Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge – A Bison Homeland

Information below is selected from federal documents (see footnote). It is presented to clarify issues and opportunities for bison restoration on the Refuge. The Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition contends that bison restoration on the Refuge is “appropriate” as required by the Refuge System mission statement.

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) is administered by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) in the Department of Interior. Stretched along the Missouri River and including the UL Bend NWR, it covers over 1500 square miles. The mission of the Refuge system includes “conservation, management and where appropriate, restoration of wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” Each refuge is to be managed to “ensure that the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the refuge system are maintained.”

The current 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the CMR was approved in 2012. The Refuge is “managed for wildlife conservation above all else.” FWS uses “natural, dynamic, ecological processes and management activities in a balanced, responsible manner to restore and maintain the biological diversity, biological integrity, and environmental health of the Refuge” and “The overall management goal at CMR is to promote biological diversity and maintain the natural abundance of native flora and fauna”.

“At a landscape scale” FWS will work with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) to benefit wildlife diversity, including to “restore extirpated (eliminated) species”, including by species reintroductions. “Restoring historical fire-return intervals and bison would be a major step in restoring the biological integrity and natural ecosystem functions on the Refuge and surrounding areas.” FWS intends to “remove interior fences to facilitate long-distance animal movements and use of prescribed fire” in managing wildlife habitat.

“Any reintroduction of wild bison would need to be a cooperative venture with FWP” and would be “conducted through a public process led by FWP.” However, FWS “has taken the position that it will not consider reintroducing wild bison on the refuge unless FWP initiates an effort to restore wild bison on a large landscape.”

“Before any wild bison reintroduction, FWS would complete a cooperative wild bison management plan developed and agreed-on by all management parties, which addresses population objectives and management, movement of animals outside restoration areas, genetic conservation and management, disease management, and conflict resolution procedures.”

“Wild bison restoration would bring back what was once the dominant herbivore in the refuge landscape. Such a project would be a positive move toward restoration of natural ecological processes”, which is the overall CMR goal.

Restoring bison to the CMR may necessitate some reductions in grazing the refuge by private livestock, depending largely upon the ultimate distribution of bison. While “livestock grazing occurs across much of the refuge”, the CMR “supplies less than 1% of the total” livestock forage used in the 6-county area. The dependence of individual ranches upon Refuge forage varies, however.

In 2012, about 34% of the livestock grazing on CMR was considered “prescriptive.” Prescriptive livestock grazing is manipulated by season, duration and intensity, as a “habitat management tool to achieve goals and objectives for wildlife habitat.” It may include “long-term rest or permanent exclusion”. In 2018, all areas of the CMR under prescriptive grazing were rested from any livestock. CMR intends to implement prescriptive grazing “across 50-75% of the refuge” by 2021.

Notably, an area of about 100 square miles of the Refuge (including the UL Bend NWR), now has no livestock use. This seems to offer the best opportunity for initiating bison restoration on the CMR.

Quotations above were taken from (1) the Record of Decision for the Comprehensive Plan, Federal Register 77 (220):67829-30, November, 2012; (2) the Final CMR Comprehensive Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, available at; (3) the Draft Comprehensive Plan; or directly from the CMR website, cited here.


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