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Buffalo Restoration Key to Wildlife Economy, Tribal Health

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Monday, November 7, 2022   

By Jake Bullinger for Bitterroot Magazine.
Broadcast version by Eric Galatas for Wyoming News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration

Anybody who's been to Wyoming has seen the likeness of rodeo cowboy Guy Holt. In 1903, Holt was photographed riding a bronc named Steamboat at the Albany County Fair, and a silhouette of the image has become the Cowboy State's ubiquitous symbol of, well, cowboyness. The bucking horse adorns University of Wyoming athletics uniforms, the state's license plate, tourism materials, and virtually every article of paraphernalia one can purchase at a roadside gas station.

The Wyoming Cowboy, though, is and always has been a marketing tool more than a symbol of the state's economic engine. Boosters brag there are more than twice as many cattle as people in Wyoming, but you'd find more cows in Kentucky or Arkansas. If the UW mascot were to more accurately depict the state's agricultural prowess, it'd be a sheepherder or a sugarbeet farmer. Tourists and minerals are more important to the state's economy than are cattle.

Another animal prominent in Wyoming imagery, however, did indeed prop up societies. Bison, sentinel of the state flag, once served as the backbone of Western ecology and economy. Their migration patterns facilitated food and habitat for hundreds of species - pronghorn and prairie dogs, ferruginous hawks and ferrets. Wallows, depressions created when bison roll on the ground, serve as micro-habitats even where bison have been gone for over a century. A large herd's grazing coaxes new vegetative growth across entire landscapes, a natural phenomenon that mimics the onset of spring.

Since there used to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million of them in North America, the animals constituted what bison expert Jason Baldes calls the "wildlife economy" of Plains Native American tribes. On a humid late-July day, Baldes and his wife, Patti, explained the wildlife economy to me as we visited a herd of 34 buffalo, as bison are also known, in the Wind River Indian Reservation of central Wyoming. Baldes is a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, and bringing buffalo to tribal land is his personal and professional mission. In 2016, he orchestrated the return of 10 buffalo to the reservation. The animals released that November were the first to set foot on this stunning swath of Wyoming prairie in more than 130 years.

At one point, a bull blocked our path, and Baldes stopped his truck to espouse the walking warehouse in front of us. "Everything was made from that animal," he said. "The buffalo stomach is a container you would use to hold water; put hot rocks in, and it would boil. The hooves, you'd boil down to make glue. Needles, awls, the thread from sinew. The bladder was a water pouch. Horns for cups and combs. Shields made from the neck of a buffalo were an inch thick; they were said to ricochet bullets." Plains people would sleep in buffalo-hide shelters under buffalo robes wearing buffalo moccasins. Patti and Jason once slept under a robe in minus-17 degree weather; their eyebrows frosted over, but they stayed toasty.

The Wind River reservation is also occupied by the Northern Arapaho Tribe, which has 10 bison of its own. These small collections are mere fragments of the enormous herds that, researchers say, made the Shoshone, Arapaho, and other Plains tribes some of the healthiest and wealthiest people in the world. Most of those buffalo, of course, are gone. A century of over-hunting that accompanied the United States' westward expansion left just 325 wild bison by 1884. There are about 500,000 bison in North America today, but the vast majority of those have cattle genes in their DNA.

Fledgling herds like those in Wind River, though, represent one of the greatest active conservation efforts in the United States: the return of bison to Native American nations. Increasingly sophisticated collaborations between federal agencies, nonprofit conservation groups, and members of the InterTribal Buffalo Council have facilitated the placement of about 20,000 bison on American Indian reservations around the country. Tribes are selling bison meat and hunts, feeding members a traditional food in times of need, and rekindling long-lost cultural practices.

Some tribes now have hundreds of buffalo, but nowhere, Baldes says, matches the bison potential of Wind River. If he and his allies can navigate contentious intertribal politics, the Shoshone and Arapaho herds will merge and be managed as free-roaming wildlife, just like elk, deer, and pronghorn. Within a few years, Baldes hopes to move the buffalo to 70,000 acres of sagebrush prairie that could support at least 1,000 bison. But that's just a fraction of the reservation's total habitat. Analyses by Baldes and his colleagues at the National Wildlife Federation have concluded that Wind River has more than 1 million acres of suitable buffalo habitat - an area comparable to Yellowstone National Park, where more than 4,000 bison roam freely.

