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For Bison and Tribes Alike, a Homecoming

Native American nations are key to sustaining bison populations on the Great Plains

For almost 20 years, a heated battle has been taking place in the Northern Rocky Mountains as ranchers there fight against any attempts to allow bison to roam freely across the region’s plains and valleys. As federal and state wildlife agencies struggle to balance the cattle industry’s interests and the needs of the bison, the buffalo have found an important ally: Native American tribes, who view the bison’s success as key to their own cultural survival.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto by Gouldy/Flickr Millions of bison once thundered across the Great Plains. Then market hunting, sport hunting, and targeting by the US Army nearly caused the extinction of wild bison.

Since 1985, Yellowstone National Park and Montana’s Department of Livestock have killed an estimated 7,000 bison that have ranged beyond the borders of the park. But the routine lethal management of bison herds didn’t attract widespread attention until the winter of 1996-97, when an especially harsh winter forced the world’s only purebred band of free-ranging bison to lower elevations to forage. For those who made it to the boundary, it was a collision with butchery.

That year’s kill-count exceeded one thousand Yellowstone bison, a number so high it drew news media attention, a boycott of Yellowstone tourism, and the establishment of an on-site advocacy group, the Buffalo Field Campaign, dedicated to protecting the bison. The 1996-97 hunt also led to a vigorous annual slaughter fueled by Montana ranchers’ fear that brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause cows to abort their fetuses, could spread to area cattle. According to the Buffalo Field Campaign, in the 2014-15 season, wildlife officials killed 739 bison. (About half of Yellowstone’s bison test positive for brucellosis, and 10 percent are infectious. Yet there are no documented cases of bison transferring disease to cattle in the state. Yellowstone’s elk also carry the disease, but do not receive the same treatment since they are prized by hunters.)

Bison are an iconic part of the American landscape and the national imagination. Millions once thundered across the Great Plains. Then market hunting, sport hunting, and targeting by the US Army nearly caused the extinction of wild bison. But 23 survivors found refuge deep within Yellowstone. Their wild descendants now number 4,900.

For Native Americans, the animals are not merely iconic, but revered. Today, 56 tribes in 19 states manage some 15,000 bison. “Bison represent their spirit and remind them [Native Americans] of how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature,” says Jim Stone, executive director of the InterTribal Bison Council.

Few tribes have been as courageous in their defense of the bison as the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana. In the early 2000s, scientists developed a system for identifying brucellosis-free bison using a process of selection, testing and retesting. After up to five years of quarantine, the disease-free bison were ready to leave in 2011. But anti-bison fear mongers impeded the move to tribal lands and, as their bitter criticism reached the public arena, state and federal agencies refused to cooperate with the bison transfers for fear of controversy. That did not deter the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation. In December 2011, at the same time anti-bison groups were suing Montana to prevent any bison relocation, tribal members made their own dramatic move.

The tribe’s truck and trailer made its way into the bison facility just outside the Yellowstone National Park in the midst of a blizzard and trucked 63 of the massive, wooly beasts 500 miles to Fort Peck.

Upon arriving at the tribal territory, the bison stampeded into their fenced pasture, past the greetings of a large gathering of tribal members who cheered, and sang buffalo songs. Four years later, Fort Peck manages its bison as a “cultural herd,” keeping them as wild as possible.

“I’m very happy we get to see them come home,” Fort Peck Fish and Game director Robert Magnan told the Indian Country Today Media Network at the time. “I think it’s the start of a new beginning for our people to see these genetically pure bison back on the plains again.”

"When they took the buffalo from the Indian people they took the heart and soul of the Indian people,” then-Governor Brian Schweitzer told reporters in March 2012 when he visited the release site. “They’re back and they’re back to stay this time. They're back to be that symbol of pride, not only of the Indian people, but this entire country."

Fort Peck’s original plan had been to move half the bison to the Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Nations in north-central Montana, but a preliminary injunction halted the transfer. Conservationists appealed the ruling to Montana’s Supreme Court, which overturned the injunction in a decision issued June 2013.

The last bison disappeared from Fort Belknap around 1910. A century later, 34 wild bison returned after being transferred 190 miles from Fort Peck to Fort Belknap in August 2013. But before Fort Belknap could bring its bison to their homeland, tribal members there — along with conservation organizations, sportsmen and women, and other supporters — had to defeat 12 anti-bison bills that were introduced during the Montana legislature’s 2013 session.

When the bison arrived, they were met by a large turnout of tribal members who had performed a pipe ceremony and, of course, had a feed. “We don't do anything without enjoying a good meal,” Mark Azure, president of the Fort Belknap Community, told Earth Island Journal. When tribal wildlife managers opened the gates to the trailers an enormous cheer went up as as the animals made their entry onto tribal land, where they are allowed to be wild buffalo.

Azure said the buffalo are considered a brother by tribal members, and that when the animals needed their help, they weren't going to be denied. “First, it was the right thing to do,” Azure said. “Second, the people opposing us were my driving force. And last but not least our ancestors and elders: I feel this is what they would have wanted us to do, so we went out and did it!”

Today, Fort Belknap manages its bison herd as a breeding herd to provide animals to other Indian nations looking to reintroduce bison so that, hopefully, the population of free-range bison will only continue to grow.

Terri Hansen
Terri Hansen is a member of the Winnebago Tribe. She has covered Indigenous peoples’ issues since 1993. Hansen’s focus is science and the environment, and she has reported on climate change in tribal communities since 2008, as well as on Indigenous participation in the annual UN climate summits. Follow her on Twitter @TerriHansen.

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