TWO MEDICINE VALLEY – A river snakes through this valley southeast of Browning like a muddy belt on a barren landscape. This corner of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is relatively unchanged from when the nearby hills were shaped several millennia ago, a time when millions of bison roamed the Great Plains.
The bison have long been a crucial species for the Blackfeet, but more than a century ago they were wiped off this landscape at the hands of white settlers. Now, the Blackfeet Nation is leading an international effort to return these iconic animals to the Rocky Mountain Front.
Last week, those efforts took a giant leap forward in this small valley on the Blackfeet Reservation with the arrival of 88 young bison that will form the core of a herd tribal officials hope will one day roam freely on their native land. But those plans could be stifled as the animals have become a source of controversy in the state and as communities debate the implications of bison reintroduction.
The bison was long the lifeblood of North America’s native people.
“For thousands of years, we had 30 million bison here and they were an integral part of our life,” said Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes. “Our food, clothing and shelter all came from the bison.”
No part of the bison was wasted. The meat from the animal could feed dozens of people; the bones used to make tools, utensils and weapons; the fur morphed into clothing; and even the fat was turned into soaps, hair grease and pipe sealer. The bison was more than a source of sustenance, but at once a model for the native people. In storms, the bison always face the wind, a lesson in staring adversity head-on, Barnes said.
Settlers in the 1800s also saw value in the bison that roamed the American West and began to rapidly hunt them. By the later part of the 19th century, as the United States began settling the West, the federal government slaughtered the animals in an effort to destroy the Plains Indians. By 1890, estimates show there were fewer than 1,000 bison left on the continent.
The impact of the slaughter was disastrous, particularly for the Blackfeet. Between 1883-84, more than 500 Blackfeet Indians, or about a quarter of the tribe by some counts, died during the grimly named “Starvation Winter.”
Along with losing a vital food source after the bison were eradicated, the Blackfeet lost a spiritual connection to their past.
“When the bison left we began to adopt the lesson plans of the colonizers and that wasn’t a good lesson plan for us,” Barnes said.
The efforts to return the bison began in the 1970s, when the Blackfeet established a commercial herd, which now includes more than 370 animals. Today, Sheldon Carlson is tasked with leading the Blackfeet Nation Buffalo Program. While the animals’ health is his primary goal, he often spends more time maintaining fences to keep the bison contained. During the winter, the herd is kept on tribal land southeast of Browning and during the summer they’re moved to an area near East Glacier Park.
Every month, four or five bison are killed to feed tribal members who request the meat for memorials, special events or traditional ceremonies. The tribe also sells bison off the reservation as a source of extra income. The animals are often killed and butchered, per tradition, with a bow and arrow and rock tools.
Last December, Betty Cooper, who works at the school in Heart Butte, brought a group of sixth graders to see an animal butchered with stones.
“It’s so important for the young people to learn these traditions because they’re the ones who will be carrying them on,” she said.
Carlson enlists the help of the Crazy Dog Society, a historical group that holds many of the cultural traditions on the reservation. However, for the most part, Carlson works alone, driving his pickup truck through sparse fields on a remote corner of the reservation. That solitude has resulted in a close relationship with the animals.
From his vehicle, Carlson can point to specific bison and talk about their personalities, including one named Alan, who he helped nurse back to health when he was separated from its mother. A few years ago, when the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council splintered and employees did not get paid, Carlson covered his own gas and continued to report for work each day.
“I’ll never let anything get in the way of me taking care of these animals,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from these animals, especially the respect they have for one another.”
On April 4, before the sun rose on the Rocky Mountain Front, Carlson drove to Great Falls. He needed to pick up new fence panels to prepare for a special delivery due that afternoon: 88 bison from Canada’s Elk Island National Park. Unlike the bison Carlson has previously managed, these are direct descendants from those that roamed the Rocky Mountain Front more than a century ago.
The bison homecoming was the culmination of years of work on behalf of the Blackfeet Tribe and other shareholders, including the Wildlife Conservation Society.
In 2010, the Conservation Society invited members of the Blackfeet Confederacy from Canada and the United States to discuss restoring bison on the eastern edge of Glacier and Waterton Lakes national parks. Those meetings resulted in the Iinnii Initiative, a vision of restoring a free-roaming trans-boundary herd of bison (Iinnii is the Blackfeet word for bison). In September 2014, leaders from 11 tribes in Montana and Alberta signed the “Buffalo Treaty” in an effort to throw their support behind the restoration project. It was the first treaty signed by the tribes in more than a century.
