Bison, © Fran Piepenbrink

Victory for Wild Bison in Montana!

In a decision that the uninitiated would argue is a painful exercise in stating the obvious, a Montana court last week determined that the wild bison of Yellowstone, an animal that has roamed the continent for millennia, are indeed wild animals. Wild bison have been a fixture of the North American landscape for at least 300,000 years, numbering 20-30 million strong, yet were driven to the brink of extinction in the late 1800s by overhunting and purposeful eradication to subjugate tribes who depended on them. This makes wild bison proof of what reckless human disregard can bring upon our fellow creatures, and of the fact that to many humans, creatures should be permitted to survive only if they conform to our notion of order and efficiency.

Bison and calf, © Diana LeVasseurIn the legal realm, the American bison is a curious outlier; privately owned and carefully tended in some cases, and publicly owned and roaming free in others. People often are unaware that bison still are considered wildlife in many states, and have populations whose numbers and health are managed by both wildlife management agencies as well as livestock managing agencies.

It is with this background that the Montana court was asked to address the question: What is a wild bison?  A group called Citizens for Balanced Use led a legal challenge of the transfer of some Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations in the northern part of the state – a transfer that Defenders helped make happen as part of our participation in wild bison restoration programs. These bison, culled from the Yellowstone herd, had endured a long process of quarantine to ensure that they no longer carried brucellosis, a disease feared by stockmen because of its potential effects on cattle reproduction (though no case of cattle contracting this disease from bison has ever been recorded). With the goal of keeping wild bison from expanding anywhere outside of their tiny toehold on Montana soil near Yellowstone, Citizens for Balanced Use and others claimed that because the bison had been confined for a time, they were no longer under the jurisdiction of the state wildlife management agency, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and instead should fall under the state Department of Livestock, an agency that answers to the livestock industry and almost certainly would never have approved the transfer.

Bison herd, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Bison herds, once a familiar sight all across the Great Plains, are making a triumphant return at Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Defenders partnered with the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribal wildlife departments and the Montana wildlife department to help bring about the historic return of wild bison to tribal land in Montana, and we continue to work towards seeing bison more fully restored in their native habitat.  Our groups, joined by Earthjustice and National Wildlife Federation, fought back against this legal challenge to wild bison restoration; wild bison belong on the plains of Montana, and simply confining a wild animal for a time in order to relocate it does not cause it to lose its wild nature. Last week, the court agreed with us!  Wild bison will remain classified as “wildlife” under state law, regardless of their temporary confinement in quarantine. This means their reintroduction to other suitable locations in the state can continue.

What brought us to the point of needing the courts to declare wildlife as wild? We would never have reached this sad point except for the livestock interests in the Montana legislature who have been aggressively trying to legislate wild bison out of existence for the past six years.  At the heart of this battle is a fundamental question: is there room in the world today for the still wild? Or will our wildlife be forced into smaller and smaller boxes in which they eventually are stripped of the roles they play in natural systems?  Given the importance of this decision, the anti-wild and anti-bison forces will almost certainly be back in the Montana legislature next January, trying to confine wild bison, but for now the door remains open to recover bison as part of our natural heritage in Montana.

Steve Forrest, Rockies & Plains Senior Representative

27 Responses to “Victory for Wild Bison in Montana!”

  1. Ian Jewett

    Bison are a critical component to healthy western ecosystems and a symbol of a shift toward conservation and eco-understanding in the United States. So glad they are now considered wildlife…legally.

  2. Johnny L

    They are amazing . Beautiful animals I would love to see a herd running lose .
    It must be some thing to see .

  3. Chief Paul Gwilawato Bunnell

    This is a great victory. But it is only one step to give the land back to the Buffalo. Maybe many other tribes with large lands can also place them on their reservations. Today, the threat of extinction of all plant and animal life should be notice to man that man must adjust to live with all. Aho, Chief Gwilawato

  4. eesukyah James stgoddard

    Thanks. Cousins. Eeneewah.(buffalo) appreciate it. ! ! !

