Wild Bison Homecoming for Indian Tribes

Bison on the Fort Peck Reservation, credit: Ted Wood/The Story Group for NWF
By the turn of the 19th-century, less than one hundred of the original 30 million bison remained in North America. This iconic American species, it seemed, was doomed to extinction at the hands of over-hunting and the westward migration of European-Americans. While the American cavalry engaged tribal warriors in epic battles throughout the Great Plains and American West, so too did Americans wage war on bison.

As American Indians battled to protect their lives and cultures, they also fought to preserve their historical and cultural connections to buffalo. A pair of Indians from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northwest Montana rounded up some of those bison to save them, and by the early 20th century the bison had grown to a herd of several hundred animals.

These bison were transferred to Canadian national parks and to ranchers in the U.S. Some eventually became seed animals for the Yellowstone herd. American Indians had saved bison from the precipice and contributed to the creation of what would become America’s only wild, genetically pure, free-roaming herd of bison. Today, the historical relationship between buffalo and American Indians comes full circle, as the bison return home to their brethren that saved them.

NWF is proud to have served alongside our tribal partners to protect and restore bison over the last couple of decades. This week, we are gratified to see the wild bison’s homecoming for Indian tribes at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap in northeastern Montana. We hope this is just the beginning of restoration of the creature know as the monarch of the plains to tribal and public lands across the West.

As a tribal partner told us:

You’ve been working to save the bison for the last twenty years, we’ve been praying for this for 120.

It is only fitting that during the very week of their return to tribal lands, NWF is also celebrating bison as one of the extraordinary species of it’s 74th annual National Wildlife Week. We know that a a better understanding and appreciation of these iconic creatures will help us continue to preserve them for our children’s future.