Buffalo being returned to Montana tribes
For the first time in nearly 140 years, the Indian tribes of northeastern Montana are preparing for the return of wild buffalo that are descended from herds that once thundered across the vast American West.
The Sioux and Assiniboine tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in coming months will claim dozens of buffalo originating from Yellowstone National Park, home to the last free-roaming, purebred bands of buffalo, or bison, in the United States.
On Monday, Montana wildlife officials plan to inspect 5,000 acres at Fort Peck that have been readied for the arrival of the native buffalo, which for centuries provided food, clothing and spiritual sustenance to American Indians.
The inspection marks a milestone in a years-long plan by federal, state and tribal managers of Yellowstone bison to give Native Americans in Montana custody of an assortment of bulls, cows and calves to cultivate new herds on tribal lands.
For American Indians, whose fortunes in the 19th century declined with eradication of the herds they depended on, the buffalo's return symbolizes fresh hope for an ancient culture.
"It's the beginning of a whole new chapter for the bison and for us. It brings us right back to where we were," said Robert Magnan, head of Fort Peck's fish and game department.
Systematic hunting of buffalo west of the Mississippi cut their numbers from tens of millions to the fewer than 50 animals that found refuge at Yellowstone in the early 20th century. That population has since grown to some 3,700 head.
Unlike other bison in the United States that exist in national parks and refuges and are commercially ranched, the Yellowstone herd has not been crossed with domestic cattle and has roots dating to prehistoric times.
The planned transfer of animals is expected in coming months at Fort Peck, where $250,000 has been spent on preparing pasture and 26 miles of fencing for several dozen buffalo.
Fort Peck is to be the first of several reservations in Montana to provide new homes where buffalo can safely roam.
The bison to be claimed by the tribes are part of a Yellowstone band the state quarantined in 2005 and culled for brucellosis, a disease that can cause cows to miscarry.