Nearly 2,000 pounds of wild bison lumbered out of a truck and down a ramp yesterday onto a pasture owned by the the Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation as members of the tribe greeted the animals with a song.
Dozens of excited people were there to see workers herd the animals into a 140 acre holding pen. Fort Peck Fish and Game officials said almost 100 bison were unloaded yesterday, with nearly 50 more expected today.
Wildlife officials originally captured the herd migrating out of Yellowstone National Park. They’re part of only 4,000 genetically pure bison left in the country. They’ve spent the last five years on a ranch owned by cable news pioneer Ted Turner.
The transfer is part of the first treaty signed between the U.S.Government and Indian nations in 150 years.
Tribal councilman Tommy Christian has represented the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes for 15 years, and was part of the treaty signing in September.
He says having a strong bison herd is important for some tribal members, and a strong herd can represent a strong culture.
“A lot of people don’t understand that many of us live by a way of life, a value system that kind of develops a character to get through a lot of these hard times, and the buffalo represents that," said Christian. "Like the buffalo when the storm comes, it faces the wind, they are facing the storm and I guess that's kind of representative of our adaptability and our resiliency as a nation of people.”
A Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission decided to send the animals to the tribes instead of possibly splitting the herd among groups across the country who asked to manage them.
Defenders of Wildlife Program Director Jonathan Proctor traveled from Washington D.C. to Fort Peck to see the herd being released.
“You could tell these animals were wild by their reaction to get out of those trucks and out onto that prairie and it was a beautiful sight to see," said Proctor. "These animals would have otherwise been sent to slaughterhouses when they left Yellowstone National Park.”
Defenders of Wildlife is a national non-profit group that advocates for federal funding of wildlife conservation.
“This is a much better way to deal with the bison issue in Yellowstone, other than to wastefully and unproductively send them to the slaughterhouse," said Proctor. "These animals are too valuable for that.”
Proctor says restoring original bison herds across the country, free from any cattle genes, gives options for preserving the species. But he says that doesn’t mean other bison aren’t worth protecting.
"There are a lot of very valid questions about how important is it if some bison have tiny amounts of cattle genes, those are great questions for the scientists to answer over time with research," said Proctor. "But what we do know is that the Yellowstone bison are genetically pure, have been in a wild setting for forever, and it makes all the sense in the world to err on the side of caution and to restore these bison elsewhere.”
Fort Peck Fish and Game Director Robert Magnan and his staff manage the herds, and test the animals for disease. He says the animals will graze across a 13,000-acre pasture later this month. They join about 50 Yellowstone bison previously obtained by Fort Peck.
The tribes hope to expand the herd to about 300 animals, and Magnan says the bison will be used in part, to help create pure herds of bison elsewhere in the country.
Watch this video of the Fort Peck bison release, courtesy of Defenders of Wildlife: