Return of the Buffalo

Shawn Wipert, a hand for the Blackfeet Buffalo Program, chases a buffalo calf while moving the herd to winter pasture. The calf lost its mother due to sickness, so the men will bottle feed the calf until it is healthy enough to go back out with the herd.

The Blackfeet Nation is reasserting its identity on the Rocky Mountain Front. STORY AND PHOTOS BY LOUISE JOHNS | PHOTO EDITOR

 A JOURNEY of redemption and restoration is rising out of the foothills of northern Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Tribal nations in the U.S. and Canada see a connection between the health of their communities and the restoration of buffalo, and have been working to bring herds back to both tribal and public land. The Blackfeet Nation is leading the way.

The Iinnii, the Blackfeet word for buffalo, is a symbol of life, health and well-being for Native Americans. The animal is commonly referred to in English as the ‘buffalo’ amongst Native American tribes rather than the more scientific word, ‘bison.’ For centuries before westward expansion, buffalo roamed much of North America, and they were the lifeblood of the Blackfeet. The Blackfeet used every part of the buffalo in spiritual ceremonies, for food, clothing, lodging, tools and as part of their economy.

By the late 1800s, colonialism had annihilated both Native Americans and the buffalo. Estimates vary, but research suggests there were between two and 18 million Native American people and 20 to 40 million buffalo in North America in 1492. Four hundred years later, approximately 237,000 Native Americans and roughly 1,000 buffalo remained.

At the turn of the 19th century a dwindling herd remained east of the Rocky Mountain Front, along the plains and across some of what is now the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana.  The survivors of the herd were captured by two Pend d’Oreille tribal members and taken to the Flathead Indian Reservation. Those animals were conserved as part of the Pablo-Allard herd, which became one of the last remaining genetically pure buffalo herds in the country. In 1908, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the federal government bought buffalo from the herd to start the National Bison Range. Another group was taken to Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.

In 1972, the Blackfeet Nation established a small “cultural herd” on its reservation with buffalo from Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Initially, the tribe struggled with management challenges, most of which have been resolved, and the herd has grown to more than 600 animals managed on Blackfeet tribal lands. In 2016, 90 genetically pure buffalo, original descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd, were brought from Elk Island National Park and returned to the Blackfeet Reservation with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society. It was a significant step in establishing a free-ranging herd across the northern plains.

The return of the buffalo accompanies a resurgence of Native American identity: language, religion, art, food and spiritual practices that are deeply connected to nature. It has been repressed for centuries in the name of progress and opportunity for wealth and development in the U.S.

“We’re bringing back a big part of our culture. And the people are realizing that we’re one and the same with buffalo,” says Ervin Carlson, who is president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council and oversees the Blackfeet herd. “Our lives are the same.”

In 2009, the Blackfoot Confederacy, made up of the Kainai, Siksiika, Piikani and Amskapipikuni Blackfeet tribes on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society to launch the Iinnii Initiative. It’s a large-scale, grassroots restoration effort between tribes, environmental organizations and government agencies on both sides of the border to restore free-ranging wild buffalo to 6.3 million acres of the Great Plains ecosystem.  “We began to push for the concept of ecological restoration,” said Keith Aune, former director of the bison conservation program for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

For the tribes, this meant going beyond a commercial or cultural herd and looking further into the ecological benefits of buffalo and its role in human cultures. He says that buffalo give the Blackfeet a reason to reach beyond the borders of the reservation, to bring people in and show them the tribe’s ways. The Blackfeet now invite school groups, universities and others to see the herd and learn about their relationship to the buffalo. “That’s why we say buffalo can unite us rather than divide us,” said Aune. 

The vision is to create a wild buffalo herd that sprawls across tribal and public lands on the Rocky Mountain Front, from Heart Butte in the U.S. to Banff National Park in southwestern Alberta. This conservation initiative is grounded in understanding that buffalo, like grizzly bears, elk and many other wide-ranging species, are not contained by anthropogenic boundaries. Rather, their ecological recovery hinges on having enough room to roam on contiguous landscapes between tribal, public and some private land. Historically, Native American communities did not ascribe to hard boundaries either; they moved with nature, following the buffalo.

This vision is not without challenges. There is political and social resistance, largely from state and federal agencies. Some ranchers, farmers and agriculturalists, and the agencies and organizations that represent them, view buffalo as competition for an important resource: grass. Buffalo also can be hard on fences, which can create problems when the animals show up in places where they are not wanted. And buffalo transferred from Yellowstone National Park to build other herds are accompanied by fears of brucellosis, a disease that can cause cows to abort their calves, even when the buffalo are deemed disease free.

The future of buffalo hinges on an agreement that will address these factors, all of which involve an undercurrent of racism against Native Americans. So when it comes to bringing buffalo back to tribal lands for tribal management, in some places there is unexplained resistance. “There’s still a discrimination thing that goes on, you know, with Indians and buffalo,” said Carlson. “And you hate to think it’s that way in this day and age, but it is there.”

Regardless, the Blackfoot Confederacy is staying true to its dream of a wild, free-ranging buffalo population. The animal provides economic promise from tourism and the sale of buffalo meat. Ecologically, the buffalo is a keystone species, and can help bring the land to life by fertilizing soil, creating biodiversity in grasses, providing food for apex predators and enabling other native species like birds, insects and ungulates to thrive. More importantly, the return of the Iinnii provides hope for the youth and a way for tribes to teach their young about their heritage, one that is rooted in respect and reverence for the natural world.