Yellowstone Bison Revitalize Prairie on Fort Peck Reservation in One Year

from Wildlife Promise

Robbie Magnan, Manager of the Fort Peck Tribes Game and Fish Department, picks us up from our hotel in Wolf Point, Montana right a noon. His smile and good mood are infectious. To him, any day he gets to take people out to see the Yellowstone Bison is a good day.

Bison on Fort Peck Reservation. Photo Copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

Bison on Fort Peck Reservation. Photo Copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

He is taking us to see the Yellowstone Bison that the Tribes, the National Wildlife Federation and other partners successfully transferred to tribal lands last March. Robbie’s basic message? The bison and the native wildlife and plants that rely on the bison are thriving. New songbirds are coming through that they’ve never seen before. Native grasses and wildflowers are thriving in the bison pasture. The bison have restored balance to the land.

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Native prairie flowers on Fort Peck Reservation. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

Native prairie flowers on Fort Peck Reservation. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

We hop into his big Ford pickup and head north on the highway up to the thousands of acres of prairie that the Yellowstone Bison now roam. It was just over a year and three months ago that I witnessed the first transfer of Yellowstone Bison ever, back to tribal lands on Montana’s northeastern prairie landscape.

However, this Saturday couldn’t have been any different from mid-March 2012 when the first bison stepped foot onto the land of the Assiniboine and Sioux. In March of last year, we were out in freezing temperatures waiting for the trucks and trailers to roll in with the bison.

A Yellowstone Bison comes of the trailer in March 2013 on the Fort Peck Reservation.

A Yellowstone Bison comes of the trailer in March 2013 on the Fort Peck Reservation. Photo copyright Ted Wood, The Story Group.

Snow and sleet were coming down and people huddled close for warmth as bison came off the trailer. The bison were nervous, unsure. They had never been anywhere besides the quarantine facility in Gardiner, MT. This was the first day of their new lives, living wild on the prairie.

For me, it was my first time seeing them since I saw them come off the trailers. Today, it is 88 degrees, sunny and absolutely gorgeous as we drive along the highway. I am excited to see how the bison have acclimated to their new surroundings.

Yellowstone Bison grazing on the Fort Peck Reservation in southeastern Montana. Photo copyright - Alexis Bonogofsky

Yellowstone Bison grazing on the Fort Peck Reservation in southeastern Montana. Photo copyright – Alexis Bonogofsky

One of the major things that Robbie has noticed is that bison make it possible for other wildlife species to thrive in the winter months. Bison use their massive heads to push the snow out of the way, exposing grass and other vegetation to eat. Pronghorn antelope are unable to dig through the snow to find food so during the long hard prairie winters, pronghorn an suffer. However, with the bison back, Robbie noticed that the pronghorn follow behind the bison and are able to eat in the places that the bison have uncovered. Then come the ground birds and all of the other critters. The bison are bringing other species back to the prairie.

Bison start moving off to graze. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

Bison start moving off to graze. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

Robbie telling us how that system works reminded me of lyrics written by Canadian songwriter and singer, Corb Lund. In a song called, The Truth Comes Out, he sings, “the antelope mourn the buffalo in the night.” It makes me think how interconnected the two animals are and how when the bison were killed off, the antelope lost a lot of their ability to forage for food in the long winter months.

Finding the bison

Robbie warns us it might take awhile to find them. They have thousands of acres after all and could be anywhere. We are lucky though. We drive up over a hill after five minutes and there they are, bedded down near a wetland, babies hopping and jumping and playing as their moms chew their cud and watch closely. Two big bull bison are off by themselves, contently resting after a morning of browsing the lush prairie grass.

A Yellowstone Bull Bison rests in a mud wallow on the prairie. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky.

A Yellowstone Bull Bison rests in a mud wallow on the prairie. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky.

 We stay a good distance from the herd, not wanting to disturb them. Bison calve once every two years so this year there are about a dozen new babies in the pasture. Watching them roll on the grass and get milk from their mammas makes us all ridiculously happy. Robbie watches over them like a proud parent, pointing out various behaviors that he has noticed and telling us the various ways they have changed since they arrived.

A Yellowstone Bison Calf with its mom. This calf will never know anything different than the prairie. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky.

A Yellowstone Bison Calf with its mom. This calf will never know anything different than the prairie. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky.

Robbie tells us that since the bison came home, good things have been happening in his community and he is looking toward a future of more land for them to roam, more Yellowstone bison arriving from the park and a day where tourists from all over the world can come and see how the bison take care of the land and how the Assiniboine and Sioux are taking care of the bison.

Yellowstone Bison lounging on the prairie. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

Yellowstone Bison lounging on the prairie. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

How you can help

We aren’t done. Many other Tribes are seeking to restore Yellowstone Bison back to Tribal Lands but we need your help to make it happen.

Donate Now ButtonYour donation can help our work to restore bison back to tribal lands—donate here. To read more about our efforts and long term vision, go to our website here.

You can like National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Lands Partnerships Facebook page here to stay updated on all bison related news and events.

Robbie Magnan, Director of Fort Peck Game and Fish, explains how the Yellowstone Bison are acclimating to their new home on the prairie.

Robbie Magnan, Director of Fort Peck Game and Fish, explains how the Yellowstone Bison are acclimating to their new home on the prairie.