Prior to the 1800’s great herds of buffalo, estimated to be in the millions, roamed all over the Great Plains. They were a vital part of the region’s eco system as well as a boon to the native tribes that lived there. Finally, the mighty buffalo are returning to the Great Plains of Montana.
The genetically pure, disease free bison were transferred from Yellowstone National Park last year. 60 bison where taken to Fort Peck Indian Reservation and then 30 of their number were to be transferred to Fort Belknap Indian Reservation some 16 miles south. The intention is to reintroduce the bison to the plains and to maintain a herd of about 1,000 on both reservations for the purposes of preservation, repopulating, and ceremonial use among the tribes.
After the animals arrived at Fort Peck, a lawsuit was filed in the state of Montana demanding the cease of movement of bison in the state. The lawsuit stated that cattle farmers were concerned that the bison would edge out the cattle for grazing as well as bring disease to the cattle population in Montana. The legal matter prevented the movement of 30 of the bison to Fort Belknap last summer once the fencing was complete, which was the original intention. However, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the lawsuit allowing the animals to be moved once again.
The bison arrived at Fort Belknap on Thursday, where they will be held in an observation pen of over 900 acres before they are released onto the full 22,000 acres of the reservation. The tribe is waiting for more bison to be transported, which will fill out the herd from 30 just transported to a full herd of 150. Once released, it is hoped that the herd will be able to get up to at least 1,000 in number. According to the tribal leader, Mike Fox, bison disappeared from the Fort Belknap area sometime around 1910.
Once the herd begins to fill out, it is the hope of the tribe at Fort Belknap that they will be able to use their herd as seed stock in order to help others who wish to reintroduce the animal to the Great Plains; their natural habitat.
The head of the tribe’s bison program, Mark Azure said about the bison, “they helped us, our ancestors, survive out here on the prairie… So to be able to take the next step, and return the favor, so to speak, it feels good.”
Rockies and Plains program director for Defenders of Wildlife, Jonathan Proctor stated, “the return of wild bison to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap is a huge success for the tribes and for the future of wild bison. Montana’s tribes are leading the way on bison conservation and providing a new model for restoring wild bison to other parts of the Great Plains.”
Ultimately, the impact of the reintroduction of the native bison to the plains will only be understood as time unfolds. Just like when cattle were introduced into the plain two hundred years ago, the balancing act may take some time before the eco system finds some equilibrium. Yet, one cannot help but feel excited about the return of a native creature to its native environment.
By Iam Bloom