John Motsinger, Communications Specialist
Thirty-four Yellowstone bison came bounding off trailers on Friday at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation marking the second herd of genetically pure wild bison from Yellowstone National Park restored to the Great Plains. The tribes at Fort Belknap, led by tribal wildlife manager Mark Azure, have been hard at work for more than a year and half, awaiting the day that Yellowstone bison would finally return to their historic stomping grounds on Montana’s plains.
The move finally occurred after the tribes and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks finalized a legal agreement outlining how the bison will be transported, managed and tested for disease. Though the animals have repeatedly tested negative for brucellosis, the bison will be monitored regularly until April 2017.
In March of last year, 61 bison were moved from a quarantine facility near Yellowstone National Park to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana. Since then, the herd has grown to 76 bison with the addition of new calves. Half of the bison were supposed to be transferred to Fort Belknap last summer, but bison opponents filed for a temporary restraining order. A district court granted an injunction to stop further bison movements, and so all the bison remained at Fort Peck.
Then in June, the Montana Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court, clearing the way for more bison transfers. This summer, the tribes at Fort Belknap fenced off a 1,000-acre pasture for the genetically pure bison to return to the reservation, and have been ironing out the details of the transfer with the state ever since.
Though the tribes have acquired a relatively small number of Yellowstone bison, the transfer to tribal lands offers a new model for wild bison conservation that could be adopted at select sites elsewhere across the Great Plains. Bison herds could be restored where there is suitable habitat and a willingness to provide a home for them.
In addition, both reservations are planning to expand their bison herds. Fort Belknap already has a herd of bison on a 22,000-acre tribal bison range, though this herd is not genetically pure. It contains traces of cattle genes, as do almost all bison today. Tribal land managers plan to replace that herd with pure bison from Yellowstone, eventually growing it as large as possible. Last month, Defenders also helped Fort Peck acquire grazing rights to an additional 4,000 acres for a total of 24,000 acres of bison range. Next, we’re planning to help both reservations expand to accommodate at least 1,000 wild bison in the future – the minimum size recommended in the IUCN bison conservation strategy to preserve the health of the species well into the future.
There’s much work to be done before herds of that size will be seen at either reservation. But the good news is that genetically pure wild Yellowstone bison are starting to be restored to more places across their historic range, where millions of these iconic animals once thrived.