bison herd Montana
Credit: Adobe stock. May not be republished without license.

This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

One of the state’s most prominent proxy wars — the agriculture-vs-wildlife debate playing out vis-a-vis bison — is again making the rounds in national and state policy circles. 

The Interior Department announced Friday, March 3, that it’s putting $25 million of Inflation Reduction Act funding toward bison restoration.

The agency described bison as a keystone species that is “inextricably intertwined with Indigenous culture, grassland ecology and American history.” It also said efforts to restore the once-abundant national mammal will contribute to healthy grasslands, which play an important role in climate change-mitigating carbon sequestration processes.

Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland further fleshed out her case in Order 3410, which lays out a framework for the department to work with tribes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service to advance bison restoration.

“The best science shows that returning bison to grasslands can enhance soil development, restore native plants and wildlife, and promote carbon sequestration, thereby providing benefits for agriculture, outdoor recreation, and Tribes. In addition, restoring bison and healthy grasslands can serve as a step toward national healing and reconciliation after centuries of federal policies designed to erase Native people and their cultures,” the order reads.

Those arguments don’t appear to resonate with Republicans in Montana, who argue that it’s up to state policymakers, not the federal government, to manage wildlife within Montana’s borders.

March 2, the day before the Interior Department’s announcement, the Montana Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 14 opposing bison introduction at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a central Montana refuge managed by USFWS. It passed on party lines, 34-16 and now awaits the consideration of the House.

Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge
Central Montana’s Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, designated in red on this map of Montana’s federally managed wildlife refuges, is the second-largest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48 United States. Credit: Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The resolution argues that mixed ownership inside the CMR and an open range management style providing “no delineation between where federal land ends and state trust land begins” should dissuade the federal government from reintroducing bison on the CMR, the second-largest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48. Such an action would “threaten the livelihoods of ranching families,” the resolution says, and force costs associated with bison damage onto the state and landowners in and adjacent to the CMR.

A call to CMR Project Manager Paul Santavay for comment on the Interior Department’s March 3 announcement was not returned by press time.

Tension over bison management is playing out in other arenas as well. Gov. Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen and the Montana Stockgrowers Association announced in August that they’re appealing the BLM’s decision to expand bison grazing in central Montana. A year prior, the state agreed not to explore bison management on state-managed lands for at least a decade as part of a settlement with United Property Owners of Montana.

latest stories

Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...