Drive west along U.S. Highway 2 from the town of Browning towards East Glacier and your eyes are summoned upwards towards one of the most remarkable vistas in the United States. In front of you rise the piercing peaks and fractured walls of the Rocky Mountain Front. The swift transition from rolling grassland to near-vertical rock offers the visual equivalent of a rebuke to the plains….“That’s it, flatlands. You’re done.”
Arrayed in a line from north to south, Glacier National Park, the Badger-Two Medicine Traditional Cultural District, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness each testify to a landscape of uncommon beauty and rich cultural history. So entranced by the distant peaks might you become that it would be easy to miss the herd of brown ungulates grazing in a field to your left. Once you do notice them, you are quickly sucked into an equally spectacular landscape story.The Blackfeet people and the North American plains bison (Bison bison) have lives entwined so tightly that some accounts suggest the tribe are named after the bison’s dark feet and hooves. Hundreds of generations of Blackfeet have depended intimately on the bison for their well-being, using their hides for shelter, their meat as nourishment, and their hearts as sacks to carry supplies when moving camp. So close was the relationship between tribe and bison that when the U.S. army sought to rid the plains of Blackfeet to make room for white settlers, some generals declared that the most effective strategy would be to kill the bison in the certain knowledge that the tribe would die out soon after. General Sheridan suggested forging a medal for the best hunters that displayed a dead buffalo on one side and a discouraged Indian on the other. In the end, it was not federal policy but the destruction of the prairie for agriculture together with a voracious east coast market for hides and meat that killed off the bison. The eradication of close to fifty million of them from the great plains in less than half a century remains one of the most rapid and complete annihilations of life perpetrated on any continent at any time.
Luckily, a handful of bison survived the slaughter and, more than a century later, the Blackfeet Nation is at the forefront of a movement to bring free-roaming bison back to the plains. The animals you see from Highway 2, evocative as they are to look at, are not the bison at the center of this effort. That distinction lies with a herd of eighty-nine animals currently kept away from easy viewing on other reservation lands. These eighty-nine bison are descended directly from individuals that escaped the slaughter more than a century ago.
Purchased in the 1870’s from Blackfeet land by a half-Piegan Blackfeet, half-Mexican rancher named Michel Pablo, the ancestors of this herd were moved initially outside of the plains to Montana’s Flathead Valley and subsequently outside of the United States to Canada’s Elk Island National Park. In both places, freed from persecution, the bison multiplied rapidly. It is one of the most chastening facts about an animal that came so close to being wiped off the face of the earth. Left alone in the right conditions, their populations will do very well. Elk Island has room to support only about 450 bison. When the herd exceeds this limit, the park has to remove the excess bison to prevent the animals from starving. In 2016, a truckload of these surplus bison was sold to the Blackfeet. This purchase closed a hundred and forty year old circle when wild bison finally came back to the Blackfeet Nation on lands adjacent to the Rocky Mountain Front.
Unlike the herd visible from the highway, the bison that came from Elk Island have never been crossbred with cattle and are as genetically pure as any bison on the North American continent. Critically importantly from a political point of view, they are also certified to be disease-free. Restoring bison to any state in which cattle form a significant part of the economy is fraught with difficulty due to the perception that the bison will infect the cattle with diseases.
Due to the perceived threat to agricultural interests, bison are the only form of wildlife in the U.S. that are not actually allowed to behave as wildlife. The seasonal migrations written into their DNA are either forbidden or, in the case of Yellowstone bison, highly managed. The Blackfeet’s ambition is not a managed herd contained behind fences but a truly wild herd that will move with the seasons, up into the foothills when the weather is good and the vegetation plentiful, then back down to the plains as the temperature drops and winter approaches. This means these bison will need to leave reservation lands and migrate up into the public lands of the Badger-Two Medicine and Glacier National Park.
As far as their chances of achieving this goal, the bison currently in the care of the Blackfeet have several things going in their favor. They are genetically pure and certified to be disease-free. They are living under a tribal government that recently issued a proclamation declaring that bison restoration to the Badger-Two Medicine is a critical component of cultural restoration. Finally, these bison enjoy U.S. National Park and Forest Service neighbors who look like they are willing to support the plan. Step by careful step, Montana’s Blackfeet are moving ahead with their Iinnii Initiative, hoping soon to be “welcoming the Iiniiwa [buffalo spirit] home to again live among us as creator intended.”
There is a cultural element to the restoration of plains bison that makes this story unique. Nevertheless, the return of these buffalo sits alongside a growing number of other wildlife restoration stories that are reversing some of the destructive trends of the last century. Grizzly bears, peregrine falcons, black-footed ferrets, and bobcats in the U.S. Wolves, polecats, lynx, and jackals in Europe. Some startling wildlife success stories have been achieved as a result of regulations being changed, damaging cultural practices being moderated, and a constituency of motivated actors positioning themselves firmly behind the interests of the animals.
What is especially striking about these successes is that they are all happening after the arrival of the so-called “Anthropocene epoch,” the age in which the human fingerprint appears everywhere throughout the natural world. This new epoch had been leading some commentators to wonder whether Nature itself–with a capital ‘N’–has now gone extinct.
Not only is nature not extinct. With the right commitments, some of nature’s most charismatic species are grazing, crawling, and flying their way back onto the landscape (…..something I will be writing much more about in future posts). Wild nature remains very much alive.
This hopeful observation should not be mistaken as a declaration that there is nothing to worry about in wildlife conservation. There is plenty to worry about. Some estimates suggest that wildlife across the world has declined by nearly 60% over the last four decades. But what the restoration success stories do demonstrate is that there is nothing inevitable about this decline. It is a matter of choice and of will on our part.
Back on the Rocky Mountain front, a promising future lies ahead. At the same time, the Blackfeet Nation are giving the rest of the world a broader message about. Even after a century of terrible tragedy, it is still possible to create uplifting success.