Just as surely as a particular hardware chain is the place for your hardware needs, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is the place for bison restoration. And to put it in perspective, the CMR is not only the best place in Montana, it’s the best place in North America to restore a wild, huntable bison population.

Here’s why:

- Immense landscape. The refuge itself covers 1.1 million acres and is surrounded by several million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Scientists tell us that we need at least a thousand bison to have a genetically viable population. That number requires at least several hundred thousand acres of land.

- Incredible habitat. When Lewis and Clark passed through in 1805 they described a wildlife resource that “for variety and abundance exceeded anything the eye of man had ever looked upon.” The centerpiece of that vision was bison. Leading scientists from the American Bison Society and the World Wildlife Fund have concluded that the CMR area ranks highest in North America for potential bison restoration.

- Its primary purpose is wildlife conservation. The CMR is a large block of public land where the American people have decided that wildlife should come first. The refuge provides a critical core area for bison restoration that could be supplanted by adjacent private lands owned by the American Prairie Reserve and by public lands managed by BLM.

- It is Montana’s premier hunting area. A 2008 survey of sportsmen’s groups conducted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership found that the CMR is the most popular hunting spot in Montana. Adding bison to the current list of big game species (elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn) would elevate the CMR to a special place in the hunting world. Its remote habitat provides an ideal setting for fair-chase hunting.

For those interested in establishing an ecologically significant, genetically viable, wild bison population that could be effectively managed by regulated hunting, the CMR stands head and shoulders above all other Montana locations.

Conversely, those troubled by potential impacts associated with bison restoration might consider this: The CMR is the place where their concerns are most readily addressed.

Hank Fischer is the special projects coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula.

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