Bison reintroduction considered in Montana refuge

By Laura Bies

The USFWS has stated they will consider developing a new plan to reintroduce bison and bighorn sheep to Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.Credit: Paula Gouse/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering reintroducing bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in central Montana, beginning with consulting with tribes and other stakeholders about the topic this summer.

Bison (Bison bison) historically ranged throughout Montana but were extirpated from the region in the late 19th century. Reintroduction of the species to the area has been a hotly contested topic in recent years. Some tribes in Montana maintain bison herds on their lands, and a wild population of bison ranges in and around Yellowstone National Park.

Previous governor of Montana Steve Bullock had adopted a plan to restore bison to more areas of the state last year. The development of the plan was 10 years in the making. But last month, current Governor Gianforte announced that he was ending the state’s bison management plan.

The plan’s cancellation was announced as part of a legal settlement between the state and a property rights group that had argued the state did not fully consider the effects of bison reintroductions on farmers and ranchers. The settlement agreement, which has not been publicly released, would also prevent state wildlife officials from adopting a similar bison restoration plan during the next 10 years, according to E&E News.

Native American lawmakers in the state criticized the governor’s decision, especially his failure to consult with tribes before scrapping the reintroduction plan. A week after Gianforte’s announcement, eight Native American state lawmakers wrote to Secretary of the Interior Deb. Haaland, requesting that the administration develop a plan to reintroduce bison to Charles M. Russell refuge, as well as to federal public lands near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, such as Glacier National Park.

At one point, 30 million to 60 million bison ranged across North America, while today there are only approximately 11,000 wild bison on public lands in 12 states, according to the Department of the Interior. Additional herds in the stare are owned by conservation groups or private landowners.

Some ranchers oppose the reintroduction of additional bison in Montana, citing concerns that the wild animals could spread brucellosis to their cattle. Brucellosis, a bacterial disease which can cause spontaneous abortion in infected animals, is mostly eradicated in the United States, except in and around Yellowstone National Park. The wild bison population there is regularly culled to prevent the spread of disease. There has never been a known transmission from wild bison to cattle.

The USFWS has not released any details about the potential for reintroductions, beyond indicating that the process to consider the action would take multiple years. This summer, the agency will begin consulting with tribes and other stakeholders regarding a draft plan to reintroduce the animals.

The agency did reference also reintroducing bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), which currently live in the refuge; it is unclear whether those efforts would be to expand existing population or increase the species’ range within the refuge.

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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