Bison Return to Fort Peck: A Special Day, 200 Years in the Making

Bison Return to Fort Peck: A Special Day, 200 Years in the Making

Jack McNeel

"It's a special day," Larry Wetsit said. "Our people have been waiting and praying about this for a couple hundred years. My relations, there were hundreds of them, starved on several occasions here as we were placed on the reservation. It was all about having no buffalo. That was the low part in our history, the lowest we could go. This is a start on the road to recovery."

Wetsit, Assiniboine, is vice president of community services at Fort Peck Community College and he’s also been the medicine lodge keeper for over 20 years, a ceremony he learned as a young man, and a very spiritual man. "I carry the most sacred ceremony the Assiniboines have," he said. "It's a celebration of our life with the buffalo. What we've always been told, always prayed about, is that the buffalo represents prosperity. When times were good it was attributed to because our Creator gave us more buffalo. That was food, shelter, supplies, like the biggest shopping mart you could think of. We call ourselves buffalo chasers. Our people migrated with those animals. What this means to me is prosperity, the return of prosperity to our people."

It was dark by the time the 63 bison reached the Fort Peck reservation after the long drive from Yellowstone National Park. As the trucks crossed the bridge leading to the release site, the Assiniboine people were there, singing for them as they arrived home. Others waited for them at the release site. Being on the bridge, Wetsit said, was an unforgettable and intimate moment. "We sang for them. The only ones that needed to know were us and our Creator. It was a buffalo song."

The Fort Peck reservation is home to both the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. "It was our brothers, the Sioux people, who did the blessing song [at the release site]," Wetsit said.

Iris Grey Bull, a Sioux member from Fort Peck, spoke about how close their ties are to the buffalo. "The waters of our reservation form the shapes of buffalo. One male is to the east and four females to the west. Recently, probably in the last year, they found a huge rock in the shape of a buffalo. They pulled it out of the ground and it stands about seven feet tall. It's a huge rock."

"Now they're bringing back the buffalo," she continued. "This is a historical moment for us. We're rebuilding our lives. We’re healing from historical trauma."

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) was instrumental in making this day happen, giving both financial help and technical assistance to seek additional funding. Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of NWF, discussed his organization's involvement. "This has been a pretty much full time job for several of our staffers," he said. "It's been an important work project for us because we believe it's the right thing to do for wildlife, it's the right the thing to do for the tribes and ultimately the right thing to do for the landscape."

Schweiger was present in the hours leading up to the return of the buffalo. "I watched the bison come out of the trailers," he said. "And I was watching the faces of tribal elders and the women and children that were watching these big animals charge out of the trailers. I was so moved to see the reaction. This was a historic moment and everybody there knew it. It was really a powerful thing to witness and I was glad to be there."

"After the animals were released the drummers sang a blessing. The snow was blowing, it was cold, it was dark, but there was a lot of warmth," he commented.

A press conference was held on March 21 at the release site near Poplar, Montana. Governor Brian Schweitzer spoke to those assembled. "When they took the buffalo from the Indian people they took the heart and soul of the Indian people," he said. "They’re back and they’re back to stay this time. They're back to be that symbol of pride, not only of the Indian people but this entire country."

Schweitzer called the event "a historic opportunity to repopulate this special place on the planet with genetically pure bison." "These are the bison that will be the breeding stock to repopulate the entire western United States, in every place that people desire to have them," he said.

"The promise I have from the Secretary of the Interior is that the fences required to take care of these majestic animals will be paid for by the Department of the Interior," Schweitzer added. "They say they have a commitment and that commitment, by the way, is both at Fort Peck and at Fort Belknap."

This reintroduction marks an important beginning but is still just a beginning. The next step involves the Fort Belknap Reservation west of Fort Peck, which plans to receive about half these bison just released at Fort Peck. Mike Fox, Gros Ventre, was the former bison manager at Fort Belknap in the 1990s and later served on the Intertribal Bison Cooperative. He is now on the tribal council with oversight for wildlife and buffalo programs. He talked of immediate plans to fence an area to keep these Yellowstone bison separated from their existing herd of about 400 buffalo.

"We've selected a spot to put up a big game quality fence," he explained. "We expect them to be here by late September. It's about 1500 acres. We can probably handle up to 60 animals there. That would be just a temporary holding area until we decide if we're going to expand that Yellowstone herd or keep them as a small herd. The tribes have been waiting a long time for the bison to return."

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