Wild Bison to Return Home to Tribal Lands

Yellowstone Bison, credit GVoggesser/NWF
More than a dozen years ago, I manned a booth in Yellowstone National Park to inform people about conservation-based solutions for protecting bison. Visitors from across the United States and around the world all had the same question: Why are buffalo being shot when they leave the park?

Since the mid-1990s, the National Wildlife Federation has been working to ensure people won’t have to ask that question. We believe restoration to other landscapes is a better management strategy to resolve livestock-wildlife conflicts. We envisioned a future when Yellowstone bison, the last genetically pure, free-roaming, wild bison population in the U.S., could provide animals to establish new herds across the West.

In 1997, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, the first ever conservation agreement between an environmental organization and a tribal organization, to advocate for the return of wild bison to tribal lands. NWF and the tribes shared a common vision – restoring wild bison to their historical habitat and restoring Native peoples’ cultural connections to bison. But the political opposition to the return of the bison seemed insurmountable.

A Victory for Conservation and Tribes

Room to Roam, credit Stephen C. Torbit/NWF
This winter, after 20 years, the tribes and NWF succeeded in convincing the state of Montana to transfer 68 Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Tribes.

This has been one of the hardest nuts to crack in wildlife conservation history. Many other large mammal species that had depleted in numbers have been restored, but not bison. By restoring bison to tribal lands and other former habitats across the country, we’re also revitalizing a landscape, habitat, and a diversity of wildlife. Simultaneously, we’re helping to re-establish Native peoples’ cultural and historic connections to wildlife and the land.

This is a win-win proposition for the tribes, the state of Montana, and the millions of Americans nationwide who want bison back where they belong. The return of wild bison to tribal lands is a major milestone in efforts to restore an iconic North American species to the landscape and restore an important element of Native American culture.

This spring, we will welcome the bison home.