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Do buffalo still roam the American West with Native tribes? And if so, where?

A federal push to return American Bison herds to tribal control raises hopes that the once-abundant species can regenerate landscapes and restore native traditions.

Bison grazing in Custer State Park in South Dakota. Kent Kanuse via Flickr

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We explore the issues, personalities, and trends that people are talking about around the West.

By Felicity Barringer

Bison are returning to the people who shared the West with them for thousands of years. Native nations might say they are returning home. For about two years a steady beat of federal announcements has been making the same point: the United States is returning management of bison to tribes, to restore their herds, regenerate tribal lands, and reawaken tribal cultures.

“We need to re-learn what the buffalo brings to us,” said Troy Heinert, a Sicangu Lakota who is the executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council. A PBS news report six months ago underscored his point

There are 500,000 bison in the country today and another 160,000 or so in Canada.  Most of these herds are the result of interbreeding with cattle and are managed like livestock, raised on the range then spending their last months in feedlots. About three percent – 11,000 in the U.S. and 13,000 in Canada – are nearly pure-bred – descendants of the 60 million animals hunted almost to extinction in the late 19th century to feed industrial demand for hides and the government’s desire to debilitate tribes depending on them. 

There are 500,000 bison in the U.S. today and another 160,000 or so in Canada; most are the result of interbreeding with cattle and are managed like cattle. About three percent, or 11,000 in the U.S. and 13,000 in Canada are nearly pure-bred animals.

About half the purer herds in the U.S. are controlled by federal agencies: 5,000 in Yellowstone National Park on the borders of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho; 450 in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, and 500 animals in the Henry Mountain and Book Cliffs herds in southern Utah. The tribes’ desire to steward their own animals stems from a desire to create microcosms of the relationships that pre-dated European colonization. Genetic purity and large herds are desirable, but not essential.

“In 1992, there were just pockets of tribes that were managing buffalo,” said Heinert, whose InterTribal Buffalo Council, was founded in 1992 and now works with 83 tribes in 21 states. “In the last 30 years we probably put another 30,000 buffalo out. From that, collectively, the current membership is managing somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 buffalo,” he said, using not the scientific name, but the one used by tribes. 

The ITBC has helped create or increase the numbers of 65 different herds. The Biden administration’s Interior Department has committed $25 million to the restoration project.

In the years immediately before the current push, under the Trump administration, less was done. That administration’s major buffalo-related decision was the firing of Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent, who had argued that the park could support a larger herd. 

Bison in Yellowstone National Park in 2006. Paul Cross, USGS via Flickr
Bison in Yellowstone National Park in 2006. Paul Cross, USGS via Flickr

Recent policies accelerate a trend toward returning Natives’ control

Returns are not new – federal agencies and nonprofits have sent buffalo to tribes for two decades. What’s new is the pace and the number of tribes involved. In 2021, the most important signal of the changing approach came as the Fish and Wildlife Service transferred control of the once-named National Buffalo Range — 19,000 acres on the Flathead reservation in northwestern Montana — to the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribes. The tribes had been deprived of stewardship rights nearly a century ago.

The restoration push became more visible recently: in September came the announcement that Interior earmarked $5 million to support tribal efforts to restore grasslands. In January, Interior’s Indian Affairs unit announced a $1.5 million grant to expand herds of Oklahoma’s Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, now with 650 animals, the 250-head herd managed by tribes of North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Reservation, and the 465-head herd of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes on Idaho’s Fort Hall reservation.

Many tribal herds are necessarily modest – on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming the local Shoshone tribe has less than 100 animals, and the Arapaho tribe has about 80 – because many reservations lack the large swaths of contiguous land allowing the herds to roam, and because the ability to manage the animals needs to be relearned. 

Bison’s near-death experience looms over restoration efforts 

Trailer for the Ken Burns documentary series American Bison. YouTube

Given the wanton thoroughness of the 19th-century slaughter leading to the buffalo’s near-extinction and the near miracle of the animals’ numbers rebounding, the federal announcements are the next chapters in a long and tortured story. The history was brought alive by Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series last fall, which focused on the motivations and mechanisms of the slaughter. A different mechanism is in place to facilitate tribal control and ensure that animals transferred don’t have the contagious disease brucellosis.

“It was the federal government’s attempt to eliminate the buffalo. Now it should be their job to help tribes restore them,” said Jason Baldes, a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe and the executive director of the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative in Wyoming. Baldes, who studied elements of buffalo restoration while a student at the University of Montana, added, “I could never have imagined that I would be seeing the animals themselves on the ground… 

“It’s a big endeavor [not just] to try to restore buffalo to the landscape but integrate them back into our lifestyle,” he said. “They are critical in our ceremonial lifestyle – they have important significance to our belief system. The hooves, the bones, the organs, the skull – the whole animal.” 

“It was the federal government’s attempt to eliminate the buffalo. Now it should be their job to help tribes restore them.”

Jason Baldes, Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative

A crucial goal for his tribal buffalo initiative is reviving in young tribal members – who are plagued by dropping out of school, drug use, and suicide – a connection to the land and buffalo. “The majority of our population is under the age of 30,” he said, adding that buffalo may be a remedy for what was done to “stamp out the culture through boarding schools…. This is really the first generation that will never have to know what it’s like to not have buffalo.… This animal has been absent for our parents and grandparents. But the songs still exist.”

