After 150 Years, Tribes to Welcome Home Wild Bison

Montana wildlife commissioners OK relocating 68 Yellowstone bison to reservations

12-09-2011 // Garrit Voggesser
Bison calf

Nearly 70 Yellowstone bison, part of North America’s last free-ranging wild herd, are headed to their ancestral home on the Great Plains after Montana state officials’ approval Friday of relocating the animals to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations.

After a century and a half, genetically pure, wild bison once again will roam Indian lands in Montana. The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission voted to transfer 68 bison that have been quarantined and found free of brucellosis, a disease that ranchers fear can be spread to domestic livestock.

"We’ve been waiting a long time for the return of the bison," 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. Yellowstone bison have a special status for us because they are the last wild, free-ranging herd with no cattle genes."

Decision Follows Two Decades of Planning Between National Wildlife Federation and Tribes

The commission’s approval to relocate the bison to the reservations follows about two decades of planning, preparation and negotiating by tribal leaders, the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council and the National Wildlife Federation. In 1997, NWF and the ITBC signed the first-ever memorandum of understanding between a national conservation organization and an inter-tribal group to cooperate on conservation issues and restoring Yellowstone bison to tribal lands.

The bison will be transferred to Fort Peck as soon as the Fort Peck and Montana state governments agree on a time. Fort Peck will transfer half the bison to Fort Belknap as soon as the Fort Belknap Tribe completes some structural improvements to their pastures.

Last month, state wildlife officials recommended moving the bison to the reservations, one of the alternatives in an environmental assessment of a proposal to relocate approximately 200 bison that have been deemed disease-free after five years of extensive testing. Since the 1990s, thousands of bison that roamed into Montana from Yellowstone have been killed because of fears about brucellosis.  Indian tribes, the National Wildlife Federation and the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council have long championed the quarantine and relocation of healthy bison as the common-sense solution.

"The Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes have worked for years preparing for the transfer of the bison to tribal lands. They have built the facilities, prepared thousands of acres of pasture with wildlife-friendly fencing and have substantial expertise in bison management," said Garrit Voggesser, NWF’s National Director, Tribal Partnerships.

"This is a win-win proposition for the tribes, the state, and the millions of Americans nationwide who support bison restoration. The return of wild bison to tribal lands is a major milestone in efforts to restore an iconic North American species to the landscape and restore important elements of Native American culture," Voggesser added.

The Tribes said the bison will give tribal members a chance to learn about prairie ecology and traditional practices and provide a source of low-fat protein for people.  A few animals will be culled to be used in traditional religious and cultural ceremonies. 

"In short, the well-being of the bison and the tribes will be intertwined," Fox said.   

The bison transferred to Fort Peck near Wolf Point and Fort Belknap near Malta will continue to be tested for brucellosis. The tribes will also be expected to properly contain the bison and immediately respond to any escapes of the animals. The tribes envision the bison as a seed herd to start additional herds on other reservation s across the nation in coming years.

Last year, the state sent 143 quarantined bison to a ranch near Bozeman owned by media mogul Ted Turner.

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