Chairman Barnes said he envisions a “conservation corridor” where bison can move freely from the Badger-Two Medicine region all the way to Canada, although he acknowledges it’s a lofty goal.
Some local ranchers are wary about the prospect of bison roaming the range. Jay Bodner, director of natural resources for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said bison are destructive animals and can rip down fences. He also raised concerns about brucellosis, an infectious disease that can be carried by the animal.
Ranchers and landowners have previously fought against tribes over bison relocations, specifically those on the Fort Belknap Reservation that came from Yellowstone National Park.
Bodner said he hopes existing cattle grazing rights are maintained on the eastern front and his group can be part of any discussions regarding the Blackfeet’s bison.
“Bison are different than most livestock. They’re hard to contain, they’re hard to manage and that requires more thought,” he said.
Barnes said the tribe would work closely with local ranchers and landowners as it moves forward with efforts to restore bison, noting that the tribe wants to be a good neighbor.
“We know we can’t just turn the clock back 300 years,” he said. “We understand our current realities.”
Keith Aune, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s bison program, said his group understands the realities and challenges of releasing bison on a landscape with varied property owners. However, he envisions bison roaming on large landscapes, not just on ranches confined to a couple thousand acres. Aune noted similar efforts in recent years in Utah and Alaska, where bison were reintroduced on large tracts of land. He is optimistic the same can happen here.
That would require a partnership with Glacier National Park. Jeff Mow, the park’s superintendent, called the idea of returning bison to its natural landscape a “compelling vision.” There have been preliminary talks between the National Park Service and the tribe, but many more details must be sorted out and it’s too early to speculate about when bison will be allowed to meander on the park’s east side.
Bison have been a major source of controversy at the state’s other National Park. But last week, the federal, state and tribal agencies that manage the bison of Yellowstone National Park have agreed to let the animals stay in parts of the state year-round.
For now, the Blackfeet tribe is focused on caring for the 88 bison that returned to their homeland last week. The genetic origins of the herd date back to the 1870s, when Samuel Walking Coyote and three Blackfeet hunters captured a half-dozen calves abandoned by their mother. Coyote eventually sold part of his herd to Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, who moved them to the Flathead Reservation. There, the herd continued to grow and in the 1910s, Pablo sold the animals to the Canadian government, which moved them to Elk Island National Park, where the bison and their decedents have remained ever since.
Late last year, when Parks Canada officials announced it would cull the herd at Elk Island, the Blackfeet tribe saw an opportunity. On April 4, 88 yearlings were loaded onto two trucks for the 400-mile journey to a tribal-owned ranch southeast of Browning.
Shortly before 8 p.m., the caravan led by four horsemen descended into the Two Medicine Valley as the sun set over Blackfeet Country. More than 100 tribal members gathered at the ranch for a community celebration, including traditional songs led by drum-wielding elders. As the two trucks turned into a field, Carlson smiled.
“I’m tired, but excited,” he said.
The two vehicles backed up to an opening in the fence and a cattle ramp was set up to receive the bison. Tribal members gathered around with excitement, some holding cell phones and tablets to capture the historic moment. At 8:52 p.m., after nearly 45 minutes of pushing and prodding, the first bison ran off the truck and down the ramp.
More than 130 years after their ancestors were wiped off the landscape, the bison were home.
The young bison will spend the next month quarantined on the newly renamed Buffalo Calf Winter Camp before moving to a larger ranch further north. Chairman Barnes said the tribe hopes to eventually move the herd to East Glacier Park, where summer visitors can see the animals in their natural habitat. Long-term plans call for the construction of a visitor center to interpret the importance of the bison to Native Americans.
Tribal elders said the arrival of the new bison was important for several reasons, but especially since the animals crossed the international border, which has divided the southern Blackfeet from their Canadian brethren. The Blackfoot Confederacy includes four different bands that once controlled the territory from Montana all the way north through Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“Having the bison come across that border helps erase the border that cuts our Confederacy,” tribal member Leon Rattler said. “This has been a blessing.”
Elders have long said that when the bison left more than a century ago, the tribe lost a critical part of its culture. But now, these 88 new Blackfeet bison have returned a critical piece of the tribe’s past.
During the ceremony, Chief Earl Old Person told tribal members that many of the Blackfeet’s struggles could be linked to the loss of the bison, but he concluded that their return signaled a bright and prosperous future.
“The buffalo is everything to us and today it is still everything to us,” the elder said. “We can look at the bison and see the story of our people.”