MORTON—Jason Baldes poked a little fun at his task: Leading a caravan of bison enthusiasts on a slow-going cruise through the prairie overlooking the Wind River.
The problem was there weren’t any bison, save for a far-off errant bull here or there.
“We’re killing time for the food to get done,” Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone Tribe member and Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative executive director, said from the cab of his pickup. “They’re all right behind the house.”
The herd was near Baldes’ home and the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative’s headquarters on Monday evening, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but the organizers of a Sierra Club bison benefit scheduled for that evening needed to finish preparing dinner.
So out onto the mostly bison-less prairie Baldes rolled for a slow-going tour. Packed into the cluttered truck bed behind him was a gaggle of Lehigh University students who were learning about the Initiative’s bison restoration efforts for class. And behind them were a snaking caravan of a couple dozen vehicles. The goal of the evening was to fundraise for the acquisition of animals from Utah’s Antelope Island bison auction. The amount of money raised would determine the number of animals added to Baldes’ burgeoning 90-animal herd, which was started in 2016 and began reproducing the following summer.
Laramie resident Kaycee Prevedel, a Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter staffer, conceived of the benefit in 2022 after attending a bison-focused intertribal gathering.
“I was inspired,” Prevedel said. “I think the idea came from living, as a white person, on stolen land. What can you do to actually make reparations?”
Prevedel knew of the Antelope Island auction from growing up in northern Utah and she ran the idea of a bison donation by Baldes. He went for it. She then texted family and friends to raise about $2,000, which bought four yearling cow bison for the Wind River herd in 2022.
This year the Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter got involved. The organization chipped in $2,000, and the 90 or so attendees who came out for music, the bison tour and dinner donated another $3,000.
“We estimated we raised around enough money for around 10 bison,” Prevedel said.
That’s a welcome infusion for Baldes, who estimates that the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative needs about $500,000 a year to operate. It’s a figure bound to grow, if Baldes achieves his ultimate goal of bison becoming a free-roaming wildlife species under the tribal game code. That’ll take more land, more convincing and more bison — all of which costs money.
“It’s a paradigm shift, recognizing buffalo as a wildlife species and allowing them to exist on the landscape,” said Baldes, who also leads the tribal buffalo program for the National Wildlife Federation.
That’s a very long-term effort, but it’s also a noble cause, said Nick Gevock, a Northern Rockies field organizing strategist for the Sierra Club.
“It’s part of undoing wrongs of the past,” he said.