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Groundbreaking Program Transfers Female Yellowstone Bison to Grow Herds

The Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana has its own cultural herd of 350 animals on 15,000 acres. (Chamois Andersen/Defenders of Wildlife)
The Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana has its own cultural herd of 350 animals on 15,000 acres. (Chamois Andersen/Defenders of Wildlife)
December 26, 2019

FORT PECK INDIAN RESERVATION, Mont. - Thirty million bison once roamed the American West. Now, only 21,000 remain that are managed as wildlife.

But this week, for the first time, female bison are being transferred out of Yellowstone National Park in a new program to build other herds.

The animals will be retested for disease before release. Chamois Andersen, senior representative for the Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains Program, says the bison in Yellowstone are highly prized as direct descendants of the original herds.

"Yellowstone bison are of high genetics in terms of the wildest herd," says Andersen. "And any entity right now on the plains that has a wild herd of bison wants Yellowstone bison."

On Tuesday, 14 cow-calf pairs were taken from Yellowstone to be retested for brucellosis, a disease that affects cattle, at a state-of-the-art veterinary facility built by the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

The females then will be released to herds in places that could benefit, such as the Fort Peck, Fort Belknap and Blackfeet Indian Reservations in Montana; the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming; and Wind Cave and Badlands national parks in South Dakota.

Bison were hunted almost to extinction in the late 1800s, and some of that was an effort by settlers to deprive native American tribes of their main food source and drive them off their lands. Andersen says these magnificent creatures - our national mammal - are an important part of Western heritage.

"We will nowhere see the 30 million wild bison on the plains like Lewis and Clark did back in the early 1800s," says Andersen. "But if we can build these herds, we're doing everything we can to bring it back."

Bison also are considered a crucial part of the plains ecosystem, as they spread the native grasses with their hooves and their wool and have a symbiotic relationship with other species.

Disclosure: Defenders of Wildlife contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - MT