Bison and calf, © Sandy Sisti

A New Season for Bison

Today, somewhere on the rolling hills near People’s Creek in Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, a cinnamon-colored bison calf is making its first low grunts as it chases on spindly legs after its hulking mother. It is the first spring for this calf and only the second that its mother has spent on the northern plains, far from her own birthplace in the valley of the Yellowstone River, some 350 miles to the South. The mother and her calf are a rare breed, descendants of wild bison whose origins extend back more than 10,000 on the North American continent. For the most part, these genetically pure bison are long gone from the northern plains: It’s been over 120 years since bison like these roamed over the greening spring prairies north of the Little Rocky Mountains. Nearly all of their kind were hunted to extinction as the press of European migration pushed the Nakota and Aane (white clay people) into this last undeveloped corner of America, and with them the last byiih and eneečee (female and male buffalo in Aaniiih language) and pte and tatąga (female and male buffalo in Nakota language). The era of the bison ended in the blink of an eye as starving meat hunters fought over the last few bison with commercial robe traders. The collapse of the species and the economy and culture it supported was unprecedented in scope or rapidity given how vast were the herds that once roamed the plains. That’s why Defenders is working so diligently to restore them.

Bison calf, © David JollisIt was less than a year ago that the tribes of the Fort Belknap reservation, working with tribal biologists from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and aided at critical times by Defenders, brought the Yellowstone female mentioned above to this pasture. She was one of 31 bison brought to Fort Belknap in 2013. The short drive of 100 miles from Fort Peck belied the grueling journey it took to get this new mother here. Preparations included upgrading fencing and purchasing grazing rights on tribal lands to allow the bison room to live and grow. More difficult for the female were years of capture and testing to prove that wild bison from the Yellowstone population did not carry brucellosis, a disease feared by the livestock industry. With a clean bill of health, they could be safely moved from the Yellowstone population to start new herds on the northern plains.

The next hurdle in the new mother’s move from the quarantine facility to Fort Peck was vigorous opposition by anti-bison and anti-wildlife extremists, who feared the return of the bison as a potent symbol of an expanding public desire for greater wildlife restoration and conservation. These extremists demanded that Yellowstone bison be forcibly removed from Fort Peck tribal land and returned to the national park. Defenders and our conservation partners joined Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in taking this issue to court, and prevailed, freeing the bison to be ultimately transferred to Fort Belknap. Finally, only a month ago, Defenders learned of the latest victory in this journey: a court decision that upheld Defenders’ position that the bison of Yellowstone are indeed wild. The way home has taken many turns, but the trip was worth the effort, judging by the frisky enthusiasm of the new bison calf, which seems to leap at the sight of each waving clump of rabbitbrush.

Soon, the bison calf, under the watchful eye of its shaggy mother, will explore the limits of her new range. As the summer progresses, Defenders hopes to find additional resources to grow this space for her even larger, so that in three years, when it is time for this future mother to have calves of her own, it can be truly said that these new generations are of this place, as they once were and hopefully will be forever into the future.

Steve Forrest, Rockies & Plains Senior Representative

28 Responses to “A New Season for Bison”

    • Anna Burgos

      Outstanding, first nation people have always lived as one with the animals, nature and mother earth. Thank you, there’s some people who truly care the creatures on mother earth.’ My brothers and sisters Creator’s mighty spirit blessings always surround you and dwell within you. A’HO

  1. Anne Coladarci

    That’s awesome! Now bring them back to Illinois, the Old Joliet Arsenal site! Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie


  2. Alexander Yeung

    There is hope for the bison and the great plain to be restore back the way it was before the setters came in and change everything.

  3. Angela Marie Nicke

    this makes my heart leap with joy,so happy they are making the land their own again after many generations.One step at a time…in wildlife…if they will just leave them along to live in their own habitat,we are in their space and must learn to exist together.

  4. Diana

    I am so happy. Thank you for fighting for the bison. Respect for all living creatures! I hope to come to see them one day.

  5. Linda Hansen

    GREAT JOB!!!! Without people like you this would not happen and slowly we would lose so many of Earth’s beautiful creatures.

  6. Bruce Perry

    Senator John McCain has introduced an amendment in Congress to allow anyone who kills bison at the Grand Canyon to keep the meat. “Lethal removal” is being considered as a control on the bison herds expansion. The National Park Service has the authority to kill animals that harm water resources, vegetation, and fragile cliff dwellings. The meat from the kills is distributed to wildlife agencies, tribes, or charities to distribute. McCains amendment would essentially allow hunting on in a national park which is illegal.
    The intent is to allow “lethal removal” of bison for protection of park resources. Turning this “option” over to hunters and allowing them to keep the meat is essentially allowing open season on hunting inside the Kaibab National Forest. This is the worst possible option, promoted by McCain and supported by the National Park Service. It sets a precedent for the Grand Canyon and the Kaibab in using the most destructive and counter-productive method to protect natural resources within the park. I hope that Defenders of Wildlife will take a strong and loud position against this irrational “solution”!

  7. MaryAnn

    Great news!!! The cattlepeople and their cattle that brought brucellosis to the Americas should all go back to Europe. The Bison should have free range in all of their original homeland.

  8. Judith

    So happy to hear this wonderful news! Thank you for a job well done.

  9. Gina

    Thank you! Our government needs to let them roam free wherever they are, they are a part of the AMERICA we are proud of !!!

  10. Doug

    It is nice to see wild bison return to native habitats outside of Yellowstone, which is a high plateau with brutal winters. It would be great if these bison were allowed access to the national forest lands around the park, since they include some wintering range that would help lessen the impacts on the Yellowstone herd in the winter, as well.
    It is ironic that the bison were exposed to brucellosis via cattle in the first place and transmission from bison to cattle has not been proven. Yet, bison, not Elk, which have been shown to transmit the disease, have been the one targeted over the last decades.
    Hopefully wild bison populations will be given more access to other landscapes to ensure their continued health and survival.

  11. Sylvia zade-Routier

    A great success. We need to give back to them their own land. I am happy to see that NOT ALL humans are ignorant and mean: Thank you Defenders of Wildlife.
    A great job! Sylvia

  12. Sylvia zade-Routier

    A great success! Thank you Defenders of Wildlife. Thanks to people like you, bisons and other wild animals can live freely on their land. Sylvia.

  13. Ann Sturdivant

    Thanks so very much Defenders. Every bit of good news like this makes me
    estatic to be a member of the best wildlife organization we have!

  14. Stephanie Stout

    It is good that North American Bison can live in protected areas. I also support bison ranching and eat far more Bison meat grown here in Texas than I do beef. Bison can eat native grasses and does not require grain or protection from wolves. Eurasian cattle should be considered as an invasive species, at least in the present numbers.

  15. Marie catterall

    This is why we should never give up our fight for the freedom of Gods creatures. I live in Australia…It doesn’t matter where you live in the world….I have always been proud to be part of this organisation.

  16. Barbara Peterlin

    Great news and I am happy that bisons are free. Thank you.

  17. Marjelee Murrell

    I applaud Defender’s of Wildlife for their diligence in working for wildlife everywhere. I am especially overjoyed to hear that the American Bison have finally found their place here. There is always more work to do on their behalf but I know that Defender’s of Wildlife will be there, at the forefront, for them. BRAVO!

  18. Gaylene Neill

    It is about time that we remember that the bison was the original heavy animal which filled the needs of native peoples. It is excellent meat and the impact of the bison on the earth is much less than what cattle put on it. Bison should be encouraged to roam and fill that spot in ecology that they have filled for hundreds of years.

  19. Ella

    AMAZING!!!, it’s so nice to hear some good news, I have been trying to help this organization for three years and I like that good things are coming out of it. I hope these majestic creatures are always allowed to roam free!

  20. Melissa Warfield

    What an amazing article to read! Keep up the good work on the bison. We really need the bison back to their original herd way back when. I remember seeing big herd of bison when my parents and I went to the Black Hills. What magnificent creatures, so big and massive! I have never forgotten what the bison look like in life.

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