BROWNING, Montana — Late in the afternoon, dozens of young Native American children arrived in a yellow school bus and galloped across a sunny field on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation while wearing buffalo robes as if they were superhero capes.
They play-acted a long-gone Blackfeet practice of stampeding buffalo off cliffs to harvest their meat. But the only leap on this day was taken by Landen Ground, 6, who belly-flopped onto a pile of buffalo robes as if they were autumn leaves.
“Whoo! It felt like a trampoline,” he said. “You just imagine me as a buffalo.”
But buffalo are not just a figment of the imagination. Inside a large white teepee rising from a grassy hill nearby Ervin Carlson, president of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, told a crowd gathered for a treaty ceremony that bringing buffalo herds back to North America was a vital task for Native Americans — whatever the difficulties that lie ahead in ambitious plans to restoring their place in the landscape.
“We slowly have to work on it and work it out,” said Carlson, whose group has helped coordinate the return of some 20,000 buffalo to tribal land in the U.S., including the Blackfeet’s herd of about 250 that was celebrated on Tuesday at the signing of a multitribal treaty calling for even more buffalo restoration.
The group’s work has been successful. The buffalo has long been saved from extinction, and buffalo ranches are commonplace. But conservationists say that buffalo need what they call a second recovery, a return to their historic role in the ecology of North America. Buffalo till soil with their hooves and fertilize plants and spread seeds with their waste. They create living spaces for birds, prairie dogs and other small animals and feed apex predators like bears, wolves and people.
“The buffalo is a fantastic environmentalist. We want to respect them,” said Leroy Little Bear, a member of the Blood Tribe, part of the Blackfeet Nation in Alberta, Canada, and a professor emeritus at the University of Lethbridge.
When buffalo (technically bison, not buffalo, but the name persists in common usage) were all but annihilated, from an estimated 30 million to about 1,000 by 1889, the survivors were penned in a few zoos, ranches and wildlife preserves. By the 1930s, their numbers had grown to some 20,000, though many were inbred. Conservationists call this the first recovery of the buffalo because it kept the species from dying out. But it also seeded the notion that buffalo must be kept fenced like cattle and other domestic livestock. From an ecological perspective, scientists say, buffalo went extinct.
“We need restoration in a scale and management level that allows bison to be bison, that allows bison-ness,” said Keith Aune, bison program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
While millions of acres that could support the return of roaming buffalo remain in western North America, cultural opposition is fierce. Ranchers and farmers in the sparsely populated parts of the rural West where buffalo restoration is most feasible have long railed against it. They argue that buffalo restoration has been accomplished by private ranchers in the U.S. and Canada, who now raise about 400,000 domesticated buffalo for meat.
The overarching problem, conservationists say, is that the opportunity was lost for communities in the West to learn to co-exist with wild buffalo. Before Western states and Canadian provinces were created and just before homesteaders settled there, the landscape was wiped clean of buffalo by unregulated hunters who killed them with the tacit support of Army commanders who were waging war on Native tribes that depended on the buffalo. Other animal populations were devastated too — including elk, deer, antelopes, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose and bears — but none as thoroughly as buffalo. In the 1900s, other species recovered naturally in the wild and are today a part of the cultural fabric of the West. Buffalo, conservationists say, never had that chance.
“We have a failure of the imagination in treating buffalo as a wild animal in North America. I I believe we have a historic wrong to right,” said Harvey Locke, 55, founder of the Canadian group Bison Belong, which is working to restore a wild herd of bison in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Momentum has grown in the last 15 years for ecological bison restoration. New conservation herds were founded in Grasslands National Park in Canada and to the south in Montana on land owned by a private nonprofit, the American Prairie Reserve. Bison from Yellowstone National Park were transplanted to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana, and plans are underway to reintroduce herds on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming and Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
The U.S. Department of the Interior released a report this year in support of more bison restoration, and last week three dozen scientists sent a letter to the governor of Montana that urged him to support the same. “If you’re looking at a bigger vision, you have to get people to work together,” said Arnie Dood, a native species biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Last week’s signing of a Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty was the first of its kind since 1855, when indigenous people from the northern U.S. and southern Canada met to establish boundaries for their buffalo hunting grounds. On Tuesday tribal elders shared a pipe while seated on buffalo robes and talked of their people’s ancient connection with the animal. This connection was noted in the 1890s by pioneering ethnologist and wildlife conservationist George Bird Grinnell, who visited Blackfeet country and translated from an elder a story about how of all the animals, the earth’s creator made the buffalo the most Nat-o’-ye, meaning sacred.
“The buffalo — we call him the Iinnii — he’s our brother, our sister,” said Larry Ground, 50, a member of the Blackfeet tribe’s Crazy Dog Society, who began the treaty ceremony with drums and song. “His life is our life.”
Around a campfire, attendees agreed that ecological buffalo restoration need not be accomplished by a single sweeping act. Separate herds of buffalo could be established in different places. The buffalo could be allowed to roam as naturally as possible on as many acres as is feasible, even in fenced areas. Herd managers could work to improve the genetics of their animals. Some herds could be managed by ranchers, others by hunters, others by natural predators and some by a mix of all three.
“It’s a gradual thing. It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Peter Weaselmoccasin, 59, a member of the Blood tribe from Standoff, Alberta. “But we feel it’s time.”
Most crucial to any buffalo restoration project is the support of surrounding communities. A fine example of that, tribe members and conservationists say, happened on the Blackfeet Reservation.
“The tables have turned,” said Angela Grier, a member of Piikani Nation, part of the Blackfeet Confederacy in Alberta. “We’re here trying to take care of these animals like they once took care of us.”