If you envision the landscape of Romania, you might stereotypically think dark castles perched on gloomy hills. You would not likely think “bison,” as in vast herds thundering over the open rolling plains. But indeed, Romania has wild bison. In May of this year, Romania reintroduced 14 “wisent” – European wood bison – into the equivalent of public lands in the Carpathian Mountains. Bison bonasus have a few differences from their North American cousins Bison bison. Wisent have historically favored forest habitats, which has resulted in a few evolutionary changes to their appearance. For example, these bison are somewhat lighter, taller, and have forward-facing horns as opposed to their American counterparts. But, like bison in North America, wisent are the largest land mammal on their continent today.
The origins of the wisent are somewhat cloudy, but they followed a similar path of the North American bison: They are descendants from the giant bison of the Pleistocene, some 10,000 years ago. Some paleontologists even suggest that there may have been a “reverse migration” over the same land bridge which first brought the bison to North America from Asia. As recently as several hundred years ago, the wisent ranged across the entire Eurasian land mass. Over time, the animals settled into the forests of eastern Europe, where it astonishingly persevered until recent times. In 1927, the wisent bison were driven to extinction in the wild, after the last one was killed in Poland’s Bialowieza forest. The good news is that a captive breeding program saved many, and as a result, there are now several thousand restored in the wild. I tell this story because the reintroduction of wisent in Romania took a lot of planning and hard work, and the result has been an incredible success for this imperiled species of bison.
“What’s the difference between Montana and Romania?” is not the lead-in to a bad joke. The difference is Romania has been willing to do something that Montana so far has not — reintroduce wild bison into the state. There are many excuses offered by anti-bison proponents in Montana. Two of the most worn-out complaints are: “There is no room for wild bison in Montana” and “the costs to existing industry (primarily the cattle ranching industry) and the economy are too great.” Neither could be farther from the truth.
While Montana is not the wealthiest U.S. state, its per capita personal income soars above that of Romania ($37,370 as opposed to Romania’s $8,700 in 2012). If Romanians can afford to reintroduce bison, why shouldn’t a relatively wealthy state like Montana, with vast tracts of land supposedly designated for wildlife conservation, be able to as well?
As for not having enough room, there’s simply no contest. Montana’s population density is just 7 people per square mile. Compare that to Romania’s 251 people per square mile – 35 times that of Montana. Places where bison have been considered for reintroduction in Montana, such as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, contain not a single permanent human resident over an area of some 1,500 square miles…and yet anti-bison factions bristle at the prospect of sharing some of this space with bison.
The majority of Montanans want wild bison restoration to happen in their state. But let’s be honest — some Montanans’ rejection of bison is less about ability to accommodate bison and the cost of doing so than it is about their willingness to coexist with wildlife. The anti-bison agenda is framed around political motives and personal economic gain instead of on problem solving.
Why is it that often those countries and cultures that sometimes seem the least able to afford it, in space or dollars, are the first to embrace and champion conservation efforts? Indeed, it’s not just the Romanians who have made such commitments for bison. Defenders works with many Native American Tribes whose expanding efforts to conserve bison are made despite sometimes bruising economic disadvantage. The Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Tribes, for example, have opened their doors to welcome bison back to their grasslands and have made room for bison despite their relatively small land bases. These are people who have not lost sight of the value inherent in taking responsibility and caring for our global wildlife heritage.
We’re proud to work with the Tribes of both of these reservations, and will continue to assist them in their conservation efforts. Defenders also believes, however, that it is time for the rest of Montana to shoulder its share of the conservation responsibility – and opportunity – for bison restoration now that the Department of the Interior released a report earlier this month that outlines its plans to work with state, local and tribal interests to conserve and manage bison in the American West.
Montana wildlife officials are currently seeking input on a plan to establish a wild bison population somewhere in the state. But already, anti-bison partisans are planning legislation for the 2015 Montana Legislature that would block or forever prevent bison from being restored to Montana’s grasslands. Now is the time to show Montana’s elected officials that the majority of Montanans believe bison belong in the American West. We need to bring wild bison back to places in Montana like the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in order to restore balance to this great grassland Refuge. And we need to show Montana’s elected officials that it is perfectly within their means to support bison reintroduction. Defenders will continue to work with our Montana members and others on these goals. We urge everyone, but particularly Montanans, to contact Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock with a polite and positive message of support for wild bison restoration in Montana.
Steve Forrest is a Senior Rockies & Plains Representative at Defenders of Wildlife