  5. Helena

    Bison is wildlife ,so they Need live free.
    when People understand that?

  6. Stefaan E.R. Oplinus

    Are we sure these are purebred bison? I read that in some herds domestic cattle was bred?


      Yes they have been crossing the buffalo with livestock for several years now. They are calling the offspring “beefalo” . I believe is the right way they spell it.

  7. Tony Phillips

    At the end of the day, how much does it really matter to nature and the environment if they are not pure bred? If they do what bison do and occupy the same ecological niche then surely that’s ok.

  8. Carol Simpson

    God bless all of you for this current victory. May you and all wildlife continue to be so blessed. God set up nature to work perfectly in its wild state. We are part of that in our role as caretakers of the planet. Why can’t people get it through their heads that God gave man dominion! It means to nurture and protect. Though the root may be the same it is NOT domination. What we do to these beloved creatures, ALL OF THEM, will either bless us or shame us. Please let us be blessed!

  9. Pat Temple

    It’s Lord God’s Blessing for the WILD Bison, horse, Wolf etc. to run free like the wind, but greed of the man w BIG MONEY rules the government. Kill the Bison, Horse & Burro for the Cattle Ranchers who ships them to Mexico to be slaughtered. Then the WOLF is slaughtered for the BIG MAN for he can make NIG MONEY on Hunting Loves. Life is sad!!


      I agree that much in life is sad however I believe it is how we make it. When we join hands to protect and preserve and stand firm knowing that these wonderful and beautiful animals such as the Idaho Wolves, the Mexican Grey Wolves, and many more , were here before us. It is us that must understand that without these animals it will throw things out of place and will only cause bad things to happen in the ecosystem.
      I fully respect the wild animals and we know that they were all put here on earth for pacific reasons and those reasons do “NOT” include man going out and shooting and or destroying these beautiful animals to the point of
      extinction. If these people want to kill all of the totally beautiful animals and are allowed to do so then what will they kill next??? We need to wake people up who are not aware of these things and promote the preservation of the wild animals by educating those people. We can and will save the beautiful animals by working together for the soul purpose of one cause. Perhaps I have said too much here but I love these wild animals and the environment they live in and I know that there are answers to these problems and I know that things will work out when we all come together for the same cause.

  10. roanne katcher

    It is thrilling to hear how protected these wild animals are.
    They must continue to be protected. So important to keep them as part of our history and to respect their value in our environment.

  11. Maggie

    High time someone “realized” that these are wild animals rather than livestock! Now if the same realization came to the ones who insist wild horses & burros are livestock. Its past time! Whats being done to the wolves is beyond belief. All the time, effort & money spent to re-wild them & its being undone by any dimwit who can buy a “hunting” license. Thank you – defenders.

  12. Ann Sturdivnt

    Never have I been so proud to be a member of Defenders. The work they (and us) do is truly productive and needed. Many thanks ,also, to Native Americans
    everywhere. We all should adopt their “live with all wildlife as though the wild and humans are truly one “. We are here to protect and defend all wildlife

  13. Jennifer Christiano

    This is in deed thrilling news – a great victory and, we hope, just the first in a string of many for the magnificent buffalo! The next step needs to be a ‘teachable moment’ for the ranching industry. What would frighten and pressure the livestock industry more than to have the entire environmental community suddenly act as a market force, and say “no thank you” to meat and leather, or at least to meat and leather from animals not raised in an environmentally friendly manner? Even doing Meatless Mondays in honor of the buffalo would send a powerful message to the ranching industry that we are serious about not tolerating their business as usual. We cannot continue to support the ranchers economically by consuming their produce no matter what, and expect them to give a patoot about our concerns over their ‘labor’ practices!


    The idea of a one day a week boycott of products from the ranching industry would send a powerful message that they would understand. Although a serious carnivore, I would support such a boycott to the message across. We must support ecology and the need to maintain our wildlife and natural resources for ourselves and our children.

