In 2007, officials at Fort Peck came up with a plan to save some of the Yellowstone bison and bring them back to Native land. But ranchers in Montana opposed moving the bison. They worried about a disease called brucellosis that affects cattle and can cause calves to die before birth. Many Yellowstone bison carry brucellosis, though there hasn’t been a documented case of bison transmitting the disease directly to cattle.
After a long legal battle, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in Fort Peck’s favor in 2012, allowing the bison to be moved to the reservation. More than 150 Yellowstone bison have since been relocated there. When they arrive, they’re quarantined and tested for brucellosis. Some are added to Fort Peck’s herd and others sent to 16 Native nations across the U.S.
But a new buffalo battle is taking place. Native Americans and conservation groups had been working with Montana’s wildlife department to restore bison to more parts of the state, including public land administered by the federal government. But in April, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte called off the plan because of concerns from cattle ranchers. Wildlife officials, he says, “didn’t do enough to account for the impacts to local communities.” Native American state lawmakers appealed to the federal government, which said it would soon issue a ruling.
At Fort Peck, Magnan says, the bison have benefited the environment, helping restore grasslands and bringing new plants and birdlife. And the reservation is once again able to host traditional ceremonies that incorporate the buffalo.
“Since we brought the buffalo back here to Fort Peck,” Magnan says, “our culture has been revived.”