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Fort Peck Bison Head To Wind River In Historic Exchange

Three bison walk through sagebrush in front of snowcapped mountains.
Jacob Byk
National Wildlife Federation
Five bison from Montana's Fort Peck Reservation joined the herd, pictured here, on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation June 26.

Five bison from Montana’s Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes arrived on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming Wednesday night. The exchange is part of an effort to restore bison populations across Indian Country.

In June, Robert Magnan had to say bye to five of what he would call his babies.

“It'll be almost like your children, when they move on,” he said. “You know you can't stop it, but you know they're going to a good place.”

Magnan directs the Fort Peck Tribes' Fish and Game Department. He oversees their bison conservation program.

The week before I spoke with him, he had to decide which bison would leave.

“They were hanging around with a couple of our older bulls, and we had to break them apart. They were running around kind of nervous,” he said.

I ask if he thinks they knew something was up.

“I'm pretty much sure they did,” he said.

Bison were once common in North America, then nearly wiped out after European colonization.

Now, many conservation programs are managed by the federal government and nonprofits. But in a historic agreement between the Fort Peck Tribes and the Eastern Shoshone, five bulls were loaded onto a trailer and traveled over 500 miles to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming Wednesday.

They're the first graduates of Fort Peck's quarantine program.

In 2014, the Fort Peck Tribes spent half-a-million dollars constructing a state-of-the art quarantine facility for brucellosis. It's a disease that ranchers dread because it can make cattle abort their fetuses.

That said, there have been no recorded cases of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle.

Still, the Montana State Veterinarian had to certify that the bison were brucellosis free before they could be sent to Wind River.

Earlier that day, Magnan found out they had tested negative. He wasn't surprised.

“I pretty much knew they would be,” he said. “Their mothers and fathers, it's been thirteen years now and they're still clean. So I pretty much figured they're been clean.”

He said it’s still validating to see the clean results.

“It's something I can show to other states that we've done this before,” he said.

That matters because Magnan has big dreams for the program--he wants to help other tribes start their own herds too.

So far he says there are seven tribes and two organizations on the waiting list for bison.

“We're reaching new milestones every year,” he said.

The Fort Peck Tribes began their conservation program in 2012 with 34 bison from Yellowstone National Park, but now it's become self-sufficient. The bison that went to Wind River were born on the Fort Peck pasture.

And get this--the Eastern Shoshone are getting them for free. The Eastern Shoshone just had to pay for the transportation costs.

Magnan says the Tribes donated the bulls because their pasture is actually at capacity right now, with 340 buffalo, or 345 before the transfer took place.

There just isn't enough physical space for any more animals.

But Magnan is happy to share.

“Basically to Native Americans, the buffalo is very important. That they're a part of us as relatives. And now buffalo, and as a Native American, I think it's our turn to help them.”

He wants to see tribes across America reconnect with their cultural and historical roots to buffalo.

Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure says restoring his Tribes' connection is a priority to him, politically and personally.

He said growing up, “I never seen them. I know all I did was read about them.”

But he said he was there when the first buffalo arrived from Yellowstone. He said it was colder than heck and dark out but still one of the most exciting days of his life. And that's the kind of wonder he wants to inspire in tribes across America.

“I'd like to see every reservation, every tribe that had anything to do with the bison to have bison on their reservation. And if we can assist them in anyway, that's what we're here for,” Azure said.

The Assinibione and Souix Tribes will put that mission into practice next month. That's when Magnan, the Tribes' Fish and Game Director, says they'll be transporting five more bison to another tribe. This time the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota are the lucky recipients.

Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio News' Report for America Corps Member.