Bison, © Aaron Huey / National Geographic Stock

Restoring Bison to a Landscape and a Culture

November is Native American Heritage Month, so throughout the month, we’re highlighting Native American-led efforts to restore culturally significant wildlife species to tribal lands.

“The buffalo signifies prosperity. It’s a symbol that means to us that life is going to be good, our kids are not going to go hungry. For us, buffalo are a very important symbol for who we are as people.”
– Larry Westit, Fort Peck Community College, from The Return, a film on the return of Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck Reservation.

Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains Representative

We’ve been covering the return of wild bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation extensively over the past year, and for good reason. Bison — or buffalo, as they’re often called — are a keystone species of the Great Plains, meaning they have an incredible influence on the plants and animals of the region. But they are also incredibly important to the people of the region, especially to those with strong cultural ties to this amazing animal.

Fort Peck Bison

©Jonathan Proctor, Defenders of Wildlife

Bison once roamed across North America’s Great Plains by the tens of millions. To the Native Americans that shared this landscape, bison were more than just another animal; they were the main source of food, clothing, shelter and even culture.

Then came the great slaughter. By the late 1800s, almost all the plains bison were gone, with only 23 remaining in the wild in Yellowstone National Park, and a few hundred others in captive herds. This loss affected the region’s Native American tribes in a way that’s difficult to imagine. Their way of life had been stolen. The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana were no exception. You could say that they have been waiting for more than 120 years for the return of wild bison.

On March 19, 2012, that long wait finally ended as 61 genetically pure bison from the Yellowstone herd — the only continuously wild herd of bison — were released onto tribal lands at Fort Peck Reservation. They were greeted by tribal members old and young with songs, prayers and great excitement.

I have been involved in many wildlife reintroduction efforts, from prairie dogs, to black-footed ferrets, to swift fox, to bison. Each reintroduction is important because it helps restore some balance back to the land from which we have destroyed so much. But never have I witnessed a wildlife reintroduction that meant so much to the people who share that land. This was more than a wildlife restoration; it was also part of a cultural restoration. I heard this sentiment echoed several times that day, and in the days since.

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

Defenders of Wildlife is honored to have played a part in this story. With enthusiastic support from our members in Montana and around the country, we helped to convince Montana to transfer wild Yellowstone bison to the tribes, helped fund important needs like fencing and transport of the bison, and most recently helped with expenses needed to rebuild after a tragic wildfire burned most of the initial 2,200-acre bison area. The wildfire may have been a setback, but progress continues: we are happy to announce that today, the tribal bison program adds another 5,000 acres to the cultural bison reserve, enough to accommodate significant growth in bison numbers.

Ceremonial Drumming at Fort Peck for the Bison Return

Ceremonial drumming as Fort Peck Reservation celebrates the bison’s return.

Defenders will continue to help expand this bison reserve as opportunities arise because we share the goal of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes at Fort Peck of restoring bison as wildlife to this important part of the Great Plains. We will also work with others, including other tribes, to restore additional bison herds and overcome the lawsuits from those trying to stop tribes from continuing this restoration.

Despite what some opponents to the project have claimed, restoring wild bison is about moving forward, not going back in time. Bison may never again roam free across the entire Great Plains, but certainly we can find a few places in this immense region where herds of 1,000 or more bison can roam as wildlife once again. Where better to begin than with willing partners such as the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Reservation?