William Hornaday proposed a wildlife reserve where bison could
be restored along the Missouri River in 1910
In a recent release, the Associated Press cites an Interior Department statement that the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service plans to launch a “multiple-year” process to “engage Tribes and stakeholders” to consider restoring bison on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The process, likely an environmental impact statement or an environmental analysis tiered to the current CMR Refuge plan/EIS, is expected to begin in July.
Almost immediately after the AP announcement, Montana Governor Gianforte was quoted as saying the plan “raises questions about federal intrusion into state wildlife issues.” Currently, there are no public-trust, wild bison year-round in Montana, where restoration of bison has been opposed for many decades. Recently, the 2021 Montana legislature passed two bills that would render bison restoration in the state impossible. One of these, already signed by Gianforte, provides any county commission with power to veto any bison transplant within a county, even on a federal refuge. Moreover, the Gianforte administration has attempted to commit Montana to not consider bison restoration for at least 10 years.
Under the National Refuge System Administration and Improvement Acts, the FWS is required to ensure the biological integrity and diversity of refuge resources to benefit all Americans. Restoration of species is encouraged “where appropriate”. In this, the FWS must “coordinate, interact and cooperate with state wildlife agencies. But, when state obstinacy and actions conflict with federal statutory obligations, courts have recognized a preeminent federal role.
In response to state opposition to bison restoration, Montana Native American Tribes have suggested placing Tribal bison on the CMR Refuge, under Tribal management to benefit Native Americans.
Although the details are yet unclear, the FWS intention to proceed toward restoring bison as a keystone species on the CMR Refuge is encouraging. However, the Montana Wild Bison Coalition opposes using Tribal bison and management as a solution to state opposition against bison on the CMR. FWS and Secretary of Interior Haaland have an obligation to restore diversity and integrity of biological resources on the Refuge for all American citizens - the many, not the few.