Pronghorn Panorama
Pronghorn antelope. Photos by Barrett Walker on a site visit to the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge and adjacent American Prairie Preserve.
Project Report:
Grazing Retirement Auction on the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
- Investigates the causes of economic imbalances.
- Investigates causes tending to destroy or impair the free-market system.
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.


The National Wildlife Federation resolves conflict between wildlife and livestock through the market approach of compensating ranchers for retiring problematic grazing leases on federal land. Restoring populations of large predators, such as wolves and grizzlies, has been linked to recovering healthy, functioning ecosystems in the Northern Rockies. Thanks to the Walker Foundation and other funders, NWF has been able to retire 30 grazing allotments in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, totaling more than half a million acres. More recently, NWF has experimented with an auction concept to retire grazing permits on the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This approach establishes an important new national model for resolving chronic conflicts between wildlife and livestock.

Hank Fischer showing grazing lease #5
Hank Fischer in front of grazing lease purchased through WWF and Walker Fdn. grants. Grazing of this area by livestock ceased a year ago allowing for re-growth of grasses. Woody shrubs will take longer to recover.


Since 2002 the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has been retiring grazing allotments in the Yellowstone Park area that experience chronic conflict with wildlife -- namely grizzly bears, wolves and bison. During that time we have removed domestic livestock from more than 550,000 acres of public land, an area nearly twice as large as Grand Teton National Park. Visit our website at for full details.

Early in 2009 NWF decided to expand this successful campaign to the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR). It was a natural progression, as NWF has been involved with CMR management issues for more than thirty years. We led efforts in the 1980s that resulted in a 33% reduction in livestock grazing on the refuge.

But even that reduction wasn’t sufficient to turn the CMR into the refuge it deserves to be. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies reveal that most areas on the refuge are not meeting habitat standards for wildlife. Livestock grazing still occurs on more than two-thirds of the refuge, and in many places it reduces cover for ground-nesting birds and eliminates berry-producing shrubs that provide forage for a wide spectrum of wildlife.

NWF took a unique approach to soliciting grazing retirements on the CMR. In May 2009 we hosted an auction where we asked ranchers to submit a price for giving up their CMR permit. NWF, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, said we would be willing to raise as much as $300,000 to pay for retirements.

We received several bids, and in November 2009 finalized two agreements for retiring grazing on a total of 45,000 acres on the CMR at a cost of $168,800. Both allotments are on the north side of the river within the area that the American Prairie Foundation (APF) has proposed as a prairie reserve. One of the retirements was accomplished in collaboration with APF, who purchased the rancher’s private land.

The C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is to the Northern Great Plains what Yellowstone Park is to the larger Yellowstone ecosystem: that core secure area that amplifies the ecological richness of the whole area. Many people don't know that grasslands are the most imperiled ecosystems in the world. But we have a unique opportunity to restore an ecosystem at a time when the cost is reasonable.

This core area won’t be secure until we resolve the grazing issues on the refuge. Grazing retirements provide a pathway for resolving wildlife/livestock conflicts in a way that minimizes polarization and disruption of local economies. Most ranchers will use the payment we provide to secure new grazing in an area that does not have similar wildlife conflicts. That’s precisely what has happened in the Yellowstone ecosystem, where we’ve put no one out of business.

The population in the six-county area surrounding the CMR has been declining for the last several decades and it has become an increasingly difficult place to make a living. We believe that enhanced attention to the natural values of this unique area could provide an important economic boost for the region.

Our other opportunity to improve CMR refuge management will take place next year, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service releases a new refuge plan for the CMR. This is the same planning exercise that led to the grazing reductions in the 1980s.

NWF's efforts, in conjunction with the American Prairie Foundation’s success at securing key private parcels, can help create a true prairie reserve in north-central Montana.

The C. M. Russell Refuge is the largest in the lower 48 states. Livestock grazing on the refuge conflicts with wildlife management. By purchasing grazing leases from willing sellers and retiring them, the National Wildlife Federation is pioneering a market approach to reducing this conflict.

Population Graph
Population in the area of the proposed Prairie Preserve has been declining for decades as a warming, drier climate and distance from markets makes ranching increasingly difficult. Passing through the area in 1805, Lewis and Clark reported in their journal a spectacular abundance of wildlife. Over this land, immense herds of buffalo, antelope and elk roamed freely. Vegetation was plentiful. We believe that restoring the natural values of this unique area could provide an important economic boost for the region.


Because wildlife conservation interests are not allowed to compete with livestock producers for grazing leases on public lands, the market system is constrained from finding an appropriate balance between the need for livestock grazing and the need for wildlife. Our approach recognizes the economic value of grazing permits and compensates livestock producers fairly for giving them up.

NWF's approach of paying ranchers to retire grazing leases where there is chronic conflict between livestock and wildlife provides a market-based solution for resolving these conflicts. To the extent ranchers typically use the payments provided to them by NWF to secure new grazing in an area without wildlife conflicts, this approach provides benefits for both parties.

Our current project on the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge employs an auction approach in an effort to make our grazing retirements more efficient and less costly.


Conflicts between livestock and wildilfe on public lands have been ongoing for several decades. The tactic favored by most environmental groups has been to try and compel federal agencies to administratively cancel troublesome leases. This approach has generated a great deal of controversy, but only a small amount of change.

Using a market approach, during the last seven years the National Wildlife Federation has been able to retire 30 grazing allotments in the Yellowstone ecosystem, totaling more than 500,000 acres. This has been accomplished with minimal controversy. We believe this approach begins to establish an important new national model for resolving conflicts between livestock and wildlife.

Project Link

Amount Approved
$30,000.00 on 11/16/2009 (Check sent: 12/15/2009)

  Related Organizations
National Wildlife Federation  

Conoe on Missouri River
Touring the Refuge by canoe on the upper Missouri River.

Overgrazing by cattle has reduced not only grass cover, but woody shrubs which are highly important food sources for wildlife. By the pounding of their hooves, livestock compact the soil, decrease the percolation rate and contribute to desertification of the landscape.

Randy & Ferret Camp
Randy Matchett, US Fish & Wildlife Service biologist, at Ferret Camp. Researchers at the camp work to restore the endangered black-footed ferret to the wild.

Black-Footed Ferret
Mounted specimens of the black-footed ferret and prairie dog. Decline of the prairie dog from habitat loss and poisoning has led to the near extinction of it's predator. The ferret has been reintroduced to the CMR Refuge from a captive breeding program.

Bull elk on the CMR Wildlife Refuge
Bull elk on the CMR Wildlife Refuge

Bison on APF Land
The American Prairie Foundation is reintroducing American bison. APF is working to acquire enough private land that, when combined with adjacent public lands already devoted to wildlife, will provide people with a unique experience reminiscent of Lewis’ and Clark’s. Unlike cattle that must be provided with water, bison will migrate long distances to natural sources.

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