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Yellowstone bison are thriving – and now, some are restoring herds on tribal reservations

 Bison in Lamar Valley
Neal Herbert
Bison in Lamar Valley

On a recent March afternoon, as Yellowstone National Park’s Lead Bison Biologist Chris Geremia is scanning the area near Mammoth Hot Springs, about five miles inside the Northern Entrance he spots a couple of bison nearby.

“Maybe a half mile off in the distance there’s some bison up on the hillside that are just up on some melted out wind blown slopes, just being bison,” he said.

It wasn’t always so easy to see bison at Yellowstone. The park has had to work over the decades to restore the animal’s population.

“The place to start is always the beginning, and Yellowstone has been a leader for conserving bison in this country," Geremia said. "In the 1800s bison were nearly extirpated from this continent from 30-60 million down to a couple of hundred individuals."

In the early 20th century, Geremia explains, several early Yellowstone employees decided they didn’t want to see bison die out. They brought some animals to Mammoth Hot Springs in 1902, built a corral, and began what has been a decades-long effort to revive the park's bison herds.

By the late 1980s, the population was in the 3,000 range, and has grown since then. But as bison re-learned migration patterns, following the river valleys, they wandered outside the park.

“It led to more than a decade of court negotiations between the state of Montana and the federal government figuring out what are we going to do," Geremia said, "because bison are valued very differently when they are inside the national park."

The conflict led to the formation of the Interagency Bison Management Plan in 2000. Made up of state, federal and tribal agencies, IBMP's goal is to maintain a free-roaming bison herd and address the potential transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle.

To limit the number of bison traveling outside the park, the size of the herd is maintained from year to year in several ways. Animals are sometimes sent to slaughter, their hides and meat given to tribes. Population tools later grew to include, starting in 2006, a tribal hunt.

And more recently a bison conservation transfer program was established in 2018 as an alternative to shipping animals to slaughter. After spending time in a quarantine program, live bison that are brucellosis free are transferred to Native American tribes across the country.

“When you think about what’s going on in the tribal communities in North America right now and the desire to restore bison both for their ecological and then importantly for their cultural importance, there is a real need for a program like this at Yellowstone,” said Scott Christensen, executive director of the nonprofit Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Since the program started, more than 200 bison have been moved to Fort Peck in northern Montana to 18 different tribes around the country, including the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming: Five Yellowstone bison have made their way from the park to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe at Wind River.

Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribal member Letara Lebeau works with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition on the ground at the Wind River Reservation as a conservation organizer. She says bison can play an economic role in tribal communities, including strengthening food security.

“That’s something that our tribes are really looking at and are working to start to practice is food sovereignty,” she said.

National Wildlife Federation Tribal Buffalo Manager Jason Baldes has also been helping restore bison at Wind River. He says as the bison return, he wants to see more young people grasp the historical and modern importance of the animal.

“As a member of Shoshone tribe, Yellowstone is our traditional homelands, and so we have ties that go back to Yellowstone for thousands of years,” he said. “To most people it just seems like an animal, but for us it’s our relative. Our ceremonies are based on this long, long history of living alongside this animal for millennia, for thousands of years."

Buffalo, he says, are key to restoring Native people’s cultural connections and belief systems, "so that in the future our young people now will be leaders that can continue to exercise sovereignty and self determination."

The park is now working on upgrading quarantine facilities and will soon have capacity to transfer around 100 bison per year.

Scott Christensen with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says when the park approached his organization about partnering, supporters rallied.

“They responded quickly. In less than 6 months we raised a quarter million dollars,” he said.

Seeing the impact of restoring bison, Christensen is optimistic about the future.

“This next chapter of bison conservation can be a story of hope,” he said.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.