The last time buffalo roamed the Wind River Indian Reservation was in 1885. On Nov. 3, 130 years since they’d last been seen in the wild, 10 bison returned.
“Once those hooves hit the ground, it was real,” said Jason Baldes, the Eastern Shoshone Buffalo Representative and executive director of the Wind River Advocacy Center. “It’s not just an animal, it’s not just a re-introduction. It’s much more than that. We see these animals as kin and when you have that kind of connection with an animal, it’s hard to describe. I don’t know how to say it other than it’s like a family member coming home you haven’t seen for years and years.”
The 10 genetically pure bison came from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa and were released on 300 acres surrounded by wildlife-friendly fences, said Garrit Voggesser, director of tribal partnerships with the National Wildlife Federation.
The small herd includes four calves, four yearlings, a 2-year-old female and a 3-year-old female.
The release of the animals marked the culmination of decades of work by the National Wildlife Federation and Eastern Shoshone Tribe.
In the 1850s more than 30 million buffalo roamed North America from present day New Mexico to Alaska. Humans nearly exterminated the animals and their population dropped to 100, Voggesser said. Voggesser and Baldes have talked for years about reintroducing buffalo to the area. The release of the animals Nov. 3 on the Wyoming reservation is part of a national effort to restore the animals to land where they once roamed. The National Wildlife Federation has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce bison throughout the United States and to help insure genetic diversity within the species, Voggesser said.
The push is ecological, but also cultural, reuniting native American tribes with the animals that played an important role in their ancestors’ lives. Bison from Yellowstone were released on the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservation in Montana in 2014.
“To Native Americans, the buffalo was central to our culture,” Baldes said.
Everything the people needed came from the animal – food, clothing, shelter. It also played an important role spiritually, he said.
“Bison restoration today means we are reconnecting with this animal that was vital to our survival,” he said. “It’s a cultural revitalization, as well as an ecological revitalization.”
The tribes on the Wind River Reservation have worked to create hunting regulations to conserve wildlife and restore moose, whitetail and mule deer, elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep populations to the area. The one animal still missing was the bison.
Buffalo are as contentious as they are charismatic. The bison brought to Wyoming were certified disease-free, but ranchers still worry about the spread of brucellosis to cattle, or bison competing for rangeland resources that livestock need. The buffalo returned to the reservation, but will remain in a 300-acre fenced area; the area could hold up to 30 bison, Voggesser said.
About 250 people, including members of various tribes and also area ranchers, came out to watch and celebrate as the animals ran from a small holding corral into their new home last week, Voggesser said.
The bison ran about 150 yards and then stopped, as though pausing for a planned photo-op with the Wind River Mountains in the distance, Voggesser said.
There were times when Baldes wasn’t sure he’d ever see bison standing on the reservation, but he believes the release of the animals is also just the start. When they paused, he said, he saw a glimmer of what he hopes he’ll see in the future. He’d like to grow the population and expand the range. He hopes maybe one day tribal members will even be able to use the animals as a food source again.
That is far down the road. What he’s focused on next is teaching people about the animals. The tribe is considering building a visitors’ center and Baldes envisions using the new bison range for ecotourism and to educate people about buffalo and about the Shoshone people.