Today, somewhere on the rolling hills near People’s Creek in Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, a cinnamon-colored bison calf is making its first low grunts as it chases on spindly legs after its hulking mother. It is the first spring for this calf and only the second that its mother has spent on the northern plains, far from her own birthplace in the valley of the Yellowstone River, some 350 miles to the South. The mother and her calf are a rare breed, descendants of wild bison whose origins extend back more than 10,000 on the North American continent. For the most part, these genetically pure bison are long gone from the northern plains: It’s been over 120 years since bison like these roamed over the greening spring prairies north of the Little Rocky Mountains. Nearly all of their kind were hunted to extinction as the press of European migration pushed the Nakota and Aane (white clay people) into this last undeveloped corner of America, and with them the last byiih and eneečee (female and male buffalo in Aaniiih language) and pte and tatąga (female and male buffalo in Nakota language). The era of the bison ended in the blink of an eye as starving meat hunters fought over the last few bison with commercial robe traders. The collapse of the species and the economy and culture it supported was unprecedented in scope or rapidity given how vast were the herds that once roamed the plains. That’s why Defenders is working so diligently to restore them.
It was less than a year ago that the tribes of the Fort Belknap reservation, working with tribal biologists from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and aided at critical times by Defenders, brought the Yellowstone female mentioned above to this pasture. She was one of 31 bison brought to Fort Belknap in 2013. The short drive of 100 miles from Fort Peck belied the grueling journey it took to get this new mother here. Preparations included upgrading fencing and purchasing grazing rights on tribal lands to allow the bison room to live and grow. More difficult for the female were years of capture and testing to prove that wild bison from the Yellowstone population did not carry brucellosis, a disease feared by the livestock industry. With a clean bill of health, they could be safely moved from the Yellowstone population to start new herds on the northern plains.
The next hurdle in the new mother’s move from the quarantine facility to Fort Peck was vigorous opposition by anti-bison and anti-wildlife extremists, who feared the return of the bison as a potent symbol of an expanding public desire for greater wildlife restoration and conservation. These extremists demanded that Yellowstone bison be forcibly removed from Fort Peck tribal land and returned to the national park. Defenders and our conservation partners joined Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in taking this issue to court, and prevailed, freeing the bison to be ultimately transferred to Fort Belknap. Finally, only a month ago, Defenders learned of the latest victory in this journey: a court decision that upheld Defenders’ position that the bison of Yellowstone are indeed wild. The way home has taken many turns, but the trip was worth the effort, judging by the frisky enthusiasm of the new bison calf, which seems to leap at the sight of each waving clump of rabbitbrush.
Soon, the bison calf, under the watchful eye of its shaggy mother, will explore the limits of her new range. As the summer progresses, Defenders hopes to find additional resources to grow this space for her even larger, so that in three years, when it is time for this future mother to have calves of her own, it can be truly said that these new generations are of this place, as they once were and hopefully will be forever into the future.
Steve Forrest, Rockies & Plains Senior Representative