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.
Bison today are largely treated like livestock, confined to private herds and wildlife preserves. Those that wander north out of Yellowstone are hazed back inside the park's boundaries by state agents on horseback, in helicopters and on ATVs. If the bison venture onto private property, they're shipped to a quarantine facility. Fear over the spread of brucellosis, a disease that can cause ungulate calves to be stillborn, has kept them under close scrutiny. Even the new Fort Peck herd were given ear tags.
At Fort Peck Community College, Schweitzer pounds the podium with his left hand again and again and again, mimicking the sound of the drum circle at his inauguration in 2005. The thuds continue through the first few minutes of his speech on the occasion of the return of the bison to Fort Peck. "When we took the bison, we took a part of the soul of the Indian people," he says. "Now they're back—and they're here to stay."
There are elders in the audience this morning. Tribal leaders line the front of the room, school children from Frazier line the back. They've come to celebrate the bison's return and to thank those responsible. Everyone keeps saying the same thing: "Today is a good day."
Schweitzer tells the crowd that this herd will be the starting point for pockets of genetically pure bison at other locations throughout the West. "May the bison roam free," he says. "And may we recapture the pride that existed for 400 generations before we destroyed them."
No bison truly roam free these days, not in the way elk, deer, antelope, moose and scores of other natives species do. It took years just to put this new herd in a two-acre enclosure here. Already, the tribe is being forced to build a stronger fence, one that will not only keep the bison in but the deer, elk and antelope out. They and their conservation partners, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, have already sunk $200,000 into fences, solar-powered water tanks and other improvements to accommodate this offshoot of the Yellowstone herd. Until the fencing improvements are made, the new herd will have to remain in their small paddock.
Not everyone is thrilled to see wild bison come to Fort Peck. Cory Swanson, a Helena attorney representing landowners who are suing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks over the relocation, says their opposition was never about keeping bison away from the tribes. Ranchers last year decried similar proposals to relocate bison to state land at the Marias River and Spotted Dog wildlife management areas. "It was about sending bison all over the state with what many believe is an ill-conceived plan specifically because you want wild, free-roaming bison," Swanson says. "That's the issue."
The March 19 relocation was rushed and hushed; Swanson has called it "a sneak attack." Last December, FWP commissioners said they wanted to review any management plan before bison were moved from Yellowstone, Swanson says, adding, "That clearly didn't happen. It was signed and, boom, off we went with bison shipment."
Landowners are concerned about fence standards and brucellosis test protocol being met, Swanson says, and about bison breaking out of their pasture and wandering onto private property. They don't feel their concerns have been heard. "Had [the state] done this the right way, I don't even know if there'd be a lawsuit today," he says. "We might be supporting the tribes' right to own bison. Instead, we've been run over at every turn."
The bison that were moved from Yellowstone to Fort Peck have been tested repeatedly for brucellosis at the quarantine facility in Corwin Springs; none have tested positive. The Department of the Interior has altered its position several times in the recent past on whether the Yellowstone herds are brucellosis-free, while Schweitzer is fond of pointing out that "these bison are less likely to have brucellosis than any other animal in Montana, including my dog, Jag."
Ranchers are still upset that they're here. Swanson's plaintiffs finally saw their request for a restraining order against additional bison shipments granted March 22the same morning that four more bison left Corwin Springs for Fort Peck. The tribes have argued that the bison are now on sovereign soil, so the state can't ship any of them back.
It's hard sometimes to believe these passive animals could have caused such a stir. Yet as recently as last spring, lawmakers tried to restrict bison relocation statewide. Even Schweitzer nearly derailed this move in December, when he refused to allow any bison to be moved anywhere in the state. His announcement came in the midst of a spat with the Department of the Interior over placing some Yellowstone bison on the National Bison Range in Moiese, the same week the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commission approved the move to Fort Peck. Schweitzer backed off within days.
Circle of life
Almost everyone wants to get close to them. Out at the bison ranch, Schweitzer leans against the new enclosure and stares at the herd. "That's a big bull," he says to no one in particular. Jag, his border collie, crouches nearby, his eyes fixed on the bison, his body tensed. After a few minutes, the dog slips under the fence, into the pasture. Schweitzer quickly calls him back.
During his 2004 gubernatorial campaign, Schweitzer promised to build more tolerance for bison in Montana. He's failed on numerous occasions, including in his effort to establish genetically pure herds on state land. But today is not necessarily about years-old promises. In a way, it's more about coming through for Indian Country, he says. "In the Indian world, everything is a circle. It's a circle of life. Look at a tribal council chambers and it's in a circle. Thinking is done in a circular way. There's a rhythm to that... To return these genetically pure bison to this place is, in a way, completing the circle of life."
Tribal Councilman Tom Christian directs the 40 or so folks who made the trek to the bison paddock to gather around a buffalo robe near the southeast corner of the fence. He sits in a circle with Schweitzer, Gray Hawk, tribal wildlife manager Robert Magnan and a dozen others. One by one, they cleanse their faces and chests with sage smoke. Christian packs a tribal pipe with tobacco and begins a Sioux prayer. His voice is drowned out by a half-circle of round drummers. Their drumming and singing drifts over the bison enclosure, driving the animals to the far corner.
Iris Grey Bull stands near the fence solemnly, casting her eyes now and then to the bison. Back at the college, she'd been one of the few to raise her hand with a comment. She was glad to see the bison come home. It's part of a healing process for the tribe, she said. Now they can grow stronger. "If any of you have ever looked at a map, the water and the rivers on this reservation form buffalo," she said. "The big bull is facing east, and there are four cow buffalo facing west." Some people pulled a rock out of the ground recently. "It was shaped like a buffalo."
After the pipe ceremony, I ask former Tribal Council Vice Chairwoman Roxann Smith what's next. The bison are here, and if all goes according to plan, half of them will be bound for a new home on Fort Belknap as early as this summer. Tribal members will be allowed to hunt some of them. The animals will provide ceremonial supplies, healthy meat for local schools, even a chance to boost tourism in a part of the state seldom visited by anyone but Bakken oil workers and truckers on the Hi-Line.
"I just hope we have more opportunities to bring our young people out here," Smith says. The butchering of bison is one of the most important ceremonies her people have. In Poplar, students from Frazier were asking if they'd have an opportunity to participate in that ceremony. Smith says she sees the bison as one part of a larger effort to preserve the fading parts of Native American culture. "You heard it from the mouths of babes," she says. "They want to learn about these traditions... Now our children are going to be able to take part."
Charles Headdress, a member of the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board, says he wishes his grandfather were alive to see this day. His grandfather always wanted to see bison restored to the reservation. "It's unbelievable to me, being a member of the Assiniboine tribe. These animals roamed this area back when my ancestors were great warriors. We're still great warriors now, but the bison are finally back."
The tribal shuttles crawl back up the hill. Schweitzer's disappeared. So have the representatives from the Department of the Interior. Only a scattering of folks from the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife remain, their camera crews snapping a few last shots before packing up.
I take a last look at the bison. They're still grouped at the far end of their paddock, startled by the sound of a dozen or more engines straining up the dirt road. A few younger bison chase one another around the hay that Gray Hawk dropped this morning. Calving season is approaching. In three months, the herd will be grazing over the surrounding hills. By then, the smell of bison will be thick on the land.