Bison Advocacy: The Tranquilizing Drug of Gradualism

Featured Image: Wallowing Bison Bull, by Jim Bailey

By Jim Bailey, Coordinator, Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition.

In the early days of “The Movement”, after a century of Jim Crowism, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “This is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” So civil rights leaders took to the streets, boycotted the buses, sat at the lunch counters; faced the police dogs and water cannons. Had they not, Jim Crow may yet rule in much of America.

In 1910, William Hornaday proposed, in Congress, a wildlife preserve in Montana where wild bison might be restored. He was thwarted by a fledgling Montana livestock industry. In 1937, Olaus Murie of the U. S. Biological Survey proposed bison reintroduction on the new Fort Peck Game Range, precursor of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. But it was not to be.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge © Jim Bailey

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Public Domain

In the 1980’s, inspired by success in bringing other Montana big game “back from the brink”, personnel within the Fish & Game Department promoted the idea of bison restoration. In 2000, state, federal, tribal and private representatives met to discuss a bison reintroduction. But none occurred.

In 2009, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks began developing a statewide plan for bison restoration and conservation. After much expense and public information and outreach, the process was closed for analysis and reflection in 2015. It took another 5 years to reach a decision in 2020. Essentially, the “decision” was only to continue the process by soliciting site-specific proposals from the public, for more review and public comment.

For the last 110 years, effective opposition to bison restoration anywhere in Montana has come largely from the politically powerful state livestock industry. In all this time, there was hope that politics would change; that a growing understanding of bison values and ecological relations, and cordial, objective, honest collaboration would restrain opposition – at least enough to restore some public wild bison, somewhere in Montana. But it has not occurred.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge map © CMRNW

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge map © CMRNW

United Property Owners of Montana, imbedded in the livestock industry, has sued Fish, Wildlife & Parks, claiming deficiencies in the environmental analysis that supported the 2020 decision to proceed yet again with more deliberation.

Now, prominent Montana wildlife organizations propose more “building trust and working together” toward bison restoration. A laudable, but one-sided goal. “Working together” assumes the livestock industry has some flexibility in its position. That’s hard to find. A minority still demands no future for the peoples’ bison, even on federal public lands where bison should be fulfilling state and national wildlife goals.

Meanwhile, although 70% of Montana voters have supported restoration of public, wild bison on some public lands, their awareness and understanding of the issues and opportunities for bison restoration are thin.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge habitat © Jim Bailey

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge habitat, Public Domain

The collaborative approach, targeting public outreach toward rural Montana and the livestock industry, while carefully avoiding difficult issues and strong support for bison in the public media, has not worked for over a century. Much public literature about bison, though popular, is romantic, superficial, and avoids the enduring conflict surrounding bison restoration. Continuing with more of the same, and expecting different results, is irrational. There is a compelling, but neglected, need to enhance public awareness and active support for bison restoration.

For civil rights, more than gradualism was necessary to overcome a minority of bigots. For bison restoration, we must move past the comfortable stance of endless negotiation and shunning of those who dare to speak frankly for bison restoration. It is time to discard the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: See more on this issue at www.mtwildbison.org. Please contact Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director (martha.williams@mt.gov), indicating your support for restoring public, wild bison on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition logo

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blankJim Bailey, is a retired wildlife biologist, with degrees from Michigan Tech University and the State College of Forestry at Syracuse University. He has worked as a research biologist (Illinois Natural History Survey), university professor (University of Montana, Colorado State University) and management biologist (New Mexico Game & Fish Department). In retirement, he became interested in plains bison and wrote American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Currently, he is coordinating a coalition promoting reestablishment of public wild bison on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and nearby lands. More on Jim’s writing are found at jamesabailey.com.

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