Despite opposition, grad student strives to bring buffalo back to Wyo. reservationBy Whitney Wyckoff, E&E reporter December 18, 2012
Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.
Jason Baldes grew up hunting and fishing on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, but he had to travel halfway across the world before he started thinking about reintroducing buffalo to the reservation his Eastern Shoshone tribe calls home.
At 19, Baldes visited East Africa with his father, Richard Baldes, to watch the migration of a million and a half wildebeests. The younger Baldes was filming a 360-degree video of the wildebeests — as well as zebras and hyenas — when he made an observation: “We’re in awe here, seeing this migration of all of these wildebeests. Just think, in the United States, there used to be 30 million to 60 million buffalo. And then they were nearly exterminated,” Baldes said at the time, according to his father.
Fifteen years later, with the help of a fellowship from U.S. EPA, Baldes — now a master’s student at Montana State University — is laying the groundwork to bring buffalo back to his tribal lands.
Baldes’ project has both environmental and societal goals. He hopes the buffalo reintroduction will transform the ecosystem and pave the way for the return of other native species, which would provide buffalo meat and native plants to those living on the reservation.
“It’s not just about wildlife reintroduction,” Baldes said. “It’s about getting back in touch with our cultural food plants, which are associated with buffalo wallows, and improving our cultural traditions. It’s kind of cultural revitalization in line with wildlife reintroduction.”
The project involves mapping out where the old buffalo wallows are on the reservation and evaluating the status of the native food plants still living there.
“Because buffalo were so abundant, the wallows that the sheer number of animals would have made would have been polka-dotted across the landscape,” he said.
Buffalos make wallows — or 10- to 20-foot-diameter depressions — when they roll around in the mud. The wallows create microhabitats that are home to plants that American Indians historically used as food and medicine.
“Bison are fundamental to a highly diverse ecosystem,” said Garrit Voggesser, the National Wildlife Federation’s national director of tribal partnerships, who has worked with both Baldes and his father — a retired wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Baldes’ project aims to evaluate the health of the ecosystem the buffalo would ideally be placed in if they’re reintroduced — and how that ecosystem would be improved with their reintroduction.
But bison reintroduction is a thorny topic.
Jim Magagna, the executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, for one, is concerned about the potential reintroduction of bison. In particular, he’s worried the buffalo could possibly spread the disease brucellosis to cattle. And a large area like a reservation could have difficulty containing the animals, he said.
Ranchers in Wyoming already raise bison domestically for meat, but Magagna’s concern lies with the management of the wild animals.
“Based on what I know, I think there are a number of issues to be resolved,” he said.
Tribal efforts to restore buffalo to reservations aren’t new. Native communities have been successfully doing it since the late 1800s, said Jim Stone, executive director of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, although he said most had to kill animals because of disease concerns.
Just this year, the National Wildlife Federation and other groups helped reintroduce bison to Montana’s Fort Peck reservation.
Fort Peck “is special because it is the first herd of Yellowstone bison transferred to a tribe,” Stone said over email. “Jason wants to do the same thing but try to have a free-ranging herd on the reservation.”
Earlier this fall, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, which both occupy the Wind River reservation, filed a joint resolution petitioning for the bison living at Ted Turner’s Montana ranch to be transported to the reservation. The animals there originated in Yellowstone National Park and have been quarantined to ensure they don’t carry brucellosis.
“While they disagree on certain issues, they agree about wanting buffalo back on the reservation,” Voggesser said. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also has made a recent push to relocate buffalo to suitable public and tribal lands. The reservation has asked for bison in the past, but previous plans have failed.
The plan to reintroduce buffalo to Wind River is also stymied by conflicts across state lines. The animals at Fort Peck didn’t receive a friendly welcome from local ranchers, who feared the bison would expose their herds to brucellosis and vie for the same grasslands as cattle. A coalition of groups filed a suit against the transfer of animals to another reservation. And a judge is blocking further transfers of the animal, a decision currently under appeal.
“It appears to us that, the way the court injunction was written, [it] essentially eliminates all possibility of movement of any of these bison until the court makes a ruling,” Voggesser said.
Voggesser added that he expects the court will have a ruling by early next year, which could open the door for bison to return to Wind River.
In the meantime, the elder Baldes said he’s proud to have his son follow in his footsteps. During his time at FWS, Richard Baldes worked to re-establish six other types of ungulate species to the reservation. But the biggest coup would be to facilitate the buffalo’s return, he said.
“When those things hit the ground there, that’s probably going to be the biggest thing that’s happened in modern times to the Indians here.”