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Icons of the West: Bison Deserve Homes on Tribal Lands

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Ever so gradually, we are nearing a landmark day—a day when a member of a Montana Indian tribe swings open a gate to a vast landscape, the ground beneath hundreds of wild bison trembling in an audible snapshot of how the earth once shook under the hooves of millions of their ancestors.

And what a poignant story it will be: The first strides on the road to partially righting two of our nation’s most wrenching historical wrongs.

Few chapters are more tragic than the cultural genocide of the American Indian and the accompanying wanton slaughter of the wild buffalo on which the Peoples’ spiritual and physical existence depended.

Today, far too many of Montana’s Native cultures live in third world futility on forgotten lands. Meanwhile, the last significant reservoir of genetically pure wild bison—the roughly 5,000 residing in Yellowstone National Park—remains the only wildlife in America largely confined by the boundaries of a park.

The promise of returning wild bison to tribal lands is but one hopeful piece of a growing movement. We are on the threshold of reclaiming a lost part of our heritage with the restoration of one of the most identifiable symbols of the American West, an icon whose likeness appears on money, the U.S. Department of the Interior logo and the Wyoming flag.

The journey began last spring, when 94 Yellowstone bison were successfully relocated to one of Ted Turner’s vast ranches near Bozeman, Montana, where an expanding wild herd grazes on an endless horizon of grass. It’s the first time in at least four decades that a group of wild Yellowstone bison was allowed to leave the park alive.

This winter, as deep snows push hungry bison north of Yellowstone past Gardiner, Montana, 25 disease-free animals were free to migrate to public lands west of the Yellowstone River without threat of hazing or slaughter. Meanwhile, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is forging ahead by identifying three parcels of state lands where disease-free Yellowstone bison currently in quarantine could soon relocate.

Restoration of more bison to suitable habitat across this vast state, including tribal lands, could soon follow. It’s a grand vision supported by a recent Wildlife Conservation Society survey, which indicates that three-fourths of Americans view wild bison as an integral living symbol of a healthy and ecologically complete Intermountain West.

Unfortunately, the Montana Legislature seems bent on setting the process back decades. They are flirting with new laws that would continue to treat wild bison like livestock and might ultimately lead to Endangered Species Act protections.

Montana’s treatment of these last wild bison certainly defies reason. Humans have coexisted with bison for 10,000 years. There are many examples of where we coexist today without any issues relating to brucellosis or human safety.

But sometimes it’s difficult to see clearly through provincial blinders. Case in point: our neighbor Wyoming, which embraced relocating a small herd of wild Yellowstone bison to one of its state parks last year.

From this side of the border, it’s obvious that Wyoming’s expensive winter welfare feeding of elk is unnatural and a far greater disease threat to Montana’s wildlife and livestock than bison. Yet Wyoming continues its hay and pellet buffets, insisting that its circumstances are somehow different.

And so it is with a small but potent faction of Montanans and their stubborn resistance to allowing bison anywhere in the state. These special-interest groups continue to dismiss the wishes of the majority and fight bison restoration, even to sovereign tribal lands where elders view the buffalo’s return as critical to reviving fading cultures.

These last stocks of genetically pure bison and the Native tribes are national treasures and a valuable piece of our western fabric. The days when Indians and bison roam the plains unencumbered by fences or homesteads are a distant memory, of course, but Montana is a big place with plenty of wide-open spaces.

Surely we can make room for these wild Yellowstone bison in our landscapes, hearts and collective conscience, fling open the gates to appropriate public and tribal lands, and maybe even salve a few century-old wounds in the process.

Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Montana.