At the Shoshone bison pasture, we rattled down a two-track until we pulled up next to a group of about 20 buffalo, and Baldes killed the engine. After years of observation, he has come to draw parallels between our two social species. "I'm surprised a little every time I see them," he said. "Their mannerisms and demeanor with one another, how they watch out for one another - I can see why our people modeled our own communities and societies after the way they behave."

After a few minutes, the buffalo ambled our way and surrounded the truck, close enough to smell. Patti and Jason, normally chatterboxes, fell silent. "Look at his eyes," Jason whispered as one bull approached. Patti, an avid photographer, had her camera going nonstop.

The blue sky above us was framed to the west by the Wind River range, Wyoming's highest, and the Owl Creek Mountains to the north. In a valley below our sagebrush mesa, the Wind River meandered past, its lapels thick with cottonwoods. We were among a few dozen buffalo in a 300-acre, fenced-in pasture; this was by no means wilderness. But when the buffalo closed in on us, it provided the illusion of density. Amid this simulacrum of the great herds that once filled the plains, Baldes' plan to rebuild a portion of the West's wildlife economy didn't seem so far-fetched.

Around the time European immigrants were concocting the earliest notions of the United States, the Eastern Shoshone people sat atop the North American economy. Connections with Ute and Comanche traders gave Shoshones early access to the horse, which, by the mid-1700s, led to unprecedented power over the northern Great Plains.

"I've argued that they were an empire in their own right, in terms of the sheer amount of power horses gave them," said Lourdes University historian Adam Hodge, who authored an environmental history of the Eastern Shoshone. Horses gave Shoshones a tremendous military advantage, and with that came the ability to utilize the greatest natural resource of the time: the Plains' enormous bison herds.

Millions of bison - estimates range from 20 million to 70 million - had long sustained Plains people, but even a seemingly unlimited resource is tricky to harness when it's migratory. Hunters on foot could chase buffalo only so far before they were hindered by access to water. Horses changed that, and within decades of acquiring them, Shoshones ventured to prime buffalo fields across much of the Northern Plains, Hodge said. In modern times, their hunting grounds would've stretched from Saskatoon to Denver, and east to the Black Hills.

Shoshones also operated one of the continent's key trading posts. Long before the mountain man Jim Bridger held rendezvous at his eponymous fort in southwestern Wyoming (Bridger twice married Shoshone women, including a daughter of the famous Chief Washakie), Shoshones had for generations been summering and trading in the same area. Here, the Pacific met the Plains. Nez Perce and Bannock traders would bring dried salmon, camas bulbs, and shells from the Northwest and Columbia Plateau, while the sheepeater bands of Shoshone would supply ram-horn bows and obsidian from the Yellowstone region. Sheep and squash were brought from Southwest tribes, as were those first Spanish horses from Pueblo people.

In the mid-1800s, a cocktail of economic, military, and political actions by the United States - all driven by the racism of Manifest Destiny - resulted in one of the greatest ecological and economic catastrophes in human history and ended the dominance of bison societies. The Civil War, the Homestead Act, and construction of the transcontinental railroad coupled emancipation with westward expansion. Generals whose colleagues were fighting to abolish slavery underwent a parallel campaign to force Native Americans onto reservations and open up land for settlers.

Methods of doing so were brutal. The U.S. military sometimes conducted outright massacres, such as when a California infantry launched a winter attack on a Shoshone and Bannock village in modern-day Idaho. The official death toll of the 1863 Bear River Massacre, as reported by Col. Patrick Conner, was 224, but other accounts say as many as 500 people were killed. Indian suppression also took the form of starvation campaigns. On the Great Plains, this "scorched earth" policy meant wanton killing of bison.

"The government realized that as long as this food source was there, as long as this key cultural element was there, it would have difficulty getting Indians onto reservations," University of Montana anthropology professor S. Neyooxet Greymorning told Indian Country Today. Soldiers alone couldn't kill millions of buffalo, but they could facilