BROWNING – The last time a herd of bison came over the bluff above the Two Medicine River, its Blackfeet Indian escorts were probably riding behind at the end of a long hunt.
Last Monday, the horseback riders led the way as 88 descendants of those ancient herds returned to a rousing welcome. A century and a half since bison roamed wild on the American prairie, the Blackfeet Tribe plans to restore the animal that defined its culture.
“The buffalo was everything to us,” Blackfeet elder Chief Earl Old Person said shortly before two truckloads of bison calves were released into their new home. “The Buffalo Stone Song gave survival to our people when they were without the buffalo. We sing it now so they will know this is where they come from.”
Although they left Alberta’s Elk Island National Park earlier that morning, those bison calves trace their lineage straight back to the grasslands of the Rocky Mountain Front. It was here in the 1870s some Native Americans rounded up the remaining survivors of what used to be at least 30 million bison before they were slaughtered by settlers.
The exact origin of that refugee herd remains cloudy. Four or five versions of the story exist. But they all agree that Flathead Indian Reservation residents Michel Pablo and Charles Allard gathered 36 genetically pure bison and kept them where the National Bison Range now stands. By 1907, the Pablo-Allerd herd numbered about 600 bison.
The 1904 Flathead Allotment Act triggered the sale of about 60 percent of the reservation to outsiders for homesteads, forcing Pablo to dispose of the herd he no longer had land to graze them on. He attempted to sell them to the U.S. government, but was turned down. So he sold about 400 bison to the Canadians for $100,000.
Roughly 200 bison remained on his land, having proved too difficult to round up. Those animals formed the remaining population of the National Bison Range when it was established in 1908. The rest went in two trainloads to Alberta.
Elk Island National Park is a 194-square-kilometer fenced preserve just west of Edmonton, less than half the size of Waterton Lakes National Park. It was supposed to be a temporary home, with the bison bound for a future Buffalo National Park southeast of Edmonton. But that park developed disease issues, and was eventually disbanded.
“Almost all of the bison south of the 60th Parallel have origins in the Elk Island herd,” said Stephen Flemming, spokesman for the Canadian national park. “More than a century ago, this herd was assembled from animals that ranged along the U.S.-Canadian border.”
Today, Elk Island keeps a herd of about 400 plains bison and 300 wood bison (a separate, slightly larger subspecies). As the population exceeds those thresholds, the extra animals are offered to conservation organizations or sold. The Blackfeet qualified for the former category, and paid $350 a head for their shipment. That covered feeding and testing costs during the necessary quarantine periods and shipping from Canada to the United States.
Harvey Locke was on the scene at Elk Island as the calves were loaded up before dawn Monday. The project was a link to his own past as well as the Blackfeet.
“My family is literally the first white people to settle in southern Alberta – before the Mounties even,” said Locke, co-founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in Banff. “When they came out here, there were still wild buffalo everywhere. They were part of the first settlement in 1873, and they came up the Missouri River by steamer to Fort Benton. On the steamboat, they had to stop for seven hours for a herd of bison to cross the river.”
Locke called the killing of wild bison in the 1870s and ‘80s one of the greatest ecological crimes in the history of the world.
“I admire the Blackfeet enormously for the step they’ve taken,” Locke said. “The effect of that elimination on aboriginal people was catastrophic, physically, culturally and spiritually. And it removed an ecological keystone species that creates habitats other species use. It eliminated a food source for predators. We made a mistake by eliminating the wild buffalo, and we need to fix it.”
Another herd of about 450 bison has been on the Blackfeet Reservation for about 30 years. However, that herd doesn’t have the genetic purity of the Elk Island calves. It will be kept separate from the new bison, but close to the cattle herds of local Blackfeet ranchers. Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes said that was to reinforce the evidence that bison and cattle can coexist without spreading disease or other problems.
“The Blackfeet Reservation is unique in its boundary situation,” Barnes said. “Plains buffalo can’t climb mountains, so they’re not going to get past Glacier National Park. And they’d have to traverse the entire Blackfeet Nation to the east. There are a lot of good Blackfeet hunters. They will be in somebody’s freezer long before they ever get to Cut Bank.”
Barnes said as the Blackfeet herd grows to a sustainable level, it will serve economic needs of the tribe as well. In the past, Indians traded bison hides for horses, guns, and other everyday goods. Asked what the animal means to the Blackfeet today, Barnes joked: “$29.99 a pound in the store. That’s an economic reality for us.”
“Buffalo was the good food for the Blackfeet,” Barnes said. “Everything else was bad food, except for berries. The buffalo in a blizzard will turn toward the storm. It taught us to face our problems head on. This herd will not cure all our ills. But it will start to bring cultural and spiritual identity back to our people.”
The project grew out of an inter-tribal treaty completed two years ago. The Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty committed the Blackfeet, Blood, Siksika, Piikani, Fort Belknap Assiniboine and Gros Ventre, Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux, Confederated Salish and Kootenai and Tsuu T’ina tribal nations to restoring bison to their native lands in the United States and Canada. The co-signers estimate they manage 6.3 million acres of grassland and prairie.
That will require some planning. Conversations have begun about the possibility of letting Blackfeet bison range free in neighboring Glacier National Park.
“It’s a compelling vision for us,” said Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow. “It helps that these bison are genetically linked to this landscape. And part of the National Park Service overall goal is to work with tribes to restore bison to tribal lands.”
Working out border details will take time. While archaeological evidence shows bison used Glacier’s eastern grasslands, present-day grazing allotments, private land access, impacts on visitors and other ecological factors all need analysis.
“Generally speaking, non-publicly owned animals aren’t allowed to graze in national parks, unless authorized by Congress,” Mow said. “The park now suffers a lot of issues from cattle trespass along its eastern boundary. But Waterton-Glacier was the world’s first international peace park effort to look at conservation across an international boundary. The bison brings us to conservation and cultural connectivity across international boundaries.”
Similar plans are underway in Alberta to release free-ranging bison along Banff National Park’s foothill country. That could happen as soon as this winter, again using bison from Elk Island National Park.
Heart Butte teacher and Blackfeet elder Betty Cooper brought 17 students to witness the bison arrival. Several of them were veterans of a “bison hunt” last winter where they helped butcher one of the tribe’s commercial herd.
“We skinned it – it smelled pretty weird,” said Lilly “Rose” Torres, 7. “Then we made stew.”
Cooper has lessons developed to show the children how every part of the bison gets put to use. Even the Saa-poo-sii, or last portion of the large intestine, gets turned inside-out and used as a casing for meat that’s thrown directly on the fire and cooked until it’s crusty and black. The filling comes out moist and juicy, she said.
One group of Blackfeet arrived dressed in knee-length Hudson’s Bay blanket coats. They were the Crazy Dog Society, charged with preserving many Blackfeet traditions and ceremonies. On Monday, they helped raise tents, feed the crowd and direct traffic as the bison trucks arrived.
“This helps unite the Blackfoot Confederacy across the 49th Parallel,” Crazy Dogs leader Leon Rattler said of the four-tribe union that includes the Blackfeet in Montana. “This idea started way back in the 1970s, but it’s real now – not talk. The culture never left as long as there’s still grass and water and air. But having the buffalo here strengthens the belief system.”