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:
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.