Exploring the Vast Montana Prairie
Area offers bison and outdoor enthusiasts room to roam
It isn’t easy to describe the immensity of the prairie in north-central Montana, where the National Wildlife Federation is working to restore America’s largest, wildest herd of bison.
I can’t say I fully grasped how vast the public lands are in and around Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge until a recent, blustery September day. We’d reached the area the night before, after a slow, bumpy bike ride across 20 miles of rutted dirt roads.
Rising at dawn to hike several miles through the surprisingly rugged Missouri River Breaks, my companions and I clambered into canoes for a brisk voyage retracing a stretch of Lewis and Clark’s route into the then-unmapped West, coming ashore at midday only to trade paddles for pedals. Some 20 miles to the east, our local guides told us, we would find our bedrolls and a meal.
And after that rather memorable day of plodding, paddling and pedaling? We’d crossed much less than 1 percent of the 3 million acres of public lands that make up the best and largest expanse of mostly intact prairie wildlife habitat in the lower 48 states.
I had come to Montana to take part in the second annual “Transect” – a slow-motion exploration of the American Prairie Reserve, an ambitious project led by one of NWF’s conservation partners to secure, restore and promote for public enjoyment millions of acres of native prairie and wildlife. Joining me was my enthusiastic partner in all things, Susie Cannell, and we teamed up with a small cadre of conservationists led by American Prairie Reserve staff and officers.
The Transect is not so much a tour as an immersion in a wild expanse of timbered draws, rich river bottoms and seemingly endless sagebrush steppe grasslands. Moving at human-powered pace across a vast landscape gave us a tremendous perspective and sense of scale. Here we see conservation writ large – clearly one of the greatest conservation opportunities of our time.
This area was where explorers Lewis and Clark marveled at wildlife in abundance and variety beyond imagination. This was one of the last bastions for wild bison on the prairie before all but a few remnants were slaughtered over a century ago. NWF, APR and others are working to make it the first place wild bison return on a significant scale – envisioning a herd of perhaps 10,000 wild, wide-ranging bison.
With support and leadership from NWF’s state affiliate – the Montana Wildlife Federation – Montanans have already restored elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and mule deer to abundance. Even black-footed ferrets, believed extinct, are making their comeback here amid the many large prairie dog towns. Bison are next in line.
NWF is working with the APR and other partners to encourage Montana to designate public lands in and around the CMR as a bison-restoration area and accept some of the APR’s bison as seed stock. The APR has been working for years to restore prairie and wildlife in a way that combines capitalism with conservation. Raising money from donors, the APR acquires ranches on the periphery of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge on a willing-buyer/willing-seller basis. With acquisition of the ranches, the APR also obtains the grazing leases to adjacent public lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
NWF’s work includes negotiating agreements as part of their Adopt a Wildlife Acre Program to effectively retire cattle-grazing allotments within the refuge, further opening the niche for bison while reducing potential conflicts with cattle.
The APR’s goal is to restore the lands it acquires to native condition, restore bison and other native wildlife to abundance, and use its property acquisitions to knit adjacent public lands into a prairie reserve half again the size of Yellowstone National Park. The APR now owns or leases some 350,000 acres of lands, all of which welcome public access and recreation. The APR also has established a herd of some 800 genetically pure bison managed as wildlife but, under Montana law, legally classified as livestock.
Restoring wild bison in and around the CMR is a tough grind, because many ranchers see bison as competition to cattle, and the issue is politically charged in Montana. But NWF is committed to resolving all concerns and conflicts through initiatives such as their Adopt a Wildlife Acre Program which works with ranchers to retire their public land grazing leases.
The days we spent traversing part of the CMR and APR by foot, canoe and bike included some tough uphill stretches. But it was worth all the hard work. We have more hard work ahead of us to restore wild bison. I have no doubt all that hard work will be worth the effort as well.
About the Author: Bruce Wallace is an Ann Arbor, Mich., attorney and Chair of the National Wildlife Federation’s Board of Directors.