For countless generations, millions of American bison sustained human life on the Great Plains. Native people relied on bison for food, shelter, clothing and tools.
The U.S. government policy of exterminating the bison helped force Native Americans onto reservations where they were deprived of their traditional food and hunting lifestyle. Wild bison nearly became extinct in the late 19th century.
But a small population survived in Yellowstone National Park, which was created in 1872 and protected somewhat from poachers by the U.S. Cavalry (Army). In 2018, there are an estimated 4,000 bison roaming Yellowstone Park and more than 20,000 bison in tribally managed herds around the country.
Last week, representatives of several tribes and wildlife conservation organizations gathered in Denver to share their management strategies and discuss the benefits of restoring bison to tribal lands.
Gazette Outdoors editor Brett French was at the bison summit to gather perspectives on efforts to restore bison to portions of their historic range. As French told Gazette readers in news reports from Denver, many Native Americans have a strong spiritual connection to bison. Bison provide hope to indigenous people by connecting them with their past and their culture.
Ramey Growing Thunder, of Poplar, talked about gathering with many of her Assiniboine and Sioux tribal members to celebrate the buffalo’s return to her reservation in 2000. She described one of the big bulls stepping out of the horse trailer and into a corral, saying it stomped the ground as if to say: “We’re here now. We’re coming, the buffalo nation.”
The Fort Peck herd has about 700 bison, including 61 from the Yellowstone Park herd prized for its pure bison genetics.
An environmental assessment completed earlier this year is supposed to clear the way for transferring additional Yellowstone bison that have already cleared rigorous testing and quarantine to Fort Peck. It’s a slow, complex process involving several federal, state and tribal agencies. Some Montana ranchers adamantly oppose having bison in the state. There is fear of brucellosis, a disease cattle brought to Yellowstone Park more than 100 years ago, that has since been eradicated in cattle, but continues to infect some park bison and elk. Some cattlemen object to sharing the range with bison, and others worry that the wild animals will be destructive.
The Denver gathering, described by organizers as the first tribal buffalo summit, brought important players together. A second summit would be even more valuable – if cattle ranchers participated.
After all, ranchers and tribes are neighbors in Montana and other states in the West. Bison are different in their habits and their impact on the land than cattle. It would be good for cattle ranchers to understand their differences.
Meanwhile, the annual slaughter in Yellowstone continued this past winter with 1,035 animals killed, according to the Interagency Bison Management Plan website. State and tribal hunters took 368 bison. The rest were corralled, loaded into trucks and shipped to slaughter. Additionally, 130 animals were placed in quarantine for potential transfer if they repeatedly test free of exposure to disease -- and government agencies approve a transfer.
How much better it would be to manage Yellowstone bison with the best science, work with willing Native American groups and disperse the wild bison genes to multiple herds so that the entire future of the species doesn’t depend on Yellowstone. Extensive efforts made over the past three decades have been successful: No cases of bison infecting cattle have been found. The strains of brucellosis that some cattle in the Yellowstone area were exposed to were identified by lab analysis as coming from elk, not bison.
Vast herds of bison and the land coexisted for millennia. Surely, there’s room for relatively small herds to be managed in our great, big state without adversely impacting neighbors who raise cattle.