Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains Representative
Returning bison to tribal lands in the Great Plains was not without risk. Many outspoken Montana state legislators opposed to wild bison restoration attempted to undercut the Tribes’ plans. Despite this resistance, the Tribes of Fort Peck persevered at a time when state and federal agencies refused to do so out of fear of controversy. For these reasons, on September 18, Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Rusty Stafne will receive Defenders’ Wildlife Conservation Award, celebrating exceptional commitment to wildlife conservation. Chairman Stafne will accept the award on behalf of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, which in 2012 took a leadership role in restoring wild Yellowstone bison to the heart of their historic Great Plains habitat.
The Tribes worked diligently for years to prepare a place at Fort Peck for these important wild bison, descendants of the last bison herd left in the wild after the slaughter of the 1800s. Although a few hundred pure bison survived in captivity, fewer than 25 remained in the wild, deep within Yellowstone National Park. Almost all bison that exist today are captive, and are descendants of bison that were crossbred with cattle long ago; very few wild and pure bison remain. Restoring and growing a new herd of Yellowstone bison is essential to the species’ future. To date, the Tribes have secured more than 24,000 acres for their bison program, and they intend to continue expanding this habitat until they have an area large enough to maintain a healthy herd of at least 1,000 wild bison.
Today, bison at Fort Peck are managed as a “cultural herd” – meaning that the animals are kept as wild as possible, helping the people of Fort Peck Reservation restore their traditions of long ago. This work is invaluable for wildlife conservation, too. By bringing Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck, the Tribes are helping restore wild bison – at least in one place – to their important role as a keystone species of the Great Plains.
So, why was this bison restoration effort controversial? Some in the livestock industry and their friends in state government view wild bison as a competitor with cattle for grass – even on public lands in Montana. Though Montana is more than 94 million acres in size, some in the livestock industry believe there is no room at all for wild bison, a native species. Bison opponents also use the issue of brucellosis – a disease brought to North America by cattle and transmitted to wild bison and elk – as a reason to oppose wild Yellowstone bison relocation. But their concerns don’t match the facts: There is no documented case of bison transferring disease to cattle in the state in the past several decades of study.
Against this backdrop, a program began in the early 2000s to bring a few dozen Yellowstone bison into temporary confinement and identify those free of brucellosis through a scientific process of selection, testing and retesting. Within a few years, biologists had certified these Yellowstone bison free of disease. In 2011 the disease-free bison were ready to leave their years of quarantine. Anti-bison partisans, however, were adamant that none would ever move further into Montana. The search for a new home for these important animals to begin a second wild population, which should have been a cause for celebration, instead became a rallying point for anti-wildlife fear mongering. As the anti-bison vitriol spilled into the public arena, it became clear that no agency or organization, and not even the state of Montana, would escape the attacks of the bison haters, and those who would have offered the animals a new home withdrew in the face of withering attacks. And yet, in a true spirit of community and a sense of cultural obligation to the bison, the Tribes of Fort Peck stood firm.
In January 2012, the anti-bison partisans sued the state of Montana to prevent the bison from being relocated – a step that could have doomed them to years of legal limbo and probably destruction. The bickering continued for weeks, the air of conflict and controversy making it increasingly impossible to find federal or state agencies willing to stand up to the potential backlash for restoring the animals to public lands. Finally, in a dramatic move and with no court order blocking the transfer, the bison were trucked to Fort Peck – during a blizzard, no less! This marked the first ever return of wild Yellowstone bison to the Great Plains – the heart of the bison’s historic range – and the first bison to leave the Yellowstone region alive in decades. The day after the transfer, anti-bison partisans sought an injunction to have them returned to the Park, to which then-Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure responded, “”Now that they’re here, they are here to stay,” asserting the Tribes’ sovereign jurisdiction to manage the bison once they had reached Tribal lands. In 2013, the Montana Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that the move was legal.
It took incredible courage and mettle to do what was indisputably the right thing for bison conservation. Standing up to the bullying of powerful entrenched interests for the sake of preserving Yellowstone bison, a significant biological and cultural resource, was a bold act that serves as an example for conservation practitioners and leaders everywhere. Accordingly, the Assiniboine and Sioux people of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation are more than deserving of this great award.
Watch this 16 minute video to see the return of wild Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck Reservation: