The morning sun casts a glow over the prairie on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in northeastern Montana. There's a chill in the air; when the big bull in the pasture snorts, he emits a plume of steam. The cows and calves and other bulls around him move as one, plodding from one side of their two-acre paddock to the other. A few straggle from the group to feed from a pile of hay. Their eyes drift upward, past the thick metal bars of the seven-foot fence that separates them from miles of open plain.
The bison came by daylight two days ago, although it might as well have been by night. Officials kept the timing of the relocation quiet and were undeterred when a snowstorm blew in. Word spread fast on Fort Peck, though. Dozens of cars met the bison convoy as it crossed the Missouri River. Tribal members greeted the animals late on March 19 with drums, cameras and Sioux songs. The bison, 64 to start, had been driven about 500 miles northeast from Corwin Springs with only one incident: A yearling died en route.
Now the herd numbers 63.
At first light, I drove the 25 miles northeast from Wolf Point over cracked highway, loose gravel and 200 yards of deep, crisscrossed ruts in order to get a moment alone with the animals, before the drummers and SUVs and politicians descended. I wanted to absorb the latest chapter of a battle that stretches back decades, if not centuries.
A breeze mingles the smells of dry grass and dirt with the dusty, musky scent of bison. I remember it well. The Dakota Zoo, in Bismarck, used to be thick with it. On school field trips, I'd watch the bison wallow in their pasture and compare them to the buffalo nickels I kept in a drawer in my room. I still remember how the bison hide felt, coarse and tangled, at the North Dakota Heritage Center museum. I haven't been back to the Plains in the spring for a long time.
Hooves trample the hard earth. The big bull snorts again, his gaze steady. A few whitetail deer graze on a hillside nearby. After half an hour, a truck rumbles down the dirt road driven by Llewellyn Gray Hawk, Fort Peck's newly appointed bison manager, bringing a bale of hay. He rolls down his window as I approach.
"They're still here," he says.
"Why wouldn't they be?" I ask.
"Oh, I thought some judge or someone was going to come up and take them away in the middle of the night."
The bison keep eating hay, peering at a world they haven't roamed in more than 120 years.
Here to stay
Nobody knows for sure how many bison roamed the Plains of North America hundreds of years ago. Estimates range from 25 to 60 million. Their range stretched west from Pennsylvania to southern Alberta and as far south as Mexico and the Florida Panhandle. Tribes throughout the West called themselves the "people of the buffalo." They included the animal in their creation stories and considered them spiritual kin. Plains Indians hunted the huge herds for centuries. Bison provided everything: food, clothing, weapons and shelter.
By the late 1880s, however, whites had hunted the bison to near extinction. And the removal of North America's largest terrestrial animal made room for herds of domesticated cattle. Some of the last free-ranging bison held out in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone National Park, in a herd numbering less than 30. Nationwide, fewer than 2,000 bison survived the slaughter.
Through careful breeding and raising, conservationists in the 20th century have managed to bring the number of bison in North America up to nearly half a million. Fewer than 14,000 are considered wild and genetically pure, however—the Yellowstone herd among them. The rest, including the herds already at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap, have been partly domesticated through crossbreeding with cattle and are raised largely for human consumption. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who's been instrumental in getting the Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck, calls the crossbreeds "mongrels."
Given the venerable place that bison hold in ceremonies among Plains tribes such as the Assiniboine and Sioux, genetic purity carries a lot of weight in Indian Country. So, too, does the idea of restoring wild herds to the prairie.