A thousand buffalo: That is the goal for bison resettlement on the Wind River Reservation, according to one of the people involved in a program that plans to eventually utilize the more than 500,000 remote acres available for repopulation of the iconic species.
The Wind River Reservation in Wyoming was created for the Eastern Shoshone people in 1868, the same year the last American buffalo, known more commonly as bison, disappeared from that area. The Northern Arapaho people were moved to the reservation ten years later. Bison had provided a major part of the existence for both tribes for centuries, but now the buffalo were gone.
The animals have now returned, some 130 years later, thanks to a program, Boy-zshan Bid-en, Shoshone for Buffalo Return. In a joint effort with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), ten genetically pure American buffalo from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa were released on the Wind River Reservation on November 3.
“We sang a song for the buffalo as they exited the corral and entered the pasture, their new home,” said Eastern Shoshone Tribe bison representative Jason Baldes, describing an emotional day that drew more than 300 people. “They ran out a little ways and then posed for everyone. It was really cool. Then they took off running to check out their new home.”
The Neal Smith Refuge had received its buffalo from the National Bison Range in Montana, which started its herd at the turn of the 20th century, said Garrit Voggesser of the NWF. Some Salish and Kootenai tribal members had rounded up a few buffalo from that region, and others were acquired from private ranchers in the Yellowstone area. This provides unique genetics groups, but all from the same part of the country. Part of the goal, Voggesser explained, is to have these different DNA populations to help maintain genetic diversity by exchanging some animals between groups in future years.
“I’m a firm believer that buffalo is the way to help us heal, now that we’ve got them back,” Baldes said. “What happened to the buffalo is similar to what happened to us as a people. They exterminated the buffalo as a means to annihilate Native people. The story of buffalo and Native people is similar. To put them back on the landscape is a way to help us heal from those past atrocities.”
The ten include four calves—three male and one female—as well as four yearling males and two adult females. The fenced buffalo pasture is 300 acres. These are small numbers, but hopes and plans for the future are huge.
The Wind River Reservation is very large, with a lot of trust land and pretty remote buffalo habitat, roughly 700,000 acres on the west side and another 500,000 acres on the north. Voggesser compared it to Yellowstone National Park.
“The National Park is a big park, but buffalo really only use a couple of hundred thousand acres where they tend to live and migrate to,” said Voggesser. “The ultimate vision for Wind River is one thousand plus buffalo on hundreds of thousands of acres.”
Voggesser was previously involved with the return of buffalo to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations, and he helped win the court case in Montana over moving wildlife onto the reservations. NWF has worked with tribes since the early 1990s, particularly concerning Yellowstone and buffalo migration. They seek places for buffalo rather than slaughtering them or placing them in quarantine. Wind River is a step forward in that program.
Reintroduction of buffalo on the Wind River Reservation is the latest of many efforts by these tribes to restore the original ungulates, or big game species, plus the predator species, which inhabited this region prior to the arrival of Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s. Populations of moose, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope have been reestablished, and the tribes have passed hunting regulations to conserve these species. The only one missing was buffalo, but that’s being corrected with this current release.
“Our people are still hunters and gatherers,” Baldes said. “We won’t be able to hunt buffalo for quite some time, but the fact they’re here is testament to the work that has been done with regard to wildlife management.”
The successful conservation efforts at Wind River also include designating the first wilderness area in the nation in 1938, 26 years before the National Wilderness Act was passed.
“This is just one more piece in the puzzle that’s being put back,” Baldes said. “At some point we’ll be able to eat them again, use them ceremonially, bring school kids out and do education programs and reconnect our young people with buffalo. It’s very powerful, really meaningful.”