On Wednesday, the first day of spring, we began a new chapter in bison restoration by celebrating an incredible victory for wildlife conservation with the tribal leaders of Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and state and federal officials.
Watching the bison come storming off the stock trailers Monday night was a historic moment for wildlife conservation that I will never forget. But the heartfelt speeches and tribal ceremony I witnessed Wednesday were equally powerful and brought home for me the broader significance of the bison’s return.
Plains Indians refer to themselves as “The People of the Buffalo” to signify their intimate relationship with the animal, and for centuries their fates were intertwined. The Assiniboine, Sioux and Gros Ventre tribes that now live at the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations once relied on the buffalo for food, clothing, and countless other materials. Tragically, as the herds of wild bison perished during the mass slaughters of the 1800s, so too did the Plains Indians.
As one of the tribal council members said at the celebration, we can’t change the past, but we can change the future. Returning genetically pure, wild bison to the Great Plains is a chance for a new beginning for the animals and a chance for the tribes to reconnect with an essential part of their culture and history. I take heart now knowing that the bison will once again roam the plains of northeast Montana and that future generations of Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Sioux families will be able to live with bison as their ancestors did.
When it was my turn to say a few words to the community, my thoughts turned to my own family and in particular to my 12-year old son Carson. For the past few years, he has joined me on summer trips to Yellowstone. Each year he has asked about the bison stuck in quarantine just outside the park. He saw other bison roaming the grasslands of Yellowstone National Park and couldn’t reconcile why these animals were cooped up on the side of the road just standing around. He repeatedly asked when we were going to find them a better home, and I’m so excited to tell him that it’s finally happened.
So much of what we do at Defenders is focused on the future and creating a better world for our kids and grandkids. Our legacy to them is saving, protecting and restoring as many of our native plants and animals as we can in their natural communities.
Saving 60 Yellowstone bison is a major accomplishment in itself, but more importantly, it paves the way for restoring bison to other areas across the region and revitalizing America’s vast prairie ecosystems in the years to come.
I’ve returned from Montana with a renewed sense of hope, and I’m looking forward to all the great work that still lies ahead!