POPLAR – Among the crowd watching 90 buffalo thunder into the Fort Peck Bison Pasture on Thursday were two visitors with a very special viewpoint.
Jason and Patti Baldes together and respectively represented the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes at the Fort Peck relocation ceremony. And they were present to make a serious appeal.
“We have six of the seven historic ungulate species that were present when Lewis and Clark came through,” Jason Baldes said. “The buffalo is the only one we don’t have.”
If the Fort Peck bison conservation effort grows as hoped, many other Indian tribes, private organizations and state agencies would like to join the cause.
“We’re in talks with the Fort Peck tribes about sharing some of their bison,” Baldes said. “This batch was supposed to go to the Northern Arapaho 10 years ago. But the tribal council failed to pass a resolution in time, and the herd went to (Ted) Turner’s ranch. They were supposed to go to Wind River.”
The 138 bison delivered to Fort Peck last week came from Yellowstone National Park, by way of a Montana government study to see if the animals could stay disease-free in quarantine.
The 2005 experiment proved successful, but the state had trouble finding a suitable home afterward. That’s partly because Montana doesn’t treat bison like it does other wild animals.
“It isn’t realistic to have bison naturally propagate, given the concerns with disease and property damage,” FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said. “To this point, they’re not allowed to roam freely like other animals. And that’s something that’s a long ways from happening in Montana, if ever. With bison, it’s a social tolerance thing that the state has not moved to yet.”
About 50 ranches have private herds of bison in Montana, which are raised under strict regulations to prevent the spread of brucellosis and fence damage. Most if not all of those herds have some degree of hybridization with cattle genes.
And that’s why the Yellowstone bison are so important – they’re some of the last genetically pure bison in North America. That purity gives bison the ability to survive and thrive in much harsher conditions than domestic livestock can endure.
Furthermore, there aren’t many places where bison can exist under naturally regulating factors. The Yellowstone bison got to spend a century adapting to an almost totally wild environment, with nothing selecting for ease of handling, docility or other traits popular in domesticated cattle.
“Most tribes don’t have a large enough land base,” Baldes said. “Fort Peck is special because they can fence 13,000 acres just for Yellowstone bison. But at Wind River, we have no plans for fencing. We have about 700,000 acres available for bison habitat. We have winter and summer range, at elevations from 4,000 to 13,000 feet. Yellowstone has 4,900 bison roaming about 400,000 acres of suitable habitat. We want to have 1,500 bison on 700,000 acres.”
Michel Floquet and Clement Biet were another pair of unusual visitors. They came to the Fort Peck Reservation to cover the story for TF1, a French news service.
“There is a big interest in France for this kind of story,” Floquet said. “There are still some European bison, from Poland. In France, we have a wildlife reserve that has some, but nobody cares about them. They know more about the American bison. It’s the iconic animal of America. Everyone knows that in France.”