Bison, © Aaron Huey / National Geographic Stock

Montana Commission Approves Bison Transfer

The FWP Commissioners listen to Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure’s testimony.

A meeting to remember

Attending day-long meetings of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission isn’t usually at the top of my list of favorite things to do. But last Friday was one meeting that I simply couldn’t miss. The Commission was finally considering a proposal to relocate 68 bison from a quarantine facility near Yellowstone National Park where they’ve been held for more than five years to two tribal reservations in northeast Montana.

For years, Defenders has been pushing state wildlife managers to give the bison to the tribes, and this was our last chance to show our support. When it was my turn to testify, I told the commission that although we cannot return to the past when tens of millions of bison roamed the Great Plains, surely there are at least a few places to restore genetically pure wild bison. These two reservations stand ready and willing; this is an offer we should not refuse.

The bison of Yellowstone National Park are some of the only genetically pure wild bison left, and the Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Sioux tribes of these two reservations have long wished for their return. Giving the bison to the tribes would mark the beginning of efforts to restore new conservation herds of these important bison to the heart of their historic range in the Great Plains.

Although we cannot return to the past when tens of millions of bison roamed the Great Plains, surely there are at least a few places to restore genetically pure wild bison.

Several Defenders’ Montana members spoke in support of the plan too, as did other local Montanans and tribal members as well.

“These majestic animals have played a very significant part in the history, religion, and the culture of our native people of the fort peck reservation,” said Floyd Azure, Fort Peck Reservation Tribal Council Chairman, as reported by the Associated Press. “These bison have sustained our ancestors for thousands of years and they are in need of us of returning the favor. We are here to make sure they will always be here for our children.”

The proposal seemed like a no-brainer to us, and the majority of people testifying supported the move. But some came to testify in opposition, including commissioners from counties near the reservations and some local landowners who fear the bison will escape and damage their fences and property. Despite these objections, the Commission voted unanimously to approve the plan.

The 22,000-acre bison reserve at Fort Belknap awaits genetically pure bison. In 2012, Defenders will assist the tribe with improvements to fencing in preparation for these bison.

Over the past several years, Defenders has helped Fort Peck and Fort Belknap expand the size of their designated bison reserves (currently 4,800 acres and 22,000 acres, respectively) and purchase the required fencing in preparation for return of these bison. We continue to raise funds to help finish the job, and will continue to help expand the bison reserves as opportunities arise in the future.

The next step is for the state and tribal governments to complete and sign agreements. This could take a few weeks to a few months. Then, the tribes are planning a “welcome home” ceremony for their return.

When that happens, we’ll be one step closer to the true restoration of wild bison to their historic stomping grounds.