The last light was fading fast from the sky when the first three trailers arrived. Gale force winds were ripping through the high plains, and the thermometer had dropped well below freezing. Still, I was incredibly excited and gratified to be part of the small gathering with Fort Peck tribal members to witness a historic homecoming and tremendous win for wildlife.
It was so worth it to spend almost the entire day yesterday traveling from Washington, D.C. to eastern Montana, for the return of wild bison to the Great Plains. I watched in awe last night as the tribal wildlife manager flipped the latch of the first trailer, opened the door, and out roared the first two wild bison from Yellowstone National Park, storming back onto the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
The bison had spent all day as well, traveling about 500 miles from a quarantine facility just outside Yellowstone, where some of them had been for more than five years. But last night, they were finally set free where they truly belong in their new home.
In total, about 60 genetically pure, wild bison completed the journey. These are some of the only descendants of the historic herds that once roamed the Great Plains by the millions, and they are the first Yellowstone bison ever to be relocated to the Great Plains—the heart of their historic range– to start new herds.
Half of them will soon be moved to the nearby Fort Belknap Reservation once fencing is completed there. Both reservations will manage their new herds sustainably as a valuable cultural resource for the tribes.
Defenders has been able to work closely with the tribes to help bring Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations. Over the last few years, we’ve helped the tribes secure grazing permits to convert tribal land from cattle grazing to bison, paid for wildlife-friendly fencing, and lobbied with them against bad bills in the state legislature. We even chipped in for trailers to help transport the bison from Yellowstone.
But our work here isn’t finished yet. We’ve already committed resources to help the tribes at Fort Belknap, hopefully the next release site, put up fencing around their bison pastures this spring and summer. And in coming years, we’ll be helping the tribes set aside more of their lands to expand the areas where bison can roam free.
Incredible wildlife moments like these leave an indelible mark that will stay with me forever. As I listened to those bison hooves cantering around on the prairie last evening, I was reminded how fortunate I am to lead an organization like Defenders. I am also gratified and thankful for the many Defenders donors who have been with us on this long journey to restore bison to their native lands in northeast Montana and have so generously supported us along the trail.
I feel truly honored to have been able to share this incredible conservation achievement with the Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck and Fort Belknap. I also want to thank Gov. Schweitzer and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for their leadership with bison restoration. Their persistence and perseverance has ensured that future generations of Americans will be able to witness magnificent wild bison out on the range once again.