Tribes Welcome Home Yellowstone Bison

Fort Peck, Fort Belknap celebrate first relocation of only wild, free-roaming bison to tribal lands

03-21-2012 // Judith Kohler
Bison released at Fort Peck, MT

After more than a century's absence, wild, genetically pure bison have returned to tribal lands on the Great Plains in a homecoming that reunites Native Americans with the iconic species that was a fundamental part of their culture and the prairie ecosystem.

Sixty-three bison from Yellowstone National Park were trucked 500 miles to Fort Peck in Montana’s far northeastern corner. Tribal members from Fort Peck and Fort Belknap hosted Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and representatives of the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife at the animals’ arrival Wednesday.

The relocation of the Yellowstone bison follows two decades of work by the tribes, state and federal officials and conservation groups on what is seen as a major step toward restoring wild bison to the Great Plains and supporting important elements of Native American culture. It is the first-ever relocation of Yellowstone bison, the only wild, free-roaming herd, to tribal lands.

"Ever since the beginning of man, the buffalo basically took care of us," said Robbie Magnan, director of Fort Peck’s Fish & Game Department. "They provided everything we needed. We used their meat to eat, their hides for shelters and our clothing, their bones for tools and weapons.’"

Photos from the March 19th Bison Release:

The tribes have been waiting a long time for the bison to return, said Mike Fox, a Fort Belknap tribal council member.

"Tribal people have a deep historical, cultural, traditional and spiritual connection to bison that stretches back thousands of years," Fox added. "Yellowstone bison have a special status for us because they are the last wild, free-ranging herd with no cattle genes. The well-being of the bison and the tribes are intertwined."

The National Wildlife Federation signed an agreement in 1997 with the InterTribal Buffalo Council to cooperate on conservation issues and restore Yellowstone bison to tribal lands.

"The thunder of bison on the move is a huge victory. After more than two decades of work, the National Wildlife Federation and our tribal partners are celebrating the return of an iconic wildlife species to the Great Plains," said Larry Schweiger, NWF president and CEO. "The return of these wild bison to tribal lands fills a big gap in the plains ecosystem and a longtime absence in Native American culture."

Brucellosis-free and genetically pure

The animals shipped to Fort Peck were among those placed in a quarantine facility after they wandered out of the park. They have been certified free of brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant bison to abort.

The last several years, thousands of bison roaming out of Yellowstone into Montana have been killed because of the fear they would transmit brucellosis to cattle. However, there have been no confirmed cases of bison spreading the disease to domestic livestock.  The animals relocated to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap have been in a holding facility where they were tested during the last five years for brucellosis.

Half the herd will be moved to Fort Belknap, about 130 miles west of Fort Peck, when fencing and other construction are completed. 

The Yellowstone bison are among the few left with no cattle genes. The Yellowstone area is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Two centuries ago, more than 30 million buffalo roamed throughout North America.

By the turn of the 19th century, fewer than a hundred remained after the country’s population expanded west and the animals were hunted for sport and for their hides. Tribal peoples rounded up some of the last bison to save them, establishing the base for the Yellowstone herd. Today, the historic relationship between buffalo and American Indians is coming full circle, as the bison return home to the tribes.

“By restoring wild bison to tribal lands, we’re also restoring a landscape, a habitat, one that supports a plethora of wildlife," said Garrit Voggesser, NWF’s National Director, Tribal Partnerships. “Simultaneously, we’re helping to re-establish Native peoples’ cultural and historic connections to wildlife and the land."

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