The Fort Belknap community’s push for the relocation of 33 bison from Fort Peck Indian Reservation to Fort Belknap Indian Reservation came to fruition as the bison took their first steps onto the reservation Thursday.
The bison are originally from Gardiner, at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and 60 of them were moved to Fort Peck in March 2012. Officials and ranchers from the Fort Belknap area fought the moving of the 33 bison to Fort Belknap until the Montana Supreme Court sided with state Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Fort Belknap Indian Community officials, allowing the bison relocation to continue.
Mike Fox, a member of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council and head of the Buffalo Management Society from 1991 to 2001, was there to welcome the bison to the reservation.
Around 6 p.m., the cattle semi-truck full of bison rolled through the entrance of the 900-acre expanse at Belknap and began coaxing the bison down a chute to their new home. Halfway through the unloading, a trailer carrying two bulls pulled up beside it. As the bison came off the trailers, they were greeted with Native American song and elated cries from the rows of onlookers.
According to Mike Fox, the bison received Thursday were part of the last group of 100 percent genetically pure bison left in America. Most of the bison population in America has mixed DNA from breeding with cattle.
Currently, Fort Peck, Fort Belknap and media mogul Ted Turner’s Montana ranch are the only places that have these pure bison roaming outside of the Yellowstone National Park area.
Belknap’s new bison have been thoroughly treated for brucellosis and other diseases, Fox said. They spent five years in quarantine and were tested extensively to ensure they were healthy.
The biggest complaints of the relocation of the bison have come from ranchers in the region, who fear the spread of disease that bison sometimes carry and the escape of the bison, among other issues.
Fox said that they were against the free roaming of the bison and made the fence sturdy and high enough to avoid any escape of the bison. He said they have had problems with lower fences in the winters, when the snow sometimes piles up against it and hardens, providing a bridge over the fence for the bison.
Many bison died recently at Fort Belknap after a winter snow melted and turned to ice, then snowed over. The effect of this was much of the grass at Fort Belknap was covered and the bison starved, he said.
Fox said that Fort Belknap government’s plans were to keep a relatively small herd of bison.
“We would only want to get around 100 to 150 head of bison,” Fox said.
Larenzo Johnson, 9, points at bison in a cattle carrier. 33 buffalo were released into a 900-acre fenced field on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
Keith Aune, the senior conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and part of the American Bison Society, said that he has been working to get bison into Fort Belknap for some time.
“This day is the culmination of the attempt to get the bison back to the land,” Aune said.
Aune was part of the team that began the quarantine project at Yellowstone National Park in 2005. They moved bison without brucellosis into the quarantine area and made sure the area was safe and secure.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” Aune said.
In the first survey of the bison population in 1889, a mere 1,091 head were left. Today, there are approximately 500,000 head.
The last load of bison brought to Fort Belknap, according to council members, came in 1974, when 24 were brought from Yellowstone. The tribal council bought 24 bison for Fort Belknap, but while unloading, one of the bison was injured and was then over-sedated, killing it. These bison were not genetically pure.