BROWNING – What many European visitors to the United States encounter on their first trip to America, the woman from Croatia noted, is New York City.
One of the first things Maja Vasilijevic saw on her first trip to the U.S. was a little different than the bright lights and teeming crowds of Times Square. No, one of Vasilijevic’s first encounters with America included a large herd of bison thundering across a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 2 on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
“It’s unique,” said Vasilijevic, who had never in her life seen one of the animals in person. “Not only the bison – the whole landscape.”
The grand peaks of Glacier National Park, and not Manhattan skyscrapers, formed the skyline Vasilijevic viewed behind the Montana prairie on a warm and sun-splashed Wednesday afternoon. The bison, a domesticated herd being transferred from one pasture to another, were appropriately anxious to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the ATV that was herding them out an open gate.
About 20 minutes later, Vasilijevic – and a host of other foreign visitors – saw a different kind of bison in another field on the reservation.
A wild herd.
These 88 animals, unlike the domesticated ones, may one day freely roam in and out of Glacier Park.
Cooler yet, they descend from the handful of bison calves a Pend d’Oreille Indian named Latati rescued from this area and brought to the Flathead Indian Reservation in the 1870s when Americans were hunting the bison to near-extinction.
Those calves were the beginning of what became the Pablo-Allard herd, which eventually was sold to the Canadian government after the 1904 Flathead Allotment Act radically reduced the pasture lands available to tribal bison herds.
Most of those bison ended up in Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton, Alberta, and that’s where the Blackfeet Tribe acquired them this spring.
It took 140-some years for Latati’s calves to come full circle, and it likely will take several more before tourists in Glacier Park may be craning their necks to see one.
“You’re talking about reintroducing a transboundary bison herd” that would neither know nor understand invisible lines separating tribal lands, federal parks, private lands and even nations, Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “It will be a process.”
Such processes are what Vasilijevic and the other foreign visitors who gathered at Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier this week wrestle with back in their home countries.
She and Kevan Zunckel of South Africa, two of the organizers of the “Hands Across Borders” workshop, are “transboundary specialists” who volunteer for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Their group grilled Keith Aune, director of the Bison Conservation Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Leona Tracey of the Iinnii Initiative and Blackfeet Nation Buffalo Program, with a seemingly endless number of questions about bison and their connection to this land and its people.
The visitors’ conservation projects are diverse, but their interest in each other’s work is high.
In the basement of Glacier Park Lodge this week, you could find people like these:
• Gidon Bromberg of EcoPeace Middle East, an organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists to work to protect the shared environmental heritage in one of the most divided places in the world.
• Morris Zororai Mtsambiwa, executive director of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, one of the world’s largest conservation areas, spanning five nations in southern Africa.
• Jodi Hilti of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which envisions more than 300 partners – parks, conservation groups, landowners, businesses, government agencies and Indian tribes – working together to secure the long-term ecological health of a vast region that stretches more than 2,000 miles across two nations, from Alaska, through Canada and to Wyoming.
• Jorg Ostrowski of the Silk Road to Peace, a transcontinental project which proposes 13 peace parks in 15 countries from Iran to China.
They gathered at the large lodge in the small community of East Glacier this week, conservationists from every continent save Antarctica, to share their successes and challenges, and to brainstorm solutions for the latter.
It is, Vasilijevic said, the first time such a workshop has been conducted in the United States.
They didn’t wind up in Montana, rather than the more easily accessed New York City, by accident. Nor did they come specifically to see bison – that was just an available field trip that seemed to tickle people who, back home, may work on behalf of rhinoceros, pelicans or Cross River gorillas.
What drew conservationists here was the fact that Glacier, and nearby Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, are the first border-divided “peace park” in the world.
They’ve been that way for 84 years.
“It’s very symbolic because it was the first,” Vasilijevic said. And at first it was mostly symbolic, representing the friendship between the United States and Canada when the two nations linked them together in 1932.
Today, boundary-ignoring peace parks and protected areas are more the result of shared goals of protecting and preserving cultures, landscapes and wildlife that don’t recognize lines on a map drawn by man.
The connections between Glacier and Waterton Lakes have moved that direction over the years as well. On Wednesday, Mow, Glacier’s superintendent, and Ifan Thomas, superintendent of the Canadian national park across the border, shared a seat on one of the buses that carried their guests from around the globe to see the Blackfeet bison.
“The symbolism, that our two countries have been good neighbors for so long, is very meaningful,” Thomas said. But these days, he added, “People are intrigued with the way the two parks work together.”
Glacier and Waterton Lakes collaborate on efforts to curtail the human-introduced fungal disease called blister rust that is decimating whitebark pine stands in both parks and far beyond. They work together, and with the governments of Alberta and Montana, to try to keep destructive quagga and zebra mussels out of both parks’ waters.
Interpretive rangers from both parks regularly cross the border to assist in educational programs for visitors to both parks.
“And I think about the fire we responded to last year, when you guys were dealing with a whole bunch of fires down here,” Thomas said.
Winds out of the south threatened to push the wildfire north through heavy fuels toward the Waterton townsite, where residents and visitors were put on evacuation notice – but it was still an American fire that began on the other side of the border, near Goat Haunt.
“I coordinated with Jeff, and he coordinated with your Department of the Interior, so that we could respond,” Thomas said.
The Canadian national park Thomas oversees actually already contains bison. But the small herd is confined to a relatively small area by a fence that both keeps them in, and keeps predators out.
Waterton’s bison are there to acknowledge the animal’s historic existence in and around the park, and give visitors who make the 10- to 15-minute drive on the one-way Bison Paddock Loop Road a chance to see, more than experience, them.
Thomas called the proposal for a free-roaming wild herd near the U.S.-Canadian border “intriguing.”
“I just don’t know where it’s going to go,” he said. “There are lots of questions about how it would unfold. We’ve had meetings with the Blackfoot in Canada, and I know bison are as important to the Blackfoot up there as they are to the Blackfeet down here.”
Another Canadian park, Banff, may answer some of those questions this winter, when bison are reintroduced to its landscape.
“It will be a soft release,” said Harvey Locke, one of the workshop organizers and a part of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative as well. “What that means is they’ll be placed in a big corral – I mean, one that covers acres – and they’ll be kept in that space till they drop their calves. Then they’ll be given more time to bond with the landscape.”
The final step of the reintroduction won’t be dramatic at all. They’ll just “take down the fence,” Locke said.
“Some of us dream of a herd that goes from here to Banff,” Locke said. “Of course, that will be up to the Blackfeet people and Glacier Park. But my ancestors participated in the disappearance of the bison, and I’d like to participate in their return.”
Mow, Thomas’s counterpart in Glacier, said privately owned bison would be no more welcome inside the park than any other domesticated livestock, but a wild herd would be another matter, especially since bison were part of Glacier’s ecosystem long before it became a national park in 1910.
“We now have bison at hand, and opportunities on a small scale to find ground we can all agree on,” Mow said. “It’s been over 100 years since bison were on this landscape, but working with a small herd in a small area, we can see what they would do and where they’d go.”
Even that’s probably several years away, the superintendent acknowledged. But as he joined conservationists from around the world to observe the Blackfeet’s herd, which arrived in April, he couldn’t help making one more observation.
“Look at them, on this landscape,” Mow said. “It’s entirely clear they go together.”