A solitary bison makes his way toward a cluster of bison in the distance.
Ninety-seven wild Yellowstone bison were delivered to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation Thursday, with 42 more scheduled to arrive Friday.
Robert Magnan, director of Fort Peck Fish and Game and head of the reservation’s buffalo program, said the bison were greeted by prayers and songs “welcoming them back to their homeland.”
“It was a chilly but beautiful morning,” said Jonathan Proctor, of the Defenders of Wildlife, which helped with the bison transfer. “No wind, plenty of sun and lots of enthusiasm.” He said the bison “just roared out of the trucks into their new home.”
The release of the wild bison, free of cattle genes, was the capstone to a process that dates back to 2005, when the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks began a quarantine study involving bison from Yellowstone National Park. The experiment was meant to test whether brucellosis-free bison could be used to seed genetically pure herds of bison across the West.
After the initial four-year quarantine, the bison had to be held for another five years to continue testing and monitoring, during which they had to be strictly segregated from cattle and other bison.
“No one was willing to take the political risk of that, so Ted Turner stepped up,” said Steve Forrest, also with the Defenders of Wildlife. Turner, the billionaire who has spent a large part of his fortune on wildlife restoration, held the bison on his Green Ranch near Bozeman until Thursday.
Robert Magnan, director of Fort Peck Fish and Game, watches as bison are unloaded Thursday.
The bison shipped to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck in northeastern Montana “are the first graduates of that feasibility study,” Forrest said. The tribes were chosen from among 50 applicants who responded to a request from proposals from the state.
Thursday’s shipment was supposed to total 139 Yellowstone bison, but one of the three semi-trucks broke down before it was loaded. The final transfer of bison is expected to take place Friday.
After Turner took the first batch of animals that had been certified brucellosis-free in quarantine, the Fort Peck tribes in 2012 took another 49 bison that had been through quarantine and had been monitored for three years. Those bison, the beginnings of the tribes’ “cultural herd,” still have to be tested for an additional two years. But the tribes have decided to mingle their cultural herd with the new arrivals.
That way, Proctor said, all bison in the cultural herd can be tested for the next two years, adding a layer of assurance that the entire herd, including the new arrivals, is disease-free.
Magnan said the new animals will be kept in pens for 10 days or so, fed and watered and allowed to get used to their new surroundings.
“For the next 10 days we’ll just be watching them while they get accustomed to the area,” he said.
The tribes have had a “business herd” for 16 years. Magnan said it now numbers about 170 animals and is operated like a cattle herd, with a ratio of one bull for every 20 cows. The cultural herd has a more natural 60-40 female-male ratio.
Les Bighorn, the lead game warden for the Fort Peck Tribes, said the biggest difference he’s noticed between the business herd and the cultural herd is that cows in the business herd, with their admixture of cattle genes, will invariably drop all their calves in the spring, usually in May and June.
The Yellowstone bison, by contrast, will have some calves in the spring but will start dropping them as early as December and January. Bighorn said he actually thought something was wrong at first, but federal wildlife officials told him that was typical of bison in Yellowstone National Park.
“The way I see it, our business herds—they’re the ones that are not right,” he said, and the Yellowstone bison still follow ancient birthing cycles.
It has been estimated that there were 30 to 50 million bison in North America when Europeans arrived here. Uncontrolled killing wiped out all but about 1,000 plains bison by the late 1800s. Most of the survivors were captured and held as livestock, with fewer than 25 remaining wild deep in Yellowstone National Park.
That remnant has grown to about 4,900 genetically pure bison today in Yellowstone National Park.
Proctor said the atmosphere around this week’s transfer was markedly different from that of 2012, when the first shipment of bison was sent to Fort Peck. Then, he said, there was litigation challenging the transfer and lots of organized opposition. There were fears of bison spreading brucellosis to cattle and worries about bison trampling fences and endangering people and domestic livestock.
A bison calf, probably quite happy to be on solid ground again, runs to catch up with its elders.
“This year, it’s all evaporated,” Proctor said. “To me, this shows that people realize the sky didn’t fall, the world didn’t end. The tribe is managing this herd incredibly well.”
Getting the bison to Fort Peck was the result of a collaboration between the Fort Peck Tribes, the InterTribal Buffalo Cooperative, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and the World Wildlife Fund.
After the herd reaches carrying capacity on its 13,000-acre preserve at Fort Peck, the plan is to send bison to other tribes and organizations in the United States to establish new herds of genetically pure bison. The Fort Belknap Reservation has already taken half the herd delivered to Fort Peck in 2012. The Fort Peck Tribes will also use some of the bison for traditional ceremonies, including the Sun Dance.
The groups that fought to get the bison to Fort Peck will continue working together during the 2015 Montana Legislature, Proctor said. In the past three sessions, more than a dozen bills were introduced to prohibit the raising of bison, to prevent tribes from taking them or to give county commissions the authority to ban them from their counties. All were defeated or vetoed, Proctor said.
He said the Defenders of Wildlife worked with its members and partners “to make sure that the Montana Legislature knew that Montanans overwhelmingly support wildlife restoration,” he said.
Bighorn, the lead warden at Fort Peck, said the bison have proved themselves to be hardy survivors. “They pretty much take care of themselves,” he said. “We don’t have to feed them.”
He said the business herd hasn’t required any outside feed since the winter of 2010, when there was 80 inches of snow on the ground.
When the tribe start raising bison 16 years ago, Bighorn said, neighboring ranchers were afraid the bison would crash through the fences on their preserve, that the tribe would be unable to control them. But a few years back, when there was a big fire on and near the reservation, it was the cattle that panicked and ran all over creation, Bighorn said.
Bighorn said the tribes’ business herd ran till it came to a gravel road, then calmly walked down the road until the fire had passed on either side of them.
“They got singed, but they got through,” he said. “Ten days later, the ranchers were still looking for their cows. We didn’t have to look for them or anything. That kind of proved our point.”