Bison: Bring Them Back

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Montana has millions of acres of native prairie habitat just waiting for bison to return. Once covering North America by the millions, bison were driven to the brink of extinction by the late 19th century. We saved them, but just barely. Most bison today exist as captives in refuges or as privately owned livestock. No wild bison freely roam native prairie habitat in Montana.

Bison road Wyoming

The National Wildlife Federation is working to restore wild bison to native prairie habitat across millions of acres of public land in north-central Montana. Saving bison from extinction was one of America’s earliest conservation successes, but we only saved the animal—not its ecological function. Nearly all the bison in America today exist in small captive herds in parks and refuges—or, most commonly, are privately owned as livestock. The National Wildlife Federation is committed to restoring a significant herd of truly wild bison to Montana’s million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge as part of a broader vision—shared by many partners—of creating a multi-million-acre prairie reserve encompassing the refuge and the millions of acres of adjacent public lands.

This video was produced with thanks to the Eastern Shoshone tribe, the National Wildlife Federation and the coordinated efforts of a host of other individuals and organizations.

Tribal Partnership Programs to Bring Bison Back

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has partnered with tribal governments and other partners to return more than 250 bison to tribal lands, ensuring tribal connections to bison for generations to come. By bringing bison back to reservations, we are revitalizing a landscape, habitat, and a diversity of wildlife, while also re-establishing Native Americans’ cultural and historic connections to wildlife and the land.

Jason Baldes, NWF Tribal Partnerships – Tribal Bison Coordinator, has worked to restore wild bison to their historic lands. In a recent blog post, Jason outlined the goals and accomplishments of the partnership between NWF and tribes in Montana and Wyoming: “Over the last 25 years, the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnership Program has worked with Tribes to bring wild buffalo back to our lands and cultures. We believed that Yellowstone buffalo, the last free-roaming wild herd in the United States, offered a way to start new conservation herds rather than see the buffalo shot or slaughtered when they migrated outside park boundaries. In 1997, a solution was proposed: a pasture facility where buffalo could be held, deemed healthy, and then made available for restoration to tribal and public lands.

“In 2012, after 15 years of hard work and legal battles, tribes, the National Wildlife Federation and bison conservation partners succeeded in working with the state of Montana to transfer 64 Yellowstone buffalo to the Fort Peck Tribes in Montana. The next fall, 34 of those Yellowstone buffalo were transferred to the Fort Belknap Tribes in Montana to start their own herd. In another landmark victory in November 2014, we successfully transferred 136 Yellowstone buffalo to Fort Peck. But this was just the beginning. The Eastern Shoshone Tribe on the Wind River Reservation now maintain 31 buffalo, and the Northern Arapaho Tribe has recently established a herd of 10 buffalo.”

The Montana Water Rights Protection Act (also known as the Flathead Water Compact) was jointly introduced by Montana Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester and will give management of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes—where it belongs. Learn more about bison and the Montana Water Rights Protection Act in this document and in this blog post. 

For more information about tribal partnerships for bison restoration, see here.

For more information about the National Wildlife Federation's Bison programs, please contact Bob McCready at

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Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. The National Wildlife Federation is on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 53 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

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