Ode to the American Buffalo

From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine

Summer 2016

The Return of the Bison By Ivar Laanen

After a long absence from American lands, descendants of a bison herd sent to Canada more than a century ago have been relocated to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, in Montana. The animals, also known as buffalo, once thrived in North America and were central to Native American life for thousands of years, providing food, clothing and shelter, until European settlers heading west hunted them almost to the point of extinction. 

This herd’s ancestry traces to 1872, when a small group of calves was taken from Blackfeet land by members of another tribe and came to be owned by two ranchers; the herd grew to 400. When disputes arose over grazing rights near the turn of the 20th century and the sale of the animals to the U.S. government fell through, the Canadian government bought the herd and shipped it to Alberta’s Elk Island National Park.

A 2014 treaty between U.S. and Canadian tribes mandated that the bison be restored to the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains areas, where 30 million once roamed. Tribal leaders, who consider the bison their cultural icon and “part of our spiritual being,” as one leader said, hope the 89 repatriated animals will be the nucleus of an eventual herd of 500 to 1,000 free-roaming animals. Conservationists estimate that only 15,000 wild buffalo exist in all of North America, about 4,000 of them in the United States.

Some ranchers have expressed concern that the buffalo will compete with cattle for grazing land and will carry brucellosis, a bacterial disease that interferes with cattle reproduction. The first problem is being addressed through a program of the National Wildlife Federation, which buys grazing land from the ranchers who relocate their cattle to conflict-free areas. And the Wildlife Conservation Society, working with the Blackfeet tribe, insists that brucellosis is not an issue, since the Canadian bison have never been exposed to it and are genetically pure.

The return of the bison to Montana is part of a rewilding effort that has seen a resurgence of wolves, elk and mountain lions in the American West. 

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