  15. Lynne in Florida

    I quit eating beef several years ago in my small protest against the ranchers’ apparent belief that public lands belong to them alone. MY share of the public lands is for wildlife. Ranchers need to use public lands responsibly for ALL life, not just their cattle, or not use them at all.

  16. Laughting eyes

    Hopefully our bison can live on, And run free and get plentiful again, And have the land to run free, We need to have our wild life run free, and no human should stop them, People should learn to stop taking everything, And let the plants grow so there will be some left for future generations, People must stop stripping this land for there own greed, We have future generations that need some of our recourse’s for there future too, Its time to replant what is taken from our earth, and Put back what is taken, Its time for People to wake up and stop killing this great earth, and Killing all the species and all the plants and tree’s off, and Let this land have a chance to replenish for what the greedy people are only thinking of there self’s , We all need to think about others and stop and think, These plants and trees were here along time before the people who are taking more then they need, from now on plant what you take, so it doesn’t get endangered and won’t grow anymore, we need our plants for other generations,

  17. Joann Noonan

    Congratulations! To you and to the American Bison. Thank you for all your hard work on this issue, and on all the other issues you promote. You do really good work and our country would not be the same without you.

  18. eloise lanum

    I remember seeing video of the first wolves being released in Yellowstone. Look at what has happened when they lost protection! Defenders is doing great with our donations. I have been a member for 20yrs &, boy, – have they accomplished wonders!

  19. Gail Noon

    Bison not wild ?!…..the bison (or the ancestors of these bison) were there before the cattle were BROUGHT IN (meaning – the cattle are the “immigrants !)

    What IS it about people being “afraid” to have anything wild around them?!

    I’ve read – and heard [on TV documentaries] that the Romans killed THOUSANDS (maybe hundreds of thousands) of all types of animals during the “glory” days (or should I say the “GORY” days) of the Roman Coliseum.

    Mankind has been stupid (in certain ways) ever since God created Adam and Eve, and we STILL don’t seem to have gotten any / much wiser !

  20. Richard Daniel

    Ranchers in Montana understand only one thing: MONEY. Lets start a campaign to boycott Montana beef and for that matter all beef raised on public lands where they graze cows and sheep on OUR lands for pennies ($1.35) per month. The attiude of the cattle people in Montana will never change, so we should hit them where it hurts, in the check book!

  21. Gary L

    Many of you are dead on, there is only one way that bison will ever return to some of their homeland, that is boycott the livestock industry as much as possible. There may be a few items such as work boots that will need to bought, but if enough people boycott beef, leather, lamb and wool, it will not take long for ranchers to change their ways. There are other tasty foods that provide complete proteins such as chicken, turkey, wild fish and whey protein powders.

    There are a few ranchers that manage their land using conservation practices that should be supported. Lava Lake Ranch in Idaho sells lamb and Arapaho Ranch in Wyoming sells beef. You can find others on the internet.

    The two tribes mentioned in the article that now have bison back on their native land are the few exceptions of tribes that are fostering ethical treatment of bison. Sadly, the majority of tribes in Montana are working with the Department of Livestock in the continuing slaughter of Yellowstone bison.

  22. Bill Miller

    This is, indeed, great news!

    It is truly amazing how rumors and false information become established as being the absolute truth.

    I respect the ranchers and cattlemen of the west as having descended from true pioneers. Unfortunately, the industry thought it was above the law (i.e., range wars, etc.) and has perpetuated erroneous information over the generations. Members of the livestock industries must recognize that they are the newcomers on the scene, compared to the ancient lineages of wildlife such as the American Bison. The desire to protect their livelihood at all costs is no longer valid – wildlife has the moral right to thrive also.

  23. mark

    Are these “ranchers” mentally damaged? They should be the things legislated out of existence and their lands removed from them. I would never allow any of those psychopaths near my home just as I wouldn’t allow a drug dealer into my home.

You May also be interested in