In this March 17, 2011, file photo, a free bison roams around the outside of a pen enclosing bison in Gardiner, MT, in Yellowstone National Park. AP Photo/Janie Osborne, File.
Sixty-three bison from Yellowstone National Park were shipped almost 500 miles northeast to Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation; part of a long-planned relocation initiative meant to repopulate parts of the West with the iconic animals. A crowd of elated tribal members greeted the bison, as they arrived Monday night. There had been 64 animals, but a yearling died during the trip, which had been anticipated for months, but came without any formal announcement. State and tribal officials wanted to avoid a courtroom battle with opponents worried that the bison will compete with cattle for grazing space.
Helena attorney Cory Swanson, who represents several landowners and farmers, said the unannounced Monday night move was a “sneak attack.” Swanson said he would return to court with a request that the animals be ordered back to Yellowstone.
But, Fort Peck Chairman Floyd Azure says the state of Montana no longer has jurisdiction over the animals, since they’re now on federally-protected tribal land. “Now that they’re here, they’re here to stay,” he emphasized.
The Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck declare that the relocation offers a chance for them to revive their ancient connection to an animal that once numbered in the millions in North America and provided food and clothing for indigenous peoples.
Bison often are confused with buffalo. They have similar appearances and share some genetic traits. But, bison are native only to North America, while buffalo are primarily indigenous to Africa and Asia. There’s a small population of buffalo in Eastern Europe. Bison once roamed almost all of North America, numbering anywhere from 20 – 30 million at the time of Europeans’ arrival. By 1900, they’d been driven nearly to extinction. But, conservation efforts throughout the 20th century saw their numbers increase dramatically.
Surely some people have wondered why Indigenous Americans used bison only for food and not as draft animals. Don’t think some didn’t try over the centuries! Bison are notoriously ferocious and, despite poor eyesight, somewhat aggressive and very stubborn. Saddling one up and attaching it to a cart isn’t just impractical; it’s impossible. Because of the bison’s majestic appearance and tenacious nature, most Indigenous American communities revered it as sacred. Yes, they used its flesh for food and hide for clothing, but in that process, it was a circle of life. Unlike their European counterparts, Native Americans didn’t hunt for sport.
The relocation issue, however, isn’t over quite yet. Some Montana lawmakers and local landowners have vowed to fight it.
“They just seem to think they are above the law,” said State Sen. Rick Ripley, a Wolf Creek Republican, about Fort Peck. “They’re going to have a lot of problems with damage to private property that they could have addressed prior to translocation.”
But, Fort Peck residents remain steadfast. “This has deep spiritual meaning for us,” said Leland Spotted Bird, a Dakota tribal elder and spiritual leader. “They are the sole survivors from our ancestors.”