The 350 or so bison at this US Fish and Wildlife Service-managed site must feel like refugees with no real country. When the great herds were gone in America, people brought a few animals here to thrive in the rich Mission Valley. Homesteading displaced the bison a quarter century later. They were sold to Canada because Congress was too cheap to save them. The U.S. reacted to publicity around the sale by creating the National Bison Range and herds. The bison is now our National Mammal, its place in the Mission Valley isn’t guaranteed.
Native Americans lobbied to take over management of the Range and the herd. They said the government acquired the land unfairly. Their culture and lives were once shaped like skin around bison herds.
The Secretary of the Interior halted that transfer. Now, the federal government retains control but underfunds the Bison Range. Its future seems uncertain.
The history of bison in the U.S. turned tragic in the 1860’s. In about 20 years hunters and the U.S Army reduced wild herds from more than 30 million to 100 animals. This iconic animal, a foundation for Plains Indian cultures and lives, would go exctinct without rapid action.
In Montana’s Mission Valley and a few other areas, people saved small groups of animals that became the core of today’s herds. Saving the bison from extinction later became a badge of honor. Storytellers lined up with their heroic tales of sheltering the last few animals. Researchers spent decades unraveling the truth, which may never be fully known.
Conservation happened as much by happenstance than vision. In one case, the romantic woes of a Flathead Indian spurred him to gather four bison calves as penance. These calves expanded into a small herd of 13 animals that partners Michel Pablo and Charles Allard purchased. Depending on the story, Pablo was either a visionary committed to bison conservation, or an exotic animal collector.
The Pablo-Allard herd wandered the lush Mission Valley. They grew to 700-800 animals before the U.S. government decided to sell out the land to homesteaders in 1910. After Allard died, Pablo tried to sell his part of the herd to the government. President Teddy Roosevelt expressed enthusiastic support, but Congress wouldn’t appropriate funds for the purchase. Pablo sold them to Canada. After a two year, dangerous roundup to shove them in rail cars, most lived in Canada and founded today’s herds in that country.
Media covered the spectacular roundup. Our government was embarrased into bison conservation by the coverage. Roosevelt signed legislation in 1908 for the National Bison Range. The American Bison Society raised money for 34 bison acquired from a private herd. Private owners donated six other animals.
According to the USFWS, “It was the first time that Congress appropriated tax dollars to buy land specifically to conserve wildlife.”
Managing the Bison Range requires money and labor. The US FWS partnered with the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes to support this effort. Then, a court overturned the partnership. Tribal rangers were stripped of their gear and sent away.
The National Bison Range was my first stop on a bison-focused road trip to Montana. I support the Range and the desperate efforts for 130 years to conserve our National Mammal. I would visit again. But this site was a painful illustration of the challenges to bison conservation.
The National Bison Range’s lush grasslands, trees and hollows are critical for the animals’ health, but it is a landlocked site. Rotational grazing in fenced areas is necessary to keep forage healthy. There isn’t enough land for the bison to keep reproducing, so there is an annual roundup and herd reduction. No longer does the Pablo-Allard herd roam free on the Flathead Reservation.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes sought control of the National Bison Range. While controversial, people and groups supported the transfer with conditions around access. Then, the current Secretary of the Interior halted the transfer in April 2017. The U.S. wants to keep the land, but is cutting funding to all public parks and refuges.
All public lands seem to be up for sale for resource extraction right now. The bison on this range must hear the winds of change once more. They can only hope that dedicated people will work to preserve their small population into the future, whether here or elsewhere.
Animal and human refugees are fundamentally different. Animals can thrive in an appropriate environment, without concern for loss of culture, language, and place of origin. Bison need food, water, shelter, and space to roam and raise offspring.
The confines of a zoo are not the best home for a large, migratory herbivore. If we can preserve enough good land for bison, they will flourish- along with the many other plants and animals that once flourished alongside them.