never restore them to the degree we have elk, deer, and antelope. The landscape is too changed, developed, and occupied. We don’t have very many places where it’s even feasible to restore a significant herd of bison. But we do have one place that’s ideal.

In and around Montana’s vast, million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife refuge, we have the opportunity to restore a population of wild, wide-ranging, huntable bison.

The CMR, as the refuge is best known, is optimum, native habitat for bison – with grass and water aplenty on public lands where wildlife conservation and restoration is the top priority. The CMR welcomes public hunting, and the area already is one of Montana’s premier hunting grounds. Millions of acres of adjacent public lands create space and opportunity for sound management of bison – management that includes fair-chase sport hunting.

All of the arguments that ranchers offer and McKean cites against restoring bison would and did apply equally to elk and bighorn sheep, among other species. Elk and bighorns compete with livestock for space and forage. They share with livestock susceptibility to certain diseases. And elk, particularly, can be hell on fences.

Thankfully, rather than allow such concerns to stop restoration of elk or sheep, wildlife managers, sportsmen and landowners worked together to prevent and manage problems. Today, Montana has tremendous elk and bighorn populations – and 2.6 million cattle.
We’ve restored other big game while maintaining cattle ranching, and we can do so with bison.

A few fringe environmental groups in the West espouse an end to livestock grazing on public lands. Most of us – and nearly all ranchers – recognize that as an extreme position. The National Wildlife Federation and other wildlife conservation organizations believe a “No-bison-on-public-lands-anywhere-anyhow” position espoused by ranchers is equally extreme.

We’re confident that in a state as large as Montana, there’s room for a vibrant livestock industry AND a wild bison herd on public land – particularly the CMR. Recent polling indicates that the vast majority of Montanans, nearly 70%, agree that Montana is plenty big support bison restoration on the CMR.

Is anybody sorry that Americans took up the challenge of wildlife restoration a century ago? Of course not. But we – and future generations – surely will regret it if we don’t finish the job. Bison restoration needs to be done right and in the right place. It’s a challenge, of course. But it’s a challenge hunter-conservationists have proved we can meet.

Kit Fischer is the National Wildlife Federation’s Sportsmen’s Outreach Coordinator for the Rocky Mountains and Prairies Regional Center.

Free-Roaming Bison? Remember Our Experience with Free-Roaming Wolves

by Watty Taylor, The Montana Stockgrowers Association

As the state begins serious discussions about the potential of establishing a “free roaming” herd of bison in Montana, there seems to be a lot of disparity in opinions.

Some would like to see us return to the time when bison roamed the plains without the annoyances of modern towns, farms and ranches, or a web of highways and railroads. Others can see only conflicts with establishing a herd of “wild” bison in the state. It’s quite the debate.

Our question is: have Montanans expressed a true desire to see more bison, or is the pressure coming from outside our state? We do not know of any area in Montana where the local community is clamoring for a truly free-roaming bison herd.

Montana is already home to many significant bison herds. There’s the herd at the National Bison Range in Moiese, the wild bison in Yellowstone National Park, and many other private herds that are raised both for conservation purposes and for agricultural purposes. Why do we need to establish another herd, let alone a free roaming one?

Is it about preserving genetics of wild bison? Preservation is already happening. People and groups all across the West have been working to preserve the genetic integrity of bison. If genetics is not the issue, then what is? Hunting? There are bison hunting opportunities here in Montana both privately and publicly near Yellowstone National Park. There are also other great opportunities in states like Utah. Is there really that much interest in more hunting opportunities for bison?

Some of the outside interests pushing the hardest for a free-roaming bison herd say that because of Montana’s proud wildlife heritage, we should restore bison in a free-roaming capacity “just because.” Ranchers certainly understand the importance of protecting Montana’s wildlife heritage. In fact, ranchers work hard to steward the private and public lands that provide the majority of habitat for wildlife in our state.

Bison are being conserved in Montana and throughout the West, so the question we should be asking is what benefit will another herd really provide? Or perhaps more importantly: what impact will these animals have on our working lands in Montana that provide the foundation of our economy as well as our beautiful scenery and important wildlife habitat?

Restoring wildlife just for the sake of doing it isn’t a good enough reason to move ahead with this effort. Montanans have seen the problems associated with wolf reintroduction and the effects it has had on other wildlife species and on our working lands. It is the private landowners and local communities who typically shoulder the burden when it comes to these efforts. Bison are already being conserved in a responsible manner that takes into consideration genetic diversity, hunting opportunities, and the realities of our modern day infrastructure as a state.

Let us not allow outside interests to come into our state, dictate what happens here and then leave us high and dry with an unnecessary mess, and bill, to deal with.

Watty Taylor is a past president of the Montana Stockgrower’s Association. This commentary is excerpted from an essay he wrote in 2012.