BILLINGS — Leaders of Montana's Blackfeet Indian Reservation announced plans on Friday to establish a herd of bison on U.S. Forest Service land near Glacier National Park that tribal members consider sacred.
The tribe on Friday released a proclamation saying the bison, also known as buffalo, would be able to roam freely within the Badger-Two Medicine area.
The 130,000-acre area within the Lewis and Clark National Forest is located just east of the Blackfeet reservation and has been the focus of a long-running dispute over proposed oil and gas drilling. It's been designated by federal officials as a Traditional Cultural District of the Blackfeet under the National Historic Preservation Act.
The 89 bison the tribe would move into the Badger-Two Medicine area were relocated to the Blackfeet reservation from Elk Island National Park in Canada in May.
Bison played a central role in Blackfeet culture before the animals were wiped out in the late 1800s by commercial hunting.
Blackfeet chairman Harry Barnes said that when the Blackfeet ceded the Badger-Two Medicine to the government it retained treaty rights allowing its members to hunt, graze and conduct other activities on the land. He said those treaty rights allow it to bring in bison.
"We were always a buffalo people so we're trying to return some of that culturally-significant aspect of our culture," Barnes said. "This makes that designated area more complete both culturally and as an ecosystem."
Barnes told The Associated Press that tribal officials have held preliminary discussions with federal officials about the tribe's plans. Representatives of the Lewis and Clark Forest did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
It will be at least a year before the bison are moved, Barnes said. In the meantime tribal officials will work with the Forest Service to decide what part of the Badger-Two Medicine would be most appropriate for the animals.
The U.S. Interior Department earlier this year cancelled a 6,200-acre oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine, citing in part the area's spiritual significance to the Blackfeet as the site of the tribe's creation story. The company that owns the lease, Solenex LLC, has sued the government to overturn the cancellation.
Barnes said the bison relocation was unrelated to the legal dispute.