Buffalo were the real trailmakers — trails you wouldn't believe. They were as good as the best civil engineers. It remains true today."
The 2018 Tribal Buffalo Conservation Summit was hosted by the Fort Peck Tribes, Fort Belknap Tribes, Intertribal Buffalo Council, National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, and Defenders of Wildlife.
Imagine over 1,000 wild buffalo roaming on hundreds of thousands of acres on the Wind River Reservation. Imagine these buffalo as a free-ranging herd on tribal lands – reviving tribal culture and reinvesting in the tribal communities’ connections to nature. That is the vision of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and their partner, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). The tribe also believes that tens of thousands of buffalo can be restored to millions of acres of tribal lands in the next generation, and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe not only wants to bring buffalo back to Wind River but also in the future serve as resource to help other tribes restore buffalo. They believe restoring a sizable herd on Wind River is a significant step towards achieving this grander vision for tribes across the West. For the last decade, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming has partnered with NWF to bring buffalo back to their lands, an effort called Boy-zshan Bi-den (Buffalo Return in the Shoshone language).
The Wind River Reservation has 2.4 million acres, much of which is prime buffalo habitat. In fact, the Reservation has more buffalo habitat for free-ranging buffalo than currently exists in Yellowstone National Park. Investing in bringing buffalo back to tribal lands on the Wind River Reservation is helping to heal historic environmental and societal wounds from the absence of buffalo, revive tribal cultural and ecological connections to buffalo, and contribute to Native community health and economies.
The Shoshone have successfully recovered all of the large species – such as deer, bighorn sheep, moose, and pronghorn – to their lands that were decimated by settlement, unregulated hunting, and other factors in the 19th and 20th centuries. Buffalo remain the one large ungulate species to be fully restored to their homelands. By bringing buffalo back to Wind River, we will revitalize a landscape, a habitat, and a diversity of wildlife while also re-establishing Native Americans’ cultural and historic connections to wildlife and the land. Buffalo restoration will ultimately foster a new conservation economy for Wind River – creating a nexus between cultural and historical revival and community vibrancy – that will help to alleviate some of the economic and social challenges that have faced the Tribes for decades.
In the last two years, the Shoshone Tribe and NWF returned buffalo after 130 years of absence, restoring 20 buffalo. The herd has also had three calves. The Shoshone Tribe is also exploring the concept of an ecotourism program and Visitor’s Center to attract tourists on their way to Yellowstone. This Center could offer varied educational and experiential programming for tribal youth, tribal members, and the general public that would also help to heal some of the economic disparities facing their tribal community.
The Eastern Shoshone Tribe is currently working to finalize a Shoshone Buffalo Management Plan that sets the nearterm objectives and long term vision for the tribe’s buffalo program. They have identified multiple reservation locations, ranging from 15,000 to 50,000 acres, to expand bison habitat and restore more buffalo.
The A'aninin and the Nakoda tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation have been restoring buffalo to their lands for more than four decades. It began in 1977 with the Assiniboine (Nakoda) Treaty Committee transferring ownership of 31 buffalo to the Fort Belknap Tribal Council, marking the first re-introduction of buffalo to the Fort Belknap Reservation. The herd was named after the place it calls home at the base of Snake Butte, a spiritual place on the northern portion of the reservation. By 1996, the Snake Butte Herd had grown to 280 animals and was supporting an annual hunting program. Since then, Fork Belknap has created a buffalo program that today involves restoring Yellowstone wild bison to their lands. This conservation herd began in 2013 with an agreement that Defenders of Wildlife helped broker with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that led to 34 Yellowstone buffalo being translocated from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to Fort Belknap. This was the second round of genetically pure wild bison from Yellowstone National Park to be restored to tribal lands on the Northern Plains. The elders of Fort Belknap, who have long paid homage to the animal, can once again receive its blessings while also giving back to the buffalo, providing them with their historic range on these tribal lands. Recent restoration efforts for the Yellowstone herd include purchasing an adjacent property for expanding the buffalo reserve to accommodate more animals, which numbers 67, including calves born last spring-summer. Defenders of Wildlife provided funding to support this land acquisition by Fort Belknap. Long term plans include increasing the size of the Yellowstone herd and combining those animals with the Snake Butte Herd. A major component of this strategy is the ability to secure more land to then grow the herd. Connecting lands for the buffalo to migrate to seasonal habitats— winter and calving grounds—will ensure the herd can remain sustainable and continue to provide for the tribal community well into the future. This past year, a Fort Belknap buffalo stakeholder group was established and recently completed a survey of tribal members to better understand their values, needs, and aspirations for the restoration of buffalo at Fort Belknap. World Wildlife Fund was also instrumental for this survey. The results will be analyzed and shared with community members and leaders in the coming months. It is hoped that the survey will provide additional incentives for ways in which buffalo management and restoration can be better aligned with the desires of community members. As Fort Belknap continues to work on bringing back the buffalo, tribal youth are now growing up also appreciating this member of their family that was gone for so many years. They are also learning in school what conservation of buffalo means, along with the ecological roles of other native wildlife to the prairie grasslands. Tribal traditions also now continue in honor of the buffalo. Many community members of Fort Belknap share in sun dances in appreciation of Mother Earth and the buffalo. Bronc Speak Thunder, known as the bison wrangler at Fort Belknap, says their buffalo program is about the community and he pays special attention to engaging their youth. “A lot of younger folks are searching, seeking out interesting experiences,” he said. “There are many kids who just want to ride with me some days and help out on the buffalo reserve, with fencing and weeds. It’s important to have them be part of our buffalo efforts.”
