The Blackfeet Are Freeing Wild Bison Back Onto Native Lands After Centuries Of Devastation

The tribe appears to be the first to release the animals onto territory bordering federal public land.

The Blackfeet Nation set dozens of wild bison loose on tribal land last week, in a historic move to restore a free-ranging herd at a time when the last remaining American buffalo are typically kept enclosed.

The release was the culmination of a decade-long effort championed by the four tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which includes the Blackfeet Nation, and supported by wildlife conservationists. It appears to mark the first case in which a tribe released wild bison that will almost certainly make their way onto large neighboring chunks of federal public land.

For many who’ve sunk years into bringing back the animals, the bison release signifies more than just ecological restoration following the national mammal’s near extermination. The effort is also a way to address the legacy of the people who tethered their lives to bison for thousands of years, and who today are leading the charge to restore them.

“I really hope the leadership of this country can lean in and realize what an incredible opportunity it is to have free-roaming buffalo again,” said Cristina Mormorunni, the director of the nonprofit Indigenous Led, a key supporter of the restoration. “It is the path to healing. It is the path to truth and reconciliation. When is the United States of America going to step on that path?”

According to Indigenous Led, 49 bison were released June 26 onto tribal land near Chief Mountain, which borders Glacier National Park. The tribe views the mountain, called Nínaiistáko in the Blackfoot language, as a sacred site.

Video published by the Missoulian shows the buffalo charging out of a corral’s open gate in a single-file line, running across a landscape from which they’d disappeared for more than 140 years.

The released animals descended from bison trapped on Blackfeet land in 1873 by Samuel Walking Coyote of the Pend d’Oreille tribe. He, in turn, sold them to Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, who built up the country’s largest conservation herd in the late 19th century, according to the National Park Service. In 1907, they sold some of those animals to the Canadian government, which released them into Elk Island National Park in Alberta.

In 2016, the Canadian government transferred 87 bison calves from Elk Island back to the Blackfeet, allowing them to start a conservation herd with the goal of one day returning free-ranging bison to their original landscape.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, an NGO, helped fund the transfer and support the restoration for years.

The long-awaited release event marked “a great day for our people,” said Ervin Carlson, the director of the Blackfeet Buffalo Program, in a press statement.

“The Blackfeet People have been Bison People for thousands of years. It is our connection to iinnii (bison) that has carried our people to this day,” Carlson said, using the Blackfoot word for the animal. “Releasing the herd at Nínaiistáko, near the [Waterton-Glacier] International Peace Park, represents a coming together of Indigenous and Western conservation approaches, where ecological and cultural rights can flourish.”

The loss of wild bison since the 19th century has been a devastating cultural and subsistence blow for Indigenous communities. As many as 60 million buffalo once roamed North America, before European settlers slaughtered them to near extinction.

The loss was an existential threat for tribes like the Blackfeet, whose lives revolved around buffalo so completely that killing the animals ensured the destruction of Indigenous communities — a concept well understood by 19th century American military strategists.

Buffalo provided the Blackfeet’s primary source of meat, and they used hides for clothing and lodges, sinews for bowstrings, and bladders for containers. The animals played key roles in ceremony and foundational stories. Where the animals migrated, the Blackfeet followed.

“It was huge to many tribes across the whole western United States to kill the buffalo off — it was genocide of a form,” said Kim Paul, the executive director of the Piikani Lodge Health Institute, an Indigenous-led nonprofit that has supported bison restoration as part of its effort to promote well being in Blackfeet country.

“The roots go so deep with anything we do with buffalo,” Paul said. “It’s reclaiming our history, reclaiming our health, reclaiming our way of life, reclaiming our identity.”

As of the 21st century, fewer than 400,000 bison remain in the United States, and the vast majority of them are penned as livestock. Genes from beef cattle are now found in most of them, stemming from early efforts by ranchers to tame the unruliness out of bison while retaining their ability to withstand harsh winters.

Conservation herds of wild bison account for only around 20,000 animals — well under a tenth of a percent of even the most conservative estimates of their pre-colonial numbers.

Conservationists regard bison as a “keystone species,” whose grazing and wallowing played crucial roles in maintaining grassland health and biodiversity. Their long absence from the landscape, however, makes it difficult to fully appreciate their impact.

Releasing the new herd back onto the land offers a natural experiment to help ecologists more fully appreciate bison’s role on the ecosystem, similar to the Yellowstone National Park wolf restoration of 1995. By thinning out and dispersing elk, the reintroduced gray wolves helped revitalize willow and aspen plants there, which in turn limited landscape erosion and boosted beaver numbers. The initiative turned Yellowstone into a major study site for ecologists interested in the complex changes that happen in an area when keystone species are added or removed.

Despite wide recognition of the ecological imperative to restore wild bison, translating that dream into reality is a logistically complicated and politically fraught task.

Buffalo are migratory animals that need a lot of space to roam. Much of their habitat has been lost to human settlement, and most of the ideal land that remains is used by ranchers for grazing cattle.

Meanwhile, the expansion of wild bison in the Northern Rockies faces strong political opposition from the livestock industry due to high infection rates of brucellosis in a Yellowstone herd, which is North America’s largest by far. Outbreaks of the bacterial disease, which causes weight loss and spontaneous abortion and also impacts domestic cattle, has cost ranchers dearly and threatened their ability to sell beef in foreign markets. The Agriculture Department has spent billions over the past three decades fighting brucellosis.

For 20 years now, tribes across the country have expanded bison conservation herds on reservation land. Yellowstone has partnered with the InterTribal Buffalo Council, which represents dozens of tribes, to transfer hundreds of wild bison out of the park and onto tribal land since 2018.

But few tribes have the land base to fully restore what their ancestors lost. Today’s reservations amount to a tiny fraction of the hunting grounds they once occupied.

And with the Dawes Act of 1887, the U.S. government encouraged the transfer of collective tribal holdings to individuals willing to settle on them as farmers and ranchers. The policy left most tribal land checkered with private holdings, many of which ultimately ended up in non-Indigenous hands.

The Blackfeet Nation, however, has a few unique advantages in putting buffalo on its land.

One is legal. As a federally recognized tribe with sovereignty, it operates semi-independently from state and federal governments, giving it unique tools to cut through red tape. Still, the restoration effort is a bold move. Since wild animals do not adhere to property lines or state borders, the wild bison are likely to make their way to federal land or even across national borders.

The second is geographic. A long stretch of unallotted tribal land runs along the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s edge. To the north, in Canada, lie Waterton Lakes National Park and a reserve of the Kainai Nation, another tribe in the Blackfoot Confederacy. The result is that buffalo will have millions of acres of contiguous land to roam.

And the Blackfeet Indian Reservation itself, at 1.5 million acres, also acts as a buffer between the new free-ranging bison herd and the state of Montana.

The state’s Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, has opposed the expansion of wild bison tolerance around Yellowstone, viewing it as a harbor of disease and allying himself with livestock interests that would prefer to maintain the cattle grazing allotments on public land surrounding the park.

Gianforte’s office did not respond to a request for comment on last week’s buffalo release.

Glacier National Park offered full-throated support, issuing a press release that called it “an honor … to support the Blackfeet Nation in their historic achievement.”

“As a free-ranging herd, these bison will be treated as any other wildlife in the park and be allowed to roam freely on the landscape,” the statement said.


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