Bison Likely to Return to Wind River Reservation

Chances are very good that a sizable herd of Yellowstone bison will be transported to the reservation within a year.

Bison may once again roam the ranges of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. There are still no guarantees. Work still needs to be done. But chances are very good that a sizable herd of genetically pure Yellowstone bison will be transported to the reservation within a year.

In spring, Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar sent a directive to the various Interior agencies pointing out the goal of restoring bison “to their historic, ecological and cultural places on appropriate landscapes.” There are presently upwards of 140 bison, originally from the Yellowstone population, that have gone through a quarantine period to be declared free of brucellosis, a disease easily transmitted to livestock (although there is no evidence that bison actually carry this disease, let alone transmit it). The bison are being held on the Turner Green Ranch in Montana, owned by CNN founder Ted Turner. Part of the secretary’s directive calls for the agencies to consult with tribes for possible short and long-term relocations.

“Wind River is at the top of the list [to receive bison],” said Garritt Voggesser, national director for tribal partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). “We have the situation in Montana with a lawsuit against the state, so the best place right now is Wind River. They want the bison. They’re not at all affected by the lawsuit.”

He was referring to the March transfer of 63 bison from Yellowstone to the Fort Peck reservation and a subsequent lawsuit filed by livestock owners alleging that bison would contaminate their herds with disease and compete with the cattle for grassland. A judge issued a restraining order to stop further transfers. The state of Montana is appealing the ruling in state Supreme Court.

On September 14 the two tribes of the Wind River Reservation, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, approved a joint resolution seeking the restoration of “wild, genetically pure bison to the Wind River Reservation.”

The NWF has partnered with tribes since the early 1990s to restore bison to traditional tribal lands. Jason Baldes, Eastern Shoshone, has been working for years to bring the bison back and now serves on the NWF's Tribal Lands Advisory Council.

“I think overwhelming support is there for bison,” Baldes told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They’re very important to us as a people. The last time we were able to harvest buffalo was in the 1880s.”

Baldes did his undergraduate work at Montana State University, working closely with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to develop a draft management plan for reintroduction of bison back to this reservation. He continued his graduate studies on the same subject.

“It’s not just a wildlife reintroduction,” he said. “It’s about cultural revitalization. Our ceremonies, the stories we have, the things we teach our children are often based on knowledge we’ve had with interactions with buffalo. We see it as a key cultural component that’s been missing.”

There were originally seven ungulate species (deer, elk, antelope and others) on these lands. Baldes points to the implementation in 1984 of the tribal game code, which set hunting regulations on wildlife species as a key to their success.

“We have successfully managed six of the seven ungulate species on the reservation. The only one missing is the buffalo,” he said. “There are lots of steps we need to take. We know there are lots of concerns from community members and other interests. We want to make sure to do the best in meeting those concerns.”

The plan, if the bison are transported to the reservation, to contain them "for some amount of time," Baldes said. "It may be they have a 20,000-acre enclosure and go to a 100,000-acre enclosure. We don’t know that yet. These buffalo coming from these quarantines are used to fences. We’re using that to our advantage. A lot of our enclosures may already be suitable to temporarily house these bison. Ultimately we’d like to see a free-ranging herd of buffalo on the reservation."

There is not yet a precise time frame.

“The tribes are taking a big step by passing this resolution and saying ‘let’s move this forward,’ ” Voggesser said. “I think they want to move forward and get the agreements in place. Then everything’s on the table to make it happen.”

More on restoring bison to tribal lands:

Pure Strain Bison Returning to Fort Peck

Icons of the West: Bison Deserve Homes on Tribal Lands