Bison and calf, © Sandy Sisti

Courage for Conservation

Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains Representative 

Returning bison to tribal lands in the Great Plains was not without risk. Many outspoken Montana state legislators opposed to wild bison restoration attempted to undercut the Tribes’ plans. Despite this resistance, the Tribes of Fort Peck persevered at a time when state and federal agencies refused to do so out of fear of controversy. For these reasons, on September 18, Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Rusty Stafne will receive Defenders’ Wildlife Conservation Award, celebrating exceptional commitment to wildlife conservation. Chairman Stafne will accept the award on behalf of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, which in 2012 took a leadership role in restoring wild Yellowstone bison to the heart of their historic Great Plains habitat.

Bison, © Jim Peaco/NPS

The Tribes worked diligently for years to prepare a place at Fort Peck for these important wild bison, descendants of the last bison herd left in the wild after the slaughter of the 1800s. Although a few hundred pure bison survived in captivity, fewer than 25 remained in the wild, deep within Yellowstone National Park. Almost all bison that exist today are captive, and are descendants of bison that were crossbred with cattle long ago; very few wild and pure bison remain. Restoring and growing a new herd of Yellowstone bison is essential to the species’ future. To date, the Tribes have secured more than 24,000 acres for their bison program, and they intend to continue expanding this habitat until they have an area large enough to maintain a healthy herd of at least 1,000 wild bison.

Today, bison at Fort Peck are managed as a “cultural herd” – meaning that the animals are kept as wild as possible, helping the people of Fort Peck Reservation restore their traditions of long ago. This work is invaluable for wildlife conservation, too. By bringing Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck, the Tribes are helping restore wild bison – at least in one place – to their important role as a keystone species of the Great Plains.

So, why was this bison restoration effort controversial? Some in the livestock industry and their friends in state government view wild bison as a competitor with cattle for grass – even on public lands in Montana. Though Montana is more than 94 million acres in size, some in the livestock industry believe there is no room at all for wild bison, a native species. Bison opponents also use the issue of brucellosis – a disease brought to North America by cattle and transmitted to wild bison and elk – as a reason to oppose wild Yellowstone bison relocation. But their concerns don’t match the facts: There is no documented case of bison transferring disease to cattle in the state in the past several decades of study.

Against this backdrop, a program began in the early 2000s to bring a few dozen Yellowstone bison into temporary confinement and identify those free of brucellosis through a scientific process of selection, testing and retesting. Within a few years, biologists had certified these Yellowstone bison free of disease. In 2011 the disease-free bison were ready to leave their years of quarantine. Anti-bison partisans, however, were adamant that none would ever move further into Montana. The search for a new home for these important animals to begin a second wild population, which should have been a cause for celebration, instead became a rallying point for anti-wildlife fear mongering. As the anti-bison vitriol spilled into the public arena, it became clear that no agency or organization, and not even the state of Montana, would escape the attacks of the bison haters, and those who would have offered the animals a new home withdrew in the face of withering attacks. And yet, in a true spirit of community and a sense of cultural obligation to the bison, the Tribes of Fort Peck stood firm.

Yellowstone bison, © Steven LopezIn January 2012, the anti-bison partisans sued the state of Montana to prevent the bison from being relocated – a step that could have doomed them to years of legal limbo and probably destruction. The bickering continued for weeks, the air of conflict and controversy making it increasingly impossible to find federal or state agencies willing to stand up to the potential backlash for restoring the animals to public lands. Finally, in a dramatic move and with no court order blocking the transfer, the bison were trucked to Fort Peck – during a blizzard, no less! This marked the first ever return of wild Yellowstone bison to the Great Plains – the heart of the bison’s historic range – and the first bison to leave the Yellowstone region alive in decades. The day after the transfer, anti-bison partisans sought an injunction to have them returned to the Park, to which then-Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure responded, “”Now that they’re here, they are here to stay,” asserting the Tribes’ sovereign jurisdiction to manage the bison once they had reached Tribal lands. In 2013, the Montana Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that the move was legal.

It took incredible courage and mettle to do what was indisputably the right thing for bison conservation. Standing up to the bullying of powerful entrenched interests for the sake of preserving Yellowstone bison, a significant biological and cultural resource, was a bold act that serves as an example for conservation practitioners and leaders everywhere. Accordingly, the Assiniboine and Sioux people of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation are more than deserving of this great award.

Watch this 16 minute video to see the return of wild Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck Reservation:

Jonathan Proctor will be presenting the Spirit of Defenders Award for Advocacy to the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes at Defenders’ Annual Wildlife Conservation Awards Dinner on September 18th for their work in helping to restore wild bison to the plains of Montana.


26 Responses to “Courage for Conservation”

  1. Grace Nichols

    Thank you for such wonderful news. There is no healthy ecosystem without its large animals. Some say the original grass species come back when the bison nurture the seeds that have been dormant out there. Is that true?
    Anyhow, welcome back Bison; we trust you to love the land as you always have.

  2. Maria Cristina Newton

    State and Federal Agencies only look for their greedy interest passing over lives but they are not more than us, and together we can make them to stop with their absurd and cold blood interests!

  3. Frederic Vigne

    This news makes me just happy. There is still a long way from now to a full understanding of the need to restore as much as we can what we harmed. But here and there, some people, or some group of people, are taking action in a way which is the way of life, not the way of death.
    And yes, large wildlife and great predators are the proofs of a healthy ecosystem. If they can sustain themselves, other living creatures can. Being at the top of the pyramid, large wildlife is the first to vanish.

  4. Prof. Robert A. Fredericks

    I especially like the part about recovering their cultural identity. I am sure there are songs, dances, tales to be told around a campfire and passed on from generation to generation, special sayings and figures of speech that exist nowhere else in the world. I also like the comment about native species of grass returning to the range. I am sure that there will be many positive changes in the slow, gradual, cumulative way that Nature has. Please keep us up to date with further posts that cover the whole range of interests & factors involved.

  5. Stacey Stevens

    Wonderful news,, love to hear stories about wild animals thriving on the land
    intended for them!! Special thanks to those involved for making this possible!!

  6. Natasha

    Welcome Home bison tribe, our relatives. Thank you to all who made it possible.

  7. Suzy Hayes-Tripp

    LOVE IT! BUT, I hope this doesn’t end up like the GRAY WOLF. It has always amazed me that WE, the self proclaimed “superior species” feel it’s our duty to keep the population numbers of all other species in check, except our own, the ones causing all the havoc!

  8. Susan Carroll

    The ability to find a solution outside of politics is our way forward. This particular story puts emphasis on this nations BASIC struggle with important human and environmental values over money. We have so far to go….

  9. Lisa

    Great news!! Thank for the wonderful success story and Thank you to The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.

  10. Connie

    I am in awe at the courage that Fort Peck leaders displayed in bringing the bison back to tribal lands. As a Native American, I raise my hand in total respect to you, Fort Peck!!!

  11. Jacki

    This is great news for the buffalo !!!
    Now see if we can do the same for the wolves !
    Gentle Light

  12. Julie Cain

    It gives my heart hope that the tribes have stood up for the Buffalo. Would that they could help the wolves.

    Perhaps the tribes should find someone willing to run for congress…We might at least rely upon better wildlife management from such a one.

  13. Doreen Forbes

    I am so happy for the bison but especially for the Indigenous People who have fought so hard to get what was really theirs. This story gave me hope for other wildlife which is so quickly dwindling to be given the chance to build itself up again.
    Kudos to Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Rusty Stafne for his perseverance, tenacity & knowledge that this was indeed the right thing to do. I can only imagine the emotions felt when that first bison took his/her first step onto his/her homeland.

  14. Joann Kaden

    This is wonderful news. I commend Fort Peck for having the courage to bring in these bison. I hope they thrive and increase in the coming years. My late husband was raised on the Fort Peck reservation and I know he’d be happy about this.

  15. Joseph Glackin

    Congratulations! As the bison return, the prairie they graze will get the “cultivation” (from their hooves) and the fertilization (from their scat) that built that foot deep black soil the early white settlers found.
    And all without any chemical industry help.



  17. Mark B.

    “…it became clear that no agency or organization, and not even the state of Montana, would escape the attacks of the bison haters, and those who would have offered the animals a new home withdrew in the face of withering attacks”

    Where did the good citizens of Montana stand on this issue? I don’t mean the organizations, agencies or groups who withdrew support–I mean the average citizen. Were all the people of Montana so cowed (pun intended) by the bison-haters or were there those who actually stood up for this most magnificent of beasts? In any event, I praise the tribes for their perseverance and good work in seeing this wonderful process of American “justice” through to its logical conclusion. Yes, a little justice–finally–for the bison.

  18. Helen

    Oh!! This makes me so so happy to hear about . Thank you thank you to everyone of you who stood firm and clear and made it happen the way it should–and to those who reported it so beautifully. It is food for my heart to hear/see this. I cried to see the bison run out of the trailers to the true safety and freedom which is their birthright–and to hear the joyous welcome of the drummers and singers as this healing was made real. I wish all of you joy of your victory–which is a victory for all of us!

  19. Mark Donners

    I don’t know who these “anti bison” scum are but they should be hunted down and jailed for life. Absolute criminals.

    • Andy Sayles

      The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, have my greatest respect for all that they did to get Yellowstone buffalo to their tribal lands. I wish them all the best and hope their herd grows to the 1,000 they want. The commitment of not only the tribal leaders but of all tribal members who helped in this effort and drive is awesome. You were able to do what others of us hadn’t been able to accomplish. Thanks !!!

You May also be interested in