In the year 2000, after nearly 120 years without buffalo, Fort Peck Tribes purchased one hundred buffalo from Fort Belknap Indian Community and welcomed their relatives’ home to the Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch. Robbie Magnan, the current Fort Peck Fish & Wildlife Director, has led the buffalo program for many years and has established a strong vision for a program that served the buffalo and the people. In 2008, the Tribes split the bison into two herds, a business herd for the sale of hunts, and a cultural herd to provide for community needs. By 2010 the Fort Peck Buffalo Program was donating at least 25 buffalo annually to cultural and community institutions and events. In 2012, the Fort Peck Tribes, with support from Defenders of Wildlife and National Wildlife Federation, secured their first herd of 69 Yellowstone bison, 36 of which were sent to Fort Belknap in 2013 to establish their own Yellowstone herd on the 1,000-acre People’s Creek pasture. In 2014 the Yellowstone herd was supplemented with another 136 bison that were held by Ted Turner and allocated by the State of Montana. These Yellowstone bison would establish the new Fort Peck cultural herd, grazing approximately 12,000 acres and currently numbering over 400 bison, while the business herd grazes 13,000 additional acres and numbers over 300 animals. The two distinct herds continue to serve separate purposes of: 1) generating revenue to support the buffalo program though non-tribal hunts and meat sales (business herd), and 2) providing for tribal member hunts, community sustenance, and tribal member and tourist education and visitation (cultural herd). In the fall of 2015 Fort Peck completed a 320-acre surveillance facility for holding and testing Yellowstone bison for full operational quarantine within the existing Yellowstone pasture. Unfortunately, that facility is not yet in use, but after seemingly endless dealings with state and federal agencies and leaders, Fort Peck may soon have a Memorandum of Agreement completed so that they can play a role in full quarantine. Fort Peck has already provided 8 Yellowstone bison to the Bronx Zoo to establish a breeding population and will send Yellowstone bulls to Fort Belknap, Rosebud, and Wind River Reservations in the fall of 2018 to assist in tribal efforts to restore bison to Indian Country. In 2015 the Fort Peck Pte (female buffalo) stakeholder group made up of wildlife managers, elders, educators, tribal executive members, and community members partnered with Montana State University and World Wildlife Fund to host the Fort Peck Buffalo Summit and Treaty meeting, which saw over 1,000 Fort Peck school children visit the Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch and learn about their connection to buffalo from elders, teachers, veterinarians, and biologists. For many it was their first trip to the buffalo pastures. The same year the Pte Group, MSU and WWF conducted a survey of nearly 300 tribal members to better understand their values, needs, and aspirations for the management and restoration of bison at Fort Peck. Since the completion of that survey Fort Peck has implemented numerous recommendations emerging from the survey including hiring a part-time buffalo program administrator Jonny BearCub Stiffarm, implementing affordable buffalo meat sales, developing forms and protocols for tribal member hunts, selling meat to tribal early childhood and health promotion programs, gifting school children buffalo themed coloring books, and increasing communication to community members concerning the buffalo programs activities using social media and two local newspapers. All these activities have garnered increasing awareness and benefit among community members and increasing support among leaders over the past few years. In 2017, Fort Peck began working with Off the Beaten Path Tour Company and World Wildlife Fund to provide ecotours including sharing the buffalo culture, an arts and crafts sale, traditional stories, time spent with the buffalo, dinner on the prairie and traditional songs including drums and round dancing. Fort Peck Tribes Head Start Early Childhood Development Program has worked with Montana State University to develop a first of its kind buffalo curriculum, which will foster the connection of children on the reservation to the buffalo and has the potential for future use beyond Fort Peck in early childhood education. A training with Head Start teachers to launch the curriculum recently took place at Fort Peck and the Pte (buffalo) Stakeholder Group hopes that in the future they can facilitate the development of buffalo curriculum for use in K-12 education at Fort Peck to reinforce the important traditional and contemporary connection to buffalo. The Fort Peck Buffalo Program has diversified its business program by developing online license sales for non-tribal hunters that includes a lottery for non-trophy hunts and bidding for trophy hunts. In addition, they are in the process of partnering with Wild Idea Buffalo Company and Native American Natural Foods to sell surplus bison and secure state-inspected bison meat for affordable sales to community members. The Fort Peck Buffalo program has demonstrated measurable improvement in delivering on the needs and desires of their tribal community members and are taking great strides toward a culturally, economically, and ecologically sustainable tribal buffalo program with meaningful connections to the people of Fort Peck.
FWS Bison Meta-Population Conservation and Management
Stephen Torbit, PhD
Science Applications Fish and Wildlife Service - Mountain Prairie Region
Bison Ecology at Scale: What's Going On?
Glenn Plumb, PhD
Chair, IUCN Bison Specialist Group
Bringing Buffalo Back to Tribal Lands and Cultures: Ecology & Genetics
Wildlife Conservation Society
Fort Peck Tribes Yellowstone Bison Quarantine Facility Project
Fort Peck Tribes Fish & Wildlife Department
Bison Education Programs
Bringing Buffalo Back to Tribal Lands and Cultures
Ramey Growing Thunder
Fort Peck Language and Culture Department
Identifying Tribal Community Interests for Buffalo and Building Tribal Community Engagement and Support
Fort Peck Tribes
Communal Lands Project: Values, Views, and Perspectives of Tribal Members on the Pine Ridge Reservation
World Wildlife Fund
Sitkalidak Island Bison Herd
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Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd
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