The northern Great Plains, including much of the landscape in and around the refuge, evolved over thousands of years through a complex ecological interaction between fire and grazing. Since the demise of the wild bison in 1881, the fire–grazing interaction (which included intense herbivory after fire, long-distance movement, and years of abandonment) was replaced by constant grazing and no fire with the transition to ranches, fences, and livestock.

Since 1986, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge has gradually been making the transition from annual grazing (the same number of cows at the same time every year) to prescriptive grazing. Prescriptive livestock grazing is the planned application of livestock grazing at a specified season, duration, and intensity to achieve specific vegetation objectives that are designed to meet the broader habitat and wildlife goals. Rather than managing refuge resources to support livestock grazing or other economic uses, livestock grazing is used as a habitat management tool to achieve the goals and objectives for wildlife habitat. Under prescriptive grazing, the Refuge determines the habitat objectives for an area, and then sets the number of livestock needed to achieve those objectives.

           cattle grazing 2 
Although there have been many issues associated with livestock grazing on the refuge, when prescriptive grazing is used with careful consideration of its compatibility with habitat and wildlife and other land management goals, it can be an effective tool . For example, it can be used to control invasive species or to accomplish other restoration and conservation objectives. Grazing can also be used where fire may be inappropriate. When applied correctly, it can address some of the challenges and issues of domestic grazing systems to create effective and ecologically beneficial results.

 Current prescribed grazing is applied on about 34 percent of the refuge. In practice, these current grazing prescriptions range from variable livestock timing and distribution to long-term rest or permanent exclusion. Future prescriptive grazing regimens could include short-duration, high-intensity grazing treatments to control invasive plants; habitat management for specific wildlife or focal bird species; or multiple-unit rotational systems to provide long-term rest between grazing treatments. These and other prescriptions will be considered for achieving habitat objectives and developing a mosaic of desired habitat conditions that support a variety of wildlife species.