Yellowstone bison, © Steven Lopez

What’s the Difference Between Montana and Romania?

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.

Bison, © Kylie Paul/Defenders

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?

Bison and calf, © Sandy SistiAs 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.

Bison, © Fran Piepenbrink

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

Defenders is proud to have been a part of the historic homecoming of wild bison to their native range on the Great Plains. Read more about the first relocation at Fork Peck, and watch a video of the release!

12 Responses to “What’s the Difference Between Montana and Romania?”

  1. Andrea Wildner

    I have had the honor to see buffalo in their natural splendor. It would bring tourists in to the state. Could be very profitable if do it!

    Reply
  2. Carrie Black

    The Bison are an important part of American heritage and who were un-necessarily decimated in the stealing of land against the Native Americans. It is time to rectify our past and reclaim our Bison and let them roam on the land in which they were born to be.

    Reply
  3. Dana flask

    Keep the bison … They were here first.
    There is plenty of room up there once they are gone they are gone
    They are part of American history

    Reply
  4. Margaret Southwell

    Restore the bison and restore the range. The day of the top CO2 producing cow , the destroyer of the plains is over! Welfare ranchers are a 19C -20C thing of the past! The majority of us know this! Bison rule!

    Reply
  5. Martha Nochimson

    Montana, cherish the bison as you cherish the life of your state. They are a crucial part of your living ecology and that’s no small thing.

    Reply
  6. frank florin

    there sould be room for wild bison in america and montana. after all we nearly caused their extinction. they have a right to exist from the perspective of ethics, ecology, or God.

    Reply
  7. Kris Azzarello

    “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?

    Bison and calf, © Sandy SistiAs 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.

    Reply
  8. Stephanie Johnson

    Where the buffalo roam… save our heritage before it’s late!

    Reply
  9. Isabel Sadurni

    American Bison are an important part of our heritage, our wildlife and our identity. Please safeguard their presence for generations to come.

    Reply
  10. Mike Wood

    What led me to your site, was having read Jeremy Rifkin’s book “Beyond Beef”. It includes a harrowing account of how North American settlers systematically eradicated bison, in order to make way for cattle. The same strategy by the way, led to the dependence of the American indian populations, on meat bought from ranching interests, where previously they had subsisted off bison (without detriment to the animal’s population). Interesting stuff. I do hope for success with plans to reintroduce the bison to several plains areas of the States and Canada. But such efforts will be continuously opposed by the cattle barons.

    Reply

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