Tribes prepare for homecoming of wild bison from Yellowstone

Nearly 70 wild bison will be released onto the Fort Peck Reservation

01-31-2012 // Judith Kohler
Bison calf

People on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeast Montana are preparing a big welcome-home ceremony for a fellow Plains native whose absence for more than a century has left voids in the ecosystem and cultures it helped shape.

Nearly 70 wild bison from Yellowstone National Park, part of the country’s last, free-ranging herd, will be released onto the reservation, home to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. The release, expected some time in March, will mark the return of the last genetically pure bison to the plains and the reunion of animals and people once seen as inseparable.

"Ever since the beginning of man, the buffalo basically took care of us," said Robert 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."

"Now things have changed to where the buffalo need help," Magnan continued. "It’s our turn to step forward and help them."

Fort Peck, the Fort Belknap Reservation, about 130 miles to the west, the National Wildlife Federation, the InterTribal Buffalo Council, other groups and agencies have worked for decades to give a new home to the bison that roam out of Yellowstone and onto Montana rangeland. Since the 1990s, thousands of bison that left the park have been killed because of fears they would spread brucellosis to domestic livestock. The disease can cause pregnant cows to miscarry, however there are no confirmed cases of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle.

The 68 bison headed to Fort Peck have been deemed brucellosis-free after five years in quarantine near Yellowstone. Half the animals will be moved to Fort Belknap later this year after special fencing and other facilities are built.

"This is probably one of the hardest nuts to crack in wildlife conservation history," said Garrit Voggesser, NWF’s national director of Tribal Partnerships. "So many other large mammal species that had depleted numbers have been restored, but not bison."

Getting the animals onto Fort Peck and Fort Belknap is a huge achievement and opens the door to possibly moving wild bison onto other landscapes, Voggesser added.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has suggested expanding the relocation effort as an alternative to killing bison leaving Yellowstone in search of food. In December, he mentioned federal lands in Colorado and South Dakota as possibilities.

"The carrying capacity of Yellowstone is just about 3,500 bison and every year they’re over that," Voggesser said. "For the last 20 years, NWF, the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, federal agencies and the state of Montana have all been trying to find a way to deal with the bison population. Particularly for us and the tribes, it’s been how to deal with that population without just shooting the bison when they cross the political boundary of Yellowstone National Park.’’

Fort Peck and Fort Belknap have experience managing bison. Both reservations have commercial bison herds. However, the new animals will be special.

At Fort Peck, the Yellowstone herd will be kept separate from the other animals and will be used for ceremonial and education purposes, Magnan said. Yellowstone bison are descendents of a small group that survived the near extinction of an animal that once numbered in the tens of millions and ranged the grasslands from Canada to northern Mexico. Many bison on ranches around the country have some cattle genes, but the Yellowstone herd is considered genetically pure.

"Buffaloes are so connected to Native American culture. We felt if the bison came back, maybe our cultural identity would come back and we could start teaching our kids the same way, the pattern of the life of a buffalo," Magnan said.

The return of wild bison to the plains will also help fill a gap in the prairie ecosystem, Voggesser said.

"Bison herds behave differently from cattle herds. Cattle tend to eat grasses down to their roots, which doesn’t allow for propagation of those grasses," Voggesser added. "Buffalo are more selective, they don’t eat all the way down to the roots so you continue to have prairie habitat, which is more conducive to fostering other wildlife – black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs.

"So, when we look to restore bison to tribal lands and other lands across the country, you’re not only restoring a wild bison species, you’re restoring a landscape, a habitat, one that supports a plethora of wildlife," Voggesser added. "Simultaneously, you’re helping to re-establish Native people’s cultural and historic connections to wildlife and the land."

The area around Fort Peck, about 60 miles from the Canadian border, was a route for bison herds migrating south, Magnan said.

"It’s a natural route from Canada to Kansas," Magnan said. "To bring some of that back would be beautiful."

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