Tragedy struck at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana last week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, a wildfire burned some 14,000 acres, including most of the 2,100-acre bison pasture where 61 recently reintroduced Yellowstone bison and their 21 calves had been grazing.
Sadly, 8 adult bison and 2 calves died in the fast-moving fire or were put down as a result of injuries caused by the fire. The remaining 72 bison will be moved to another pasture while Fort Peck Fish and Game wildlife managers rebuild the charred electric fence.
The cause of the fire is unknown, but it appears to have started a few miles west of the bison pasture along a county road connecting Scobey and Wolf Point, two small, rural outposts on the high, windy plains. The fire began Tuesday afternoon and spread quickly in gusts reaching up to 40 m.p.h.
Fort Peck Fish and Game will have their work cut out for them, however, as they must quickly rebuild the electric fence that was completed less than two months ago. Defenders has helped contribute funds in the past for bison fencing at Fort Peck and for the transport of genetically pure bison to the reservation. The bison were transferred from a quarantine facility outside of Yellowstone National Park, where some of the bison had been held for more than five years as part of an effort to provide genetically pure Yellowstone bison for restoration efforts.
The new herd of Yellowstone bison at Fort Peck began with the arrival of 61 bison in March and the birth of 21 calves this spring. In July, all 82 bison were released from a temporary enclosure into a 2,100-acre pasture. Fort Peck has plans to open an additional 5,000 acres for the bison this fall where the herd could eventually grow into the hundreds. About half of the bison will be given to the Fort Belknap reservation once fencing is completed there.
Defenders bison expert Jonathan Proctor has been in close contact with Robbie Magnan, director of Fort Peck Fish and Game, to see how we can help in the wake of this tragedy. While repairs to the bison fence are already underway, we’re committed to assisting the tribes in any way we can.
“It’s heartbreaking to lose these ten bison after the tribes at Fort Peck have waited so long and worked so hard for their return,” said Proctor. “But we’re determined to do everything we can to help the tribes move forward with their bison restoration program as planned. This tragic fire is not the end of bison restoration at Fort Peck.”
We’ll keep you updated on the situation as we learn more, and keep an eye out for email alerts explaining how you can help the bison at Fort Peck recover quickly from this terrible tragedy.