FORT WASHAKIE — Jason Baldes saw it Wednesday mid-morning, just beyond a sagebrush-covered gully, the first buffalo born on the Wind River Reservation in more than 130 years.
He had been looking over the herd of 10 bison transplanted to the reservation from the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in Iowa last November. They were below him, coming up from the Wind River and he stepped back so as not to disturb.
Peeking over the edge of the bluff, he watched them move past him and to the north, where he then directed his gaze. And there she was, apart from the herd — a mother bison with a red calf at her side, the snowcapped Owl Creek Mountains behind her.
“How about that?” he exclaimed. “That is awesome.”
He took a moment to absorb the scene. “The first calf born in 130 years,” he said. “We’re the first to see it. I’ve got to send a text.”
Baldes is the second generation of his family that’s worked to restore buffalo, as tribal members call Bison bison, to the reservation. His father, Richard, began talking about and working toward buffalo restoration in the 1970s.
As bison representative for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in its dealings with outside agencies, Jason Baldes was touring the fenced 300 acre pasture where the 10 buffalo roam just that morning, wondering when the first native calf would arrive. The Shoshone accomplished the Boy-Zhan Bi-Den (buffalo return) movement with the National Wildlife Federation, among others.
After texting the news to colleagues, Jason Baldes watched the herd walk up to the mother and calf, which had been born overnight. They’re going to meet it, he said as the herd mingled around the frisky newborn.
Slowly, Baldes walked toward the herd, crossing a shallow gully to a knob until he stood about 200 yards from the bunch. The other nine bison saw him coming and formed a protective line between Baldes and the pair.
“Thunder,” a big bull known to stand ahead, was in front. It is the same behavior musk ox exhibit when threatened, Baldes said.
Thunder strode forward even more. Baldes made a polite retreat and the matter was settled. Baldes left the pasture to tell his father.
“It couldn’t be a better day than to hear something like that,” Richard Baldes said at his home in Fort Washakie. “I don’t know how to explain how I feel.”
The cultural significance to the tribal members is large, said Garrit Voggesser, tribal partnerships director for the National Wildlife Federation. “The circle was completed with the return of buffalo in November,” he said in a statement. “With the birth of this calf, we recognize that the buffalo’s return wasn’t a finale, but the beginning of a new chapter in bison conservation for the tribes.” Arapaho share the reservation with the Shoshone.
The reservation designated the country’s first wilderness area in 1938, more than 20 years before the 1964 Wilderness act. Tribal members helped restore pronghorn antelope and developed plans to manage once-extirpated grizzly bears and wolves. Return of the bison is part of a larger desire to again see species that were once essential to Plains Indians.
“I can’t say enough how important this whole big picture is,” Richard Baldes said. “Why did it take so long?”