‘Sportsmen for Bison’ Rallies Hunters Around Tremendous Restoration Opportunity

Hunters can play a key role in bison restoration. NWF Photo by Steve Woodruff

One of the biggest constituency for wildlife now has an opportunity to benefit one of the biggest game animals: bison. Over the past century, hunters have led the way in restoring and conserving wildlife such as elk, deer, bighorn sheep, waterfowl, and large predators, among others – leading with their political support as well as substantial tax dollars and license fees that pay for habitat and management.

Most bison today are privately owned livestock, managed like cattle. Opportunities for hunting wild bison are extremely limited. Bison often live inside fenced enclosures, serving as a kind of living museum exhibit but not fully fulfilling their ecological role. More than a century after Americans set about saving the bison, we have but a few small herds of wild bison in places like Yellowstone National Park, the Henry Mountains of Utah and the Copper River basin of Alaska.

Restoring Wild Bison

Bison with calf
Bison with calf. NWF photo by Steve Woodruff
Restoring wild bison will take broad public support, starting with the hunters who form the foundation of most wildlife conservation. As a start, the National Wildlife Federation has organized a Sportsmen for Bison coalition aimed helping hunters and their allies project their voices of support for bison.

Once roaming North America by the tens of millions, bison were a hugely important animal on the landscape. Many grassland species evolved alongside bison. Their grazing patterns – different than cattle – shaped vegetation and habitat for other species. Their propensity to “wallow” in dust baths created compacted depressions that collected water and formed mini-wetlands that added to grassland diversity. Their waste and tremendous biomass were part of nature’s nutrient-recycling system.

And, of course, bison were perhaps the single most important hunted species for millennia.

Yet, leading hunters of the day, concerned that bison were heading for extinction, were the ones who inspired what we now know as the modern conservation movement. Those early hunter-conservationists succeeded in saving bison from extinction, but – unlike nearly all other wildlife – we never got around to restoring bison.

Sportsmen for Bison’s initial focus is the tremendous opportunity to restore bison at Montana’s million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR). The refuge – which, yes, hunters helped pay for – is ideal, prairie bison habitat adjacent to several million additional acres of public lands. And, in case you’re wondering, the CMR welcomes hunting and is regarded as one of North America’s premier big-game hunting areas. The area could easily accommodate thousands of wild, wide-ranging bison.

Bison by Carol Ayers at the National Bison Range in Montana.
Bison. Photo by Carol Ayers at the National Bison Range in Montana.

How We Can Help

The State of Montana is considering the prospects of restoring wild bison, with an environmental impact statement on bison due out soon. But bison restoration faces fierce opposition from cattle ranchers who see bison as competitors for grass – even on public lands, where many ranchers enjoy highly favorable grazing privileges.

Montana policy-makers hear a constant stream of nay-saying from these bison opponents. Sportsmen for Bison aims to ensure hunters have the opportunity to be heard as well. Hunting will play an important role in bison restoration as a means of managing the animals’ numbers and distribution.

You don’t have to be a hunter or even a meat-eater to appreciate hunters as valuable conservation partners. Hunting has always been part of the human experience and is very much a part of our outdoor heritage as Americans. It takes an abundance of wildlife to sustain hunting, so achieving and maintaining that abundance produces great benefits for wildlife and wildlife lovers alike.

Take ActionVisit the Sportsmen for Bison website and sign the petition to Montana’s Gov. Steve Bullock, letting him know that hunters and their allies want to finish the work of wildlife restoration.
Tweet: .@GovernorBullock support bison restoration in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge! Tweet at Gov. Steve Bullock to support bison restoration in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge!