This story was published in the Fort Peck Journal.
It’s early evening on Aug. 22 on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana. A semi-truck sits idle in a pasture. The back gate opens. A female bison walks out, pauses a moment, and then charges out onto the vast prairie. She’s the first wild bison to stand on this ground in 150 years.
Others—34 in all—begin to emerge from the semitrailer and follow, running together toward the horizon.
Mike Fox, a member of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council, takes in the scene with moist eyes. “We really wanted to be a part of the solution—the long-term solution—to keep them in the picture,” he says.
Meanwhile, about 100 onlookers, mostly members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, cheer, celebrating a milestone in the slow expansion of genetically pure bison herds on tribal lands in Montana.
Somewhere between 25 and 60 million bison once roamed North American prairies. By the late 1800s, only about 2,000 remained. They’ve rebounded to roughly 500,000 in number today. But the vast majority of those bison have been crossbred with domestic cattle, leaving less than 14,000 wild and genetically pure.
Most of those wild bison are isolated in two populations—the small Elk Island herd in Canada and Yellowstone National Park’s Pelican Valley herd, named for where the animals hid to avoid slaughter around the turn of the 20th century.
Yellowstone’s bison would wander far from the park’s borders if allowed. Instead, out of fear that the bison could infect cattle with brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can cause miscarriages, those that leave the park are returned or shot, leaving the herd isolated and vulnerable. But over the past decade conservation initiatives have expanded the ancient ungulate’s range by establishing satellite herds on private lands and, now, reservations.
Keith Aune, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist who’s long worked to create new wild bison habitat, says rigorous brucellosis testing and quarantine programs have been key to establishing new herds.
“It was our intention to put them through that procedure, prove that they’re disease free, and then someday see them out on the landscape—and here we go and we have some here at Fort Belknap Reservation and some over at Fort Peck,” Aune says. “There’s a great future for bison in parts of the West.”
About 60 Yellowstone bison were transferred to the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana in March 2012. About half of those were tagged for Fort Belknap, but the relocation was delayed when a group of ranchers and landowners known as Citizens for Balanced Use filed suit against Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. They claimed the transfers violated state law in part because FWP had no clear plan for managing the bison once relocated. Some of the plaintiffs feared the bison would escape and damage private property. The case went to the Montana Supreme Court. On June 20, the court ruled in favor of the tribes.
Mark Azure, director of Fort Belknap Fish and Game, stands among those watching the bison amble across the pasture. It’s been a long and grueling process, Azure says, but he describes it as the tribes keeping their part of the bargain.
“When you look back in history, you see that this animal did everything, kept our people in existence, and we should be able to return that favor,” he says. “Whatever it takes.”