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Back Home on the Range

On the Great Plains of Montana where the last bison era ended with a rifle bang 140 years ago, a new bison era began in the spring of 2012 with a whimper … of a calf.

It was just before noon on April 22 when the calf's mother lay down to birth. There was snow in the air, and a bit of panic, too, in the voice of a wildlife manager who had never managed the birth of a bison, let alone the re-birth of what was lost by Native Americans in 1882 when the last wild bison died on these plains at the hands of a hunter.

Be calm, the manager was told when he sought help. Do nothing. Nature is in charge.

Thirty minutes later, celebrations broke out across the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana as word spread that a bull calf had struggled to its feet, carrying with him a load of hopes and dreams.

The celebrating actually had begun 29 days before when the calf's pregnant mother and 60 other pure-strain, wild bison from Yellowstone National Park arrived at Fort Peck in a procession of honking vehicles.

As trailers carrying the bison crossed the Missouri River, a group of Sioux and Assiniboine tribal members—who call themselves "the Buffalo People"—chanted a welcome to their lost relatives with songs from a bygone era. Another group of tribal leaders, elders and curious youngsters waited 20 miles away around a stout, metal-fenced holding pen.

Out of the darkness and spitting snow, truck headlights lit the home stretch. Then, with a clang of a gate and the dusty crush of hooves, the bison rumbled back onto the Plains, more than a century after the last known bison had been shot in this area. Floyd Azure, chairman of the Fort Peck tribes, took in the scene with pride, even as he received word that Montana cattle ranchers had tried to stop the bison's arrival with a failed, last-minute judicial appeal.

"Now that they are here," Azure vowed, "they are here to stay."

Fortunately, Azure's vow is backed up by a legal effort led by Earthjustice's Northern Rockies office. Earthjustice lawyers have been fighting in court on behalf of wild bison for more than a decade. They are now taking a stand in the Montana Supreme Court against ranchers and their allies who sought to stop the Fort Peck bison restoration before it could even get started—and seek to prevent future bison transfers to Native and public lands around the West.

"We want to make sure that this [2012] spring's newborn bison calves at Fort Peck are the first of many generations of wild bison to grace their historic range on the Great Plains," said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso.

The bison's triumphant return to Fort Peck culminates more than a century of work to restore American bison herds that had been slaughtered. Once numbering in the tens of millions, bison fell victim to Manifest Destiny, as the railroads encouraged large-scale hunts to feed an insatiable demand for buffalo hides. Market hunters decimated the great herds, shipping the hides back to the eastern United States where they were converted into leather belts to spin machinery in burgeoning industrial factories.

As both the bison and the Plains Indians were being annihilated, both found pockets of refuge—and more peril. By 1902, only 23 genetically pure bison remained, a vestigial herd discovered in a remote valley in Yellowstone National Park. (Cattle ranchers interbred cattle and bison, creating "beefalo" that ranchers joked was another word for "ornery cows." Most bison that are ranched around the West contain cattle genes.)

Yellowstone became the remaining purebred bison's sanctuary. Their genetic stock was fortified by the Darwinian reality of living with a full complement of predators, including grizzly bears and wolves. Over decades, the herd grew into the thousands.

But with the bison's success, the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park couldn't contain them. Bison wandered from the park to seek forage at lower elevations, coming under the authority of the Montana Department of Livestock. Ranchers insisted that state officials shoot the wandering bison, because some carried a disease called brucellosis that causes cattle to abort their fetuses. (Elk, which also carry the disease, did not receive the same treatment, since elk brings in so much hunting revenue to the state.)

Since 1985, nearly 7,000 bison have been slaughtered as a result of this wildly controversial policy. Bison advocates saw no reason to kill the bison, because there was (and still is) no documented case of a cow contracting brucellosis from a bison. Instead, conservationists rallied the public to insist on a better way to treat America's most iconic species, and came up with one: a quarantine facility that would isolate potentially infected bison that wandered from the park. Infected animals would be slaughtered. But brucellosis-free bison could be relocated.

The idea made sense on so many levels, which didn't mean it was easy. "This has been one of the hardest nuts to crack in conservation history," says Garrit Voggesser, the director of tribal partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, one of Earthjustice's clients on the bison litigation.

From a biological standpoint, spreading the genetically pure bison stock into different regions was like taking out a smart insurance policy against epidemics or natural disasters. The plan also allowed Indian tribes like those at Fort Peck to offer them a new home on tribal lands.

Around the town of Poplar, the cultural hub of Fort Peck, the bison's mark on Sioux and Assiniboine cultures is indelible. The Fort Peck Community College's teams are the "buffalo chasers." At Poplar Middle School, art teacher Mary Hinojosa's students construct a life-sized bison from papermache. Bison images grace the buildings, the museum displays buffalo artifacts like drums and ceremonial skulls, and tribal members say that when you look at the reservation's rivers on a map, they form the outline of a bison.

Larry Wetsit, an Assiniboine religious leader and professor at the community college, says the return of the bison means "prosperity" to him and the tribes. "As the buffalo prospered, the Indian people prospered," he says. "The bison's return represents a renewed celebration of who we are as a people."

Two days after the release, on the first day of spring, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer joined U.S. Department of Interior representatives and tribal officials from Fort Peck and Fort Belknap in a sacred circle outside the bison holding pen. Tribal executive board member Tommy Christian smudged the assemblage with sage, and passed a ceremonial pipe four times around the circle. After the ceremony, Christian stood next to the bison pen with a wide grin and shook hands all around. He said he's convinced that the bison's return will precipitate an important turning point for his people, who have overcome brutality, forced assimilation and painful social ills on the way to the cultural resurgence embodied by the grazing animals on the other side of the fence.

Asked if he thought tribal members had really paid a lot of attention to what the bison's return might mean for them, he paused. "If they haven't yet," he said, his braided pony tails wagging in the breeze as the new bison herd grazed nearby, "they will soon."

This article was first published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Summer 2012 issue.