Breaking Barriers

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Wild bison return to the Great Plains

© Sandy Sisti

A fierce wind howls across the rolling hills of northeastern Montana as a small crowd assembles in the waning March light. The headlights of a dozen vehicles illuminate flecks of snow and point to an empty two-acre corral, where tufts of tawny grass ripple along a tall metal fence.

Defenders’ prairie expert Jonathan Proctor and I have been standing outside all afternoon waiting for bison—the first of about 60—to complete a 500-mile journey from a quarantine facility outside Yellowstone National Park to their ancestral stomping grounds at Fort Peck Indian Reservation. A few local families join us—mostly staying in their cars to keep warm—but we’re too excited for that.

When Proctor’s cell phone rings, he answers hesitantly. With the bad weather, anything could have happened on the long drive. Having already endured years of delays, he’s learned to expect bad news. But the voice on the other end shouts: “The bison are back on the reservation!” It’s Robert Magnan, director of Fort Peck Fish and Game and the man behind the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes’ efforts to bring bison back. He had been waiting about 20 miles away to personally escort the first of six trailers onto the reservation.

Part of an experiment to weed out any traces of brucellosis—a disease first brought to North America by cattle and now common to elk and bison in the Yellowstone region—these bison were quarantined and then tested year after year. Biologists removed those that tested positive for the disease and some of the remaining bison have lived in captivity for more than five years. Others were born into a small, fenced pasture that they’ve never left—until today.  “These are the first bison to leave the Yellowstone region alive in decades,” says Proctor. “Finally, they will have some freedom.”

Relocating the bison isn’t just about getting them out of quarantine. The bison arriving at Fort Peck are direct descendants of the historic, free-roaming North American herds and some of the only bison free of cattle genes to exist outside the park. “The hope is that these genetically important bison will become the founders of future herds across the Great Plains,” says Defenders’ president Jamie Rappaport Clark, who also turned out to witness the historic event.

Between 20 million and 30 million bison once roamed across North America in massive herds that shaped the ecology of the region. By grazing heavily on native grasses, bison allowed countless plants and animals to flourish in their wake. Prairie dogs built colonies in the shorter grass where they could more easily keep lookout for predators. Wolves, grizzly bears, foxes, eagles, coyotes and others feasted on bison carcasses. Wallowing bison created countless depressions that formed watering holes after storms.

Then unregulated shooting during the height of westward expansion decimated these herds by the mid 1880s. In a few short decades, nearly all the bison were gone. Now biologists believe that bringing back bison is critical to revitalizing the entire ecosystem they once supported. “Restoring key species into their natural habitat is one of the most important things we do,” says Clark. “Bison are important ambassadors for promoting a healthy environment, restoring native landscapes and bringing imperiled species back from the brink of extinction.”

Relocating these particular Yellowstone bison resulted from a successful collaboration among conservation organizations, the state of Montana and the tribes at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations. Defenders worked behind the scenes for years to lay the political groundwork by advocating for relocation at the state and national level. Over the last decade, Defenders helped pay for fencing and grazing leases—to make additional tribal land available to bison—and to transport the bison from Yellowstone. Now at Fort Peck, all that effort is paying off.

Half an hour after Magnan’s phone call, a string of headlights appears over the horizon. Magnan is out front, racing his pickup truck down a bumpy hillside to the corral’s entrance. A moment later, the lead trailer rumbles down the heaving dirt road and backs against the open gate. 

Proctor and I join Clark and Defenders’ Rocky Mountain Director Mike Leahy alongside the corral. Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure stands with Magnan and several other community members, including three young children bundled up in warm coats with winter hats pulled down to their eyelids. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, some longer than others. 

 “Stay behind the fence and get ready to run if the bison start charging your way,” says Magnan, as hooves clang against the trailer’s metal floor behind him. The truck driver pulls the latch and opens the door. For a brief, tense moment, nothing happens. We peer into the trailer but it’s too dark to see. Someone makes kissing noises as if calling a house cat, but inside there is only silence. Finally, the driver whacks the trailer door against the corral and out leaps a massive bull—the first wild bison to set foot on the reservation since the 1870s.

For generations, bison provided Plains Indians a vital source of year-round lean protein, while hides were made into warm clothes and shelter for harsh winters. Even the bones were used for tools and in sacred rituals. Many tribes still call themselves “buffalo chasers” or “the people of the buffalo” to signify the deep connection shared between humans and bison. 

When these herds disappeared in the late 1800s, Plains Indians suffered dearly. That’s why the return of the bison is powerfully symbolic for the tribes at Fort Peck. “The buffalo signifies our prosperity,” says Larry Wetsit, vice president of community services at Fort Peck Community College. “It’s a symbol that means to us that life is going to be good. Our kids are not going to go hungry.” 

But not everyone in eastern Montana is willing to welcome the bison home. A handful of local ranchers oppose their return to tribal lands, claiming the animals threaten their livelihood. Some fear the bison will transmit brucellosis to their cattle, though wildlife biologists have declared these bison brucellosis-free. 

Still, opponents have fought against the bison for years. In fact, the morning of the transfer, a group calling themselves Citizens for Balanced Use asked for a last-minute court order to scuttle the move. Although it didn’t stop the relocation in progress, a Montana court did block future transfers until a full court ruling takes place, making further bison restoration uncertain.  

In total, 61 bison survived the trip from Yellowstone. Trucking bison across the state is not ideal, but the alternative is slaughter. With about 3,500 bison in Yellowstone National Park, state and federal wildlife managers prevent the herd from growing larger by sending to slaughter many of the bison that migrate out of the park in harsh winters in search of food at lower elevations. “Though millions of acres of public land suitable for bison surround Yellowstone, this slaughter is done to appease the few ranchers who graze cattle in the vicinity,” says Proctor. “Luckily, this is changing, too.”

In 2010, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer stepped in to broker a deal that allows bison to wander into Gardiner Basin just north of Yellowstone for part of the year. He also put a temporary ban in place to prevent Yellowstone bison from getting shipped to slaughter.  However, these stopgap measures do not offer a long-term solution. “Yellowstone’s wild bison need more places within the Great Plains to call home where they can roam year-round and help restore the prairie,” says Proctor.

But back at the corral on this cold March night, the last two trailers arrive with a group of yearlings and a handful of pregnant cows that soon will deliver the first genetically important wild bison on the reservation in nearly 150 years. To welcome them, six tribal members gather, three holding large hand drums. They pound them with a mallet as they chant. Dun-dun Dun-dun Dun-dun Dun-dun. The voice of a fourth man, Leland Spotted Bird, soars high above the others with a powerful primal lilting. Hoya-ha wa-hey ya-ha, waya-ha wa-hey wa-ha.

The ceremony marks a new beginning—for the tribes, for the bison and for conservation.  A new wildlife-friendly fence will keep the bison within a 7,200-acre area of tribal land while allowing other native wildlife to slip under or jump over. It’s here that the new herd is expected to grow to about 150 bison that will be managed for conservation and used for cultural purposes. 

“After seven years, I’m glad the buffalo actually get to be on the plains and know that they’re home again,” says Magnan. “After 150 years we’re finally giving them a chance to come back.” 

—John Motsinger

Now that he’s seen bison in the West, Defenders’ communications specialist John Motsinger hopes to hear a wolf howl on his next trip.

Watch Defenders’ mini documentary on the bison’s return at  www.defenders.org/bisonback.

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