Sioux and Assiniboine tribe members wailed a welcome song last month as around 60 bison from Yellowstone National Park stormed onto a prairie pasture that had not felt a bison’s hoof for almost 140 years.
That historic homecoming came just 11 days after 71 pureblood bison, descended from one of Montana’s last wild herds, were released nearby onto a swath of untilled grassland owned by a charity with a vision of building a haven for prairie wildlife. Some hunters and conservationists are now calling for bison to be reintroduced to a 404,686-hectare wildlife refuge spanning this remote region.
“Populations of all native Montana wildlife have been allowed to rebound except bison; it’s time to take care of them like they once took care of us,” said Robert Magnan, 58, director of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation’s Fish and Game Department, who will oversee the transplanted Yellowstone bison program.
But with several groups navigating a complex and contentious path to return bison to these plains, agribusiness is fighting back. Many farmers and ranchers fear that bison, particularly those from Yellowstone, might be mismanaged and damage private property, and worry that they would compete for grass with their own herds.
“Bison are a romantic notion, but they don’t belong today,” said Curt McCann, 46, a Chinook rancher who this month drove four hours to a public meeting in Jordan to speak against bison reintroduction.
When the explorer Meriwether Lewis followed the Missouri River through this region in 1805, he came across bison herds he described as “innumerable.” Just eight decades later, a young Theodore Roosevelt noted that all that remained were “countless” bleached skulls covering the Montana badlands.
Scientists estimate that tens of millions of bison once roamed America, but by 1902 there were only 23 known survivors in the wild, all hiding from poachers in a remote Yellowstone valley. For decades, attempts to transplant bison from the rebounding Yellowstone herd were thwarted, despite requests from tribes to steward some of the animals.
“I call them my brothers and sisters because they are a genetic link to the same ones my ancestors hunted,” said Tote Gray Hawk, 54, a Sioux, who has brought the Fort Peck bison hay and water each day since their arrival. Their meat, lower in cholesterol than beef, will feed elderly tribe members and their skulls will be used in traditional sun dance ceremonies, he said.
The last hunt for indigenous bison on the Fort Peck reservation happened in 1873. In the 1880s, hundreds of tribal members starved to death on the barren land. Around them homesteaders from Europe began wresting an agricultural living from this windswept expanse of rolling amber in northeast Montana. Most of the neighboring farmers and ranchers today are descendants of those pioneers, and they safeguard their traditions with generational grit.
“Bison is a big issue that could really impact our livelihood,” said Brett Dailey, 52, who ranches near Jordan.
Today there are 3 million cattle in Montana and agribusiness is the state’s biggest industry, but not a single bison roams free. A 2011 survey commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation showed that a majority of state residents support reintroducing huntable bison to the vast Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, similar to a Utah herd created in 1941 from the last few bison allowed out of Yellowstone.