“Within this sea of agriculture there is room for small islands of conservation,” said Sean Gerrity, president of the American Prairie Reserve, the charity that brought the group of genetically pure bison back to a pasture just north of the refuge.
The arrival of Yellowstone bison was welcome news around the troubled Fort Peck Reservation. When the first calf was born Sunday, a rust-colored baby bull, tribal flags still hung at half staff for a teenage boy who had committed suicide days earlier. Rates of poverty, unemployment, disease and addiction hover stubbornly above national averages here.
Census data shows that around northeast Montana, a prairie expanse almost the size of Indiana, most county populations peaked in the early 1900s and have since dropped by almost half.
The region’s fastest growing economic engine, oil production, is proving a mixed blessing. In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency reported that toxic chemicals from nearby drilling contaminated drinking water supplies for Poplar, a reservation town of around 3,000. This year a schoolteacher from Sidney, near the North Dakota border, was kidnapped during her morning jog and murdered. The suspects are two Colorado roughnecks.
“These bison represent healing,” said Iris Greybull, 62, of Poplar.
The bison debate has dredged up old tensions between tribes and their neighbors. Before Greybull, a Sioux, spoke in favor of the animals last fall at a fractious meeting in Glasgow, dozens of farmers and ranchers walked out in protest.
She and other tribal members say they see an ugly double standard in the fact that there are more than 130 private bison ranches in the state, including one belonging to the mogul Ted Turner housing dozens of controversial Yellowstone bison, and yet only the Fort Peck herd has been visited by protesters.
But some say the bison on the ranches do not pose the threat that the wild ones do.
“Unless they have the German wall and a moat with a bunch of crocodiles and piranhas, they’re not going to contain those woolly tanks,” said state Senator John Brenden of nearby Scobey, who has long done battle on the bison issue in the state Legislature.
Around a century ago some Yellowstone bison contracted disease from domestic livestock and in recent decades thousands have been slaughtered in an effort to protect ranchers’ herds. At the direction of Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a few of these bison were quarantined for years and certified healthy. Some may soon go to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, about 274km west of Fort Peck, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by opponents.
“I took a lot of arrows for this, but it was the right thing to do,” Schweitzer said. “If you want to get into a fistfight in Montana, go into a bar and share your opinion about bison or wolves.”