The Blackfeet herd is part of a growing movement to return buffalo, once nearly extinct, to tribal lands. For many Plains tribes, buffalo used to be the foundation of diet, commerce, and spiritual life. Bringing them back represents an effort to reconnect with that heritage and, in doing so, restore endangered grasslands.
Since their history is intertwined with the prairies, ecologists view bison re-introduction as key to restoring the country’s grasslands, an estimated half of which has already been lost to cattle, crops, and development. More bison roaming the land would mean the return of wallows, bowls in the dirt that can stretch more than 10 feet across. They’re created when the animals roll and toss themselves on the ground. Wallowing is a useful form of pest control, and sets off a cascade of events that benefit local wildlife.
Ecologists think bison may be suited for some climate change challenges. Cattle seek shade and water at much lower temperatures than bison. They tend to find a good spot to eat and stay put, mowing the grass down to a nub. Bison, which evolved on the treeless plains, are much more comfortable at high temperatures. When they cool off, they prefer to catch a hilltop breeze. They’re not inclined to overgraze because they’re always moving. As a result, they do much less damage to plants, streams, and rivers.
Yellowstone bison, central to the tribal restoration effort, are prized above all. After bison were driven to near-extinction, a handful of the remaining several hundred were taken to Yellowstone for protection. Their lineage represents the last true North American bison. For most of the last century, the Yellowstone bison, recovering from near-extinction, rarely wandered beyond the park. But as the herds grew, they began to adopt their ancient migratory behavior.
By the 1990s, the population had climbed above 4,000 — up from 23 animals in the park nearly a century before. Ranchers and state officials in Montana saw roaming bison as an existential threat to cattle, the state’s top agricultural commodity, because bison carry brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause hoofed animals, including cattle, to miscarry. Montana’s brucellosis-free status was at risk: Losing it would force the government to spend millions on testing the cattle sent to other states.
Montana sued in 1995, and five years later a court-mediated settlement created the Interagency Bison Management Plan. A target population was set that requires an agreement on yearly culling. Yellowstone has a few ways to manage the herd. Mostly, it ships surplus animals to slaughter. The National Park Service wants to update the bison management program and has laid out a number of options for the next era of management. According to the agency, the science behind the agreement is outdated.
But even if the park adopts a more ambitious target population, major obstacles remain to expanding the transfer program, and Montana’s Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, has rejected all of the Park Service’s proposals. Yellowstone has been frank about the messiness of bison politics. “Many people don’t like the fact that animals from a national park are sent to slaughter. We don’t like it either,” its website says. “But we cannot force adjacent states to tolerate more migrating bison.”