Restoring a missing keystone of native diets

Brochure from the USDA describing their meat processing program. USDA
Brochure from the USDA describing their meat processing program. USDA

Some tribes put new emphasis on returning buffalo meat to tribal diets, and melding buffalo operations with the market for buffalo meat. A 2022 study in Frontiers Magazine underscored the cultural and economic significance of tribal control. In December, the Agriculture Department announced grants to help tribes manage the processing of buffalo meat and its marketing, but also to buy and distribute it. 

Two years ago, the nonprofit First Nations Development Institute sponsored a webinar focusing on the buffalo meat processing efforts of the South Dakota’s Crow Creek Sioux, Wisconsin’s Oneida, and the Cheyenne River Sioux. In 2022, the Cherokee in eastern Oklahoma, with a herd of about 250 buffalo, bought a meat-processing plant to alleviate food shortages exacerbated by the pandemic.

A powerpoint slide from a February 2022 webinar that articulated tribal concerns about food shortages amid calls for food sovereignty. First Nations Development Institute
A presentation slide from a February 2022 webinar that articulated tribal concerns about food shortages amid calls for food sovereignty. First Nations Development Institute

Some of the processing plants will integrate with the larger markets for buffalo meat. But not all. “As our buffalo population grows, we are more able to integrate the buffalo into our lifeways,” said Baldes of the Wind River Reservation. “We’re trying to shift the paradigm. We’re nor trying to market their meat” but restore the tribe’s original diet.

Bison with calves on a farm near Campbell River, BC. Andrea_44 via Flickr
Bison with calves on a farm near Campbell River, BC. Andrea_44 via Flickr

Bigger herds, smaller hunts

The more Yellowstone animals go to tribes, the fewer need to be killed in the annual hunt conducted by managers from Yellowstone National Park, whose land cannot contain its growing herd. Ranchers’ fear of brucellosis infecting cattle persists despite the absence of any recorded instance of it happening, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported. The annual hunts are a basic element of a rancher-supported plan from 2000.

That plan’s herd limits can mean extensive culls. In early 2023 a combination of rain and snowstorms created a wall of ice blocking buffalo from the park’s grass; an unusual number moved into the nearby valley. The ensuing hunt killed 1,150 animals – almost a quarter of the park’s population. 

The idea of smaller hunts won approval from environmental groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which three years ago contributed $250,000 to a project focused on transferring the animals to tribes.

Private sector efforts put thousands of head of bison in Indigenous hands

Bison near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Greg Miller via Flickr
Bison near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Greg Miller via Flickr

The Nature Conservancy, a major environmental nonprofit, has its own herds: about 6,000 buffalo in 12 herds from Colorado and Kansas to Illinois and North Dakota. It reported in October that more than 1,000 of its buffalo have been sent to native tribes in the Plains and the West. For years, TNC has worked with Heinert’s InterTribal Buffalo Council, with the native-run Tanka Fund, and with the Wind River Reservation. 

Other large nonprofits, from Defenders of Wildlife to the National Wildlife Federation and the World Wildlife Fund, have supported the transfers with both direct aid and technical expertise. 

A newer group in Montana, American Prairie, announced in December it had sent a total of 107 buffalo to the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, the Kalispel in Washington, and the Blackfeet in Montana, which received the nucleus of their herd in 2016: 88 bison coming from Elk Island National Park in Canada. More recently, the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project, worked to bring nine buffalo to the Lipan Apache tribe’s land.`

With bison transfers, keeping disease at bay remains a challenge

The key logistical hurdle to transferring buffalo is the need for quarantines. A two-step, three-year process managed first by officials in Yellowstone and secondly by the Fort Peck tribes ensures the health of the animals. Robert Magnan, the director of the Fish and Game Department of the Fort Peck tribes who has been supervising his tribes’ work, said, “We can do this pretty easily; we’re a large land-based tribe. The reservation is 2.5 million acres, almost the same size as Yellowstone.”

In 2010, before the Fort Peck quarantine was formally established, one of the 14 Turner ranches stepped in to help. In response to an inquiry about their role, the Turner organization e-mailed that it “cared for public bison from Yellowstone at the Flying D Ranch in Montana for five years,” before sending them to the Fort Peck Tribes.

Some private herds have sent animals to tribal lands, and some conservation goals of tribal management resemble the goals of the 14 Turner ranches, which began acquiring bison in 1976 and now own more buffalo– 40,000 to 45,000 – than any other entity, although many are not pure-bred.

Referring to groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Turner ranch organization, Dayton Duncan, the writer of the Ken Burns series wrote, “Some ranchers and nonprofit environmental organizations are trying to provide buffalo with something closer to the habitats they once knew: more room to roam and native grasses to eat. 

“Under those conditions, the bison can reclaim their former role as the “keystone” species of the prairies, improving conditions for all other species to thrive.” 

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

Topics: Conservation & the West

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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and ABCNews.com. MORE »

Rani Chor

Editorial Assistant

Rani Chor is the & the West editorial assistant for winter 2024. She has worked as the university news desk editor and public safety beat reporter for the Stanford Daily.

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

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