Tony Bynum Photography

Bison on the Rebound

Native American groups are leading an effort to bring the iconic animal back to the wild

The ground rumbles like thunder. A cloud of dust rises in the distance. It’s not a storm. It’s a herd of bison, stampeding across the prairie.

This is the Fort Peck Reservation in northern Montana, home to the Dakota and Nakoda people. The reservation manages a herd of 340 wild bison and is working with other Native nations, the National Park Service, and conservation groups to bring more of these iconic mammals back to the wild.

The ground rumbles like thunder. A cloud of dust rises in the distance. It’s not a storm. It’s a herd of bison stampeding across the prairie.

This is the Fort Peck Reservation in northern Montana, home to the Dakota and Nakoda people. The reservation manages a herd of 340 wild bison. It’s now working with other Native nations, the National Park Service, and conservation groups to bring more of these iconic mammals back to the wild.

‘They’re our four-legged relatives.’

Some 30 million bison, also called buffalo,* once roamed North America, according to modern estimates. By the 1880s, fewer than 1,000 remained—hunted to the brink of extinction, as White settlers expanded into Native American territory in the Great Plains, the large stretch of flat land between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

But the bison are making a comeback—thanks in large part to an ongoing effort by Native Americans. Today about 20,000 bison reside on Native reservations—roughly the same number that live on all federal and private reserves. (More than 180,000 bison are also raised on private land in the U.S. as livestock.) For many Native people, restoring the buffalo to the wild is about saving an animal of spiritual and cultural significance that was once taken away from them.   

“They’re our four-legged relatives,” says Robert Magnan, director of the Fort Peck Tribes Fish and Game Department. “They’ve taken care of us since the beginning of time, and now we need to take care of them.”

For centuries, buffalo played an important role in the lives of Native Americans in the Plains. Native people hunted bison, using the meat for food and the bones and skin to make clothes, shelter, and tools. Many Native nations have long honored the animals with cultural ceremonies.

Some 30 million bison, also called buffalo,* once roamed North America, according to modern estimates. By the 1880s, fewer than 1,000 remained. They were hunted to the brink of extinction, as White settlers expanded into Native American territory in the Great Plains, the large stretch of flat land between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

But the bison are making a comeback. Their return is in large part due to an ongoing effort by Native Americans. Today about 20,000 bison live on Native reservations. That’s roughly the same number that live on all federal and private reserves. More than 180,000 bison are also raised on private land in the U.S. as livestock. For many Native people, restoring the buffalo to the wild is about saving an animal of spiritual and cultural significance that was once taken away from them.

“They’re our four-legged relatives,” says Robert Magnan, director of the Fort Peck Tribes Fish and Game Department. “They’ve taken care of us since the beginning of time, and now we need to take care of them.”

For centuries, buffalo played an important role in the lives of Native Americans in the Plains. Native people hunted bison, using the meat for food and the bones and skin to make clothes, shelter, and tools. Many Native nations have long honored the animals with cultural ceremonies.

Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library via Wikimedia

A pile of bison skulls in Michigan, 1892. By then, there were almost no remaining bison in the U.S.

‘Kill Every Buffalo’

Bison hunting increased in the 1600s when Europeans brought large numbers of horses to Native Americans. But the real trouble began in the 1870s, when railroads connected the East and West coasts for the first time, and buffalo hunting became big business. Scores of White hunters flocked to the Plains. They killed millions of bison and loaded the hides onto trains for shipment east.

At the same time, more White settlers were migrating west, clashing with Native people trying to maintain their homelands. The U.S. Army backed the settlers’ expansion, fighting wars against Native nations, and encouraged people to hunt bison.

Bison hunting increased in the 1600s when Europeans brought large numbers of horses to Native Americans. But the real trouble began in the 1870s. During that decade, railroads connected the East and West coasts for the first time. That led to buffalo hunting becoming big business. Scores of White hunters flocked to the Plains. They killed millions of bison and loaded the hides onto trains for shipment east.

At the same time, more White settlers were migrating west. As they arrived, they clashed with Native people trying to maintain their homelands. The U.S. Army backed the settlers’ expansion. Troops fought wars against Native nations and encouraged people to hunt bison.

“U.S. policymakers [saw] the decline of the bison as a way to bring Native people in the Great Plains to heel,” says Andrew Isenberg, author of The Destruction of the Bison. Cut off Native people’s food source and livelihood, the logic went, and they’ll be forced to submit to reservations.

A U.S. Army colonel told a White hunter in 1867: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

By the turn of the 20th century, the bison was almost wiped out from North America. But conservation groups began working to build back the buffalo population in the then newly created Yellowstone National Park, located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. From 1902 to 1990, the number of Yellowstone bison grew from about two dozen to nearly 5,000. This created a new problem: Now there were too many buffalo for the park ecosystem to sustain, so hundreds of bison were culled each year.

“U.S. policymakers [saw] the decline of the bison as a way to bring Native people in the Great Plains to heel,” says Andrew Isenberg, author of The Destruction of the Bison. They aimed to cut off Native people’s food source and livelihood. They thought that would force Native people to submit to reservations.

A U.S. Army colonel told a White hunter in 1867: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

By the turn of the 20th century, the bison was almost wiped out from North America. But conservation groups began working to build back the buffalo population in the then newly created Yellowstone National Park, located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. From 1902 to 1990, the number of Yellowstone bison grew from about two dozen to nearly 5,000. That created a new problem. There were soon too many buffalo for the park ecosystem to sustain. As a result, hundreds of bison were culled each year.

Loring Schaible

Robert Magnan (back right) corrals bison at Fort Peck in Montana.

Making a Comeback

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.”

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. It affects cattle and can cause calves to die before birth. Many Yellowstone bison carry brucellosis, but 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. That allowed 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. Others get 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. That includes bringing the animals to public land administered by the federal government. But in April, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte called off the plan. He made the move 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 been a benefit to the environment. Their presence has helped restore grasslands and bring new plants and birdlife. And the reservation is once again able to host traditional ceremonies that include the buffalo.

“Since we brought the buffalo back here to Fort Peck,” Magnan says, “our culture has been revived.”

*Technically, buffalo are native to South Asia and Africa, while bison are found in North America and Europe. But in the U.S., the two names have been used interchangeably ever since the first European settlers arrived.

*Technically, buffalo are native to South Asia and Africa, while bison are found in North America and Europe. But in the U.S., the two names have been used interchangeably ever since the first European settlers arrived.

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