On Greener Pastures

Saturday may have been another quiet day at the remote Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana, but it also marked another historic moment for the return of pure wild bison to the Great Plains. For the second time in four months, I got to see genetically pure bison from Yellowstone National Park gain new ground at Fort Peck.

The first time was in March, when 61 bison came storming off half a dozen trailers into a two-acre temporary surveillance corral. Since then, 21 calves were born to this small herd of pioneers – the first bison of Yellowstone descent to be born on the Great Plains, the heart of their historic range. Many of these bison had never tasted freedom, as they had lived in a quarantine facility on the edge of Yellowstone for up to five years prior to this move to eradicate a disease called brucellosis.

On Saturday, all 82 bison stampeded out of the corral into a 2,100-acre pasture that will be part of their new home. See my photos below:

Bison in corral, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Two acres isn't much room for 61 bison and their 21 calves, but keeping them in this temporary surveillance corral helped the animals adjust to their new surroundings at Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana.

Ft. Peck Bison, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Robert Magnan with Fort Peck Fish & Game and several community members watch as the bison exit the corral and head into the 2,100-acre pasture.

Bison calf, © Defenders of Wildlife

This calf takes its first steps ever outside of the two-acre corral where it was born.

Bison trio, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Three adult bison spread out on a hillside in their native habitat.

Bison herd, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Bison herds, once a familiar sight all across the Great Plains, are making a triumphant return at Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Powwow, © Defenders of Wildlife

Tribal members at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation celebrate during a summer powwow.

The bison now have free reign of this area. Once they’re settled, an additional 5,000 acres will be added to their home this fall, giving them more than 7,000 acres of grassland to graze and grow their numbers. Additional expansions are very likely, as we look to help the tribes acquire enough land to support at least 1,000 bison—the number scientists estimate is necessary to maintain genetic diversity.

Though it may be a long time before bison are truly “free roaming”, our hope is that these bison will be “wide ranging” enough to once again fulfill their essential ecological role in the Great Plains, while also helping to restore the culture of the people of the region. Tribal elder Iris Greybull was on hand to witness the event and said:

“We have always been known as buffalo people because we followed them, they fed us, they gave us clothes, they gave us our homes, they took care of us… Now the buffalo nations are coming back.”

At Defenders, our hope is that the people of Fort Peck Reservation are just the first of many landowners to offer bison a large home on the plains. The people of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation are also planning to start a new conservation herd of Yellowstone bison, and they have plenty of land to do it.

I attended a powwow at Fort Belknap on Sunday with Mark Azure, the tribes’ bison manager, and – along with two friends from World Wildlife Fund – helped him map the condition of the existing fence around their 22,000-acre area that will one day be home to wild Yellowstone bison. Defenders is assisting with a plan to upgrade the fence where necessary prior to the arrival of the Yellowstone bison, as required by the state of Montana prior to the bison’s return.

Beyond tribal lands, both Montana and federal agencies are looking to restore bison on some of our public lands as well. We look forward to partnering with them to make these plans a reality and see that more wild bison are returned to the Great Plains.

To learn more visit www.defenders.org/bisonhome.

8 Responses to “On Greener Pastures”

  1. Nancy M Rogan

    This is indeed a beautiful and most welcomed sight! Many thanks to the people who have made the effort to provide the most treasured land for these great bison to live and prosper! Aho!

  2. Edward Schriner

    Ode to a Frontier Legend, Part I

    Thunder rolls across the lone prairie

    As a sea of brown gallops across the land

    The thousands of these great and mighty behemoths

    Are now, soon to this sad day, destined to be no more

    None shall roam the once untamed grasslands anymore

    Killed senselessly for their hides and for sport

    And these magnificent gentle giants shall but be a memory.

    Ode to a Frontier Legend, Part II

    Beautiful are the natives, whom thunder upon the lonesome prairie

    Undaunted by the numerous obstacles that meet their heavy path

    Fate has thus dealt them a frightening hand to their lively freedom

    Few have they become because of the white man’s foolish pride

    Arrogance seeded their dark hearts as they slaughter the hundreds

    Lamentations are uttered by the original American nation to no avail

    Only to fall upon the trampled grass which these blessed giants existed

  3. Kristen

    Just a heads up, there was a lame bison @ about 25 seconds… As a side note, I’m also curious, are there wildlife veterinarians that are periodically checking out the overall health of these bison?

  4. Mark Heckert

    For a bit of history and perspective, it should be remembered that Defenders helped the InterTribal Bison Cooperative get started in 1992. Ask Bill Snape.

  5. http://Africansafaritours.co/

    Hey…
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  6. john byrne

    This mighty animal was not killed for sport as suggested he was killed to starve the indigenous people into submission they were expendable according to the greedy who wanted to own all they could see.the American Indian fought long and hard for survival and thankfully they are still with us today as we go forward.Washington has a lot of ground to make up and thats literally.

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