BROWNING – Neither honor songs, well-behaved children nor a vigorous poke with a stick would convince a truckload of bison yearlings to explore their new home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
That doesn't mean they didn't feel welcome on Monday evening. After a daylong ride from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, these descendants of one of the last herds of prairie bison were back on their home ground.
"Their ancestors were captured by Blackfeet about 20 miles from here and taken to the Flathead Reservation in 1873," Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes said. "They were part of the Pablo-Allard herd that they tried to sell to the U.S. government. But the government wasn't interested in buffalo or Indians at the time. So they sold them to the Canadians."
So when Elk Island Park officials contacted the Blackfeet to inquire about interest in having some of the bison back, "I answered before they finished asking the question," Barnes said. "They have to cull the herd every two years. We got 88 of them this year."
More than 100 people braved the 40-degree spring chill to await the truckload delivery. Blackfeet elder Chief Earl Old Person officially renamed the AMS Ranch as the "Buffalo Calf Winter Camp" in their honor.
"The buffalo was our way of life," Old Person said. "To bring the buffalo back here, we're hoping they can help guide and lead our young people. We can look back and see and hear how the buffalo meant everything to our people."
While the truck arrived in a parade of horseback riders at 8:30 p.m., the bison had to be certified by a federal veterinarian before they could be released. That took until sundown, by which time the yearlings apparently decided they'd rather sleep in the trailer. Despite the best wishes of the assembled crowd, the bison wouldn't leave the truck.
"The minute one of them touches the ground with a hoof, that completes a real big circle," said Larry Hoerner, a special guest at the gathering. "I just feel really good about them being back."
Hoerner came from Columbia Falls with a massive bison skull he'd decorated to present to Sheldon Carlson, the Blackfeet bison manager. It took him nearly two weeks to clean and prepare before spending two days painting with Blackfeet symbols.