On a non-descript Saturday, January 17th 2015, just before sunset, trucks hauling trailers pulled into a field near Alda, Nebraska. A place of solitude, with Nebraska’s last remaining tall and mixed-grass prairie along the North Platte River, the quiet of this space, known as The Crane Trust, was broken by the sounds of engines and people cheering.

In the middle of Nebraska, really in the middle of “nowhere,” something seemed amiss. Were people gathered for a pre-party ahead of the Monster Truck Rally in nearby Grand Island? No. The 70-plus people had come together to view something that had not been seen in over 150 years – the return of bison.

A buffalo calmly surveys his new home on The Crane Trust before lumbering off the truck. Photo by Garrit Voggesser
A buffalo calmly surveys his new home on The Crane Trust before lumbering off the truck. Photo by Garrit Voggesser
After a five-hour drive from Northern Nebraska, the buffalo had returned home. Amongst the 70-plus greeters, was Louis LaRose, a member of the Winnebago Tribe and a long-time advocate of bison restoration to empower and educate tribal youth and communities about their historical and cultural connections to bison. Louis was the emcee of sorts, a tribal elder that set the stage for the bison’s return. Before the bison came off to the truck, Louis said, he had to talk to the buffalo.

Louis LaRose, a member of the Winnebago Tribe, talks to the bison. Photo by Garrit Voggesser.
Louis LaRose, a member of the Winnebago Tribe, talks to the bison. Photo by Garrit Voggesser.
After talking to and praying with the bison, Louis said, “Let them go!” In short order, the two trucks backed up next to a pasture and 39 bison lumbered off into their new residence.

I asked Louis what he said to the buffalo. “You are free, we will take care of you as you have taken care of us,” I told them, “Welcome home.” Then Louis turned to the crowd gathered and a hush fell upon them. “The female buffalo is the babysitter to the herd. You must do the same for them.” Louis held up his hands and advised, “I wish I were younger, then I would do what I’m about to ask you to do.” “Bring your kids and your grandkids,” Louis said as he surveyed the crowd. “These buffalo are family and you must make them your family. Watch them, observe them, and they will teach you.”

The buffalo return home. Photo by Garrit Voggesser.
The buffalo return home. Photo by Garrit Voggesser.
The Crane Trust is a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and maintenance of critical habitat for whooping cranes, sandhill cranes and other migratory birds along the Big Bend Region of the Platte River Valley through sound science, habitat management, community outreach and education. The Crane Trust was formed in 1978 as part of a court-approved settlement of a controversy over the construction of Grayrocks Dam on a tributary of the Platte River in Wyoming. The state of Nebraska and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) objected to the project, claiming it would jeopardize irrigation and wildlife downstream in Nebraska. The settlement satisfied requirements of the Endangered Species Act and allowed the Missouri Basin Power Project, owners of Grayrocks, to complete construction. The Crane Trust was funded by a payment from the Missouri Basin Power Project, and income from the endowment is used to finance land acquisition to protect wildlife.

Crane Trust President Chuck Cooper (right) and Crane Trust Trustee Tom Dougherty (left) celebrate the return of the bison. Photo by Garrit Voggesser.
One of the goals of the Crane Trust is to restore, maintain and protect natural habitat. But keeping the land in its natural state is difficult without the presence of historic species. “So now the dominant species [bison] is back. I’m really excited,” Chuck Cooper, President of the Crane Trust explained. The Trust has already conducted scientific research showing that the presence of bison reduces invasive plant species. Now, they will continue their research with the belief that bison will also help revive native plants and flowers as well as help revive other wildlife species (as has been proven on the Fort Peck Reservation, where bird species that had absent returned after bison were brought back).

Just after sunset, I drove west towards home in Colorado. I was exhausted after a 12-hour day, but I also felt amazed – after more than twelve years of working to bring bison back to tribal and conservation lands (and more than 25 years of National Wildlife Federation endeavoring on the effort), we had helped bring more than 240 bison back in the short span of two and a half years (including on the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations). When I made it back to Colorado, my wife said, “Welcome home,” and I thought of the bison at The Crane Trust.

How You Can Help

We aren’t done. Many other areas are seeking to restore bison back to their original territory, 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 www.nwf.org/tribalbison.

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