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Grad Student Plans to Reintroduce Buffalo on Reservation

A Native American graduate student has won a fellowship to help him reintroduce buffalo to the Wind River Indian Reservation.

A Montana State University graduate student who shares his father's dream of reintroducing buffalo to a Wyoming Indian reservation has received a national fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Jason Baldes of Fort Washakie, Wyoming, said the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Fellowship will help him work toward bringing buffalo back to the Wind River Indian Reservation and promote both ecological and community health. Studying for his master's degree in land resources and environmental sciences (LRES), Baldes is the 11th MSU graduate student to receive the STAR award since 1995. His fellowship amounts to $87,000 over two years.

"I was very surprised," Baldes said. "It's a ticket into accomplishing something we as a family have always really, really wanted."

Baldes, 33, is an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe and long committed to improving life on the reservation. The youngest of nine children and father of four, he grew up hunting and exploring the back country with his father Richard, now retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Riding horses together in the mountains, they saw deer, elk, moose, pronghorn antelope and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, but never buffalo.

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Richard Baldes is a Shoshone wildlife biologist on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Wolves are welcome and protected on the reservation. His son Jason represents the next generation of Native biologists.

Buffalo—the term Baldes prefers over bison—is the only large ungulate missing from the Wind River Indian Reservation, which has seen a resurgence of wildlife since tribal leaders instituted game laws in 1983, said Richard Baldes, who was a leader in that effort. At age 70, he said he has never seen buffalo on the reservation. In fact, he thinks they haven't lived there since the late 19th century.

"They deserve to be here," Richard Baldes said. "They deserve to be respected because of what they are and what they did, especially for Native people."

Jason Baldes said buffalo are culturally significant, and their reintroduction will improve ecological and community health on the Wind River reservation. For the portion of his project that deals with health, he plans to work with established community groups and use a holistic approach that incorporates cultural, spiritual and dietary aspects. For the portion that focuses on buffalo, he will start by analyzing habitat and its viability for buffalo. Next summer during the growing season, he will examine range conditions.

He wants to gradually build a buffalo herd of more than 1,000 animals, a number based on research by the Wildlife Conservation Society and other conservation organizations, Baldes said. The herd might originate with quarantined buffalo from Yellowstone National Park or buffalo from the Henry Mountains area of south-central Utah, and Canada. The Wind River herd should be genetically reputable, meaning that the buffalo would contain no cattle genes. It should be certified disease free and managed as wildlife.

"It shouldn't be treated as just another cow population," Baldes said.

Richard Baldes said, "We don't want anything to do with pens, ear tagging, cowboys chasing them, rounding them up. That's livestock, cowboy stuff. Buffalo are wild animals, and we want to treat them as such and give them the respect they deserve, as we do with all other wildlife."

Baldes is proposing that the Wind River buffalo herd share 595,000 acres on the north side of the reservation with certified organic cattle owned by the Northern Arapaho.

"Studies have shown they don't intermingle," Baldes said.

Baldes said Shoshone leaders have already given him permission to pursue his project, but he still needs support from Northern Arapaho leaders. Shoshone and Northern Arapaho both live on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming.

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His desire to bring buffalo to the reservation began as a boy and grew stronger when he and his father traveled to Africa 15 years ago. While spending six weeks in Kenya and Tanzania, the two were caught up in a massive migration that involved an estimated 3 million wildebeests, as well as zebras, hyenas and lions.

"It was fantastic, unbelievable," said Richard Baldes.

As impressive as it was, Jason Baldes said it made him think about the 60 million buffalo that once roamed the United States. At the same time—continuing on his own to Zanzibar and Uganda where he helped with elephant research—he compared conditions in Third World countries with those in the United States. When he finally returned home, the then-teenager had new focus.

"It became a mission of mine to work to improve the life and reservation as a whole," Baldes said.

Baldes began working closely with his community and co-founded two nonprofit organizations. The Young Warriors Society works with the youth of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, emphasizing cultural and traditional values to overcome socio-economic, political and environmental issues. The Wind River Alliance is dedicated to the health and protection of the Wind River watershed.

Baldes also coordinated youth leadership camps to raise interest in biology, ecology and environmental sciences. He helped conduct camps on other reservations in the Missouri River Watershed. He has been involved in protecting natural areas and cultural and sacred sites that are important to the Wind River tribes.

As an MSU undergraduate in LRES, Baldes was selected for an internship with the National Science Foundation's WildFIRE Partnerships for International Research and Education. He will travel to New Zealand for that in February and March. Baldes also studied the effects of carbon dioxide on fish survival and development with the U.S. Geological Survey. He received second place for a presentation to the 2009 Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

His future is bright, according to several mentors.

"He has strong people skills and can work successfully to bring community members together with scientists and administrators to craft solutions to community sustainability," said Cliff Montagne, MSU professor of soil science and Baldes' undergraduate and graduate adviser.

Peter Gogan, supervisory wildlife biologist with the USGS-Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, encouraged Baldes to work toward undergraduate and advanced degrees and identified USGS funds that were available to Native American students.

Gogan attributed much of Baldes' success to self-motivation and the support he has received from his parents and wife.

Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer, executive director of Hopa Mountain and former director of Native Waters at MSU, called Baldes "an exceptional young scientist." She said she recommended that he attend MSU because she knew he would find strong mentors at MSU. She also knew that he would have interdisciplinary opportunities that would build his knowledge base and help him carry out his goals.

"I think one thing that makes Jason just an outstanding young leader is that he really has a vision for his community," she added.

Richard Baldes said of his son, "We are very proud of him."

Note: This article was developed under STAR Fellowship Assistance Agreement No. FP917294 awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has not been formally reviewed by the EPA. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jason Eric Baldes and EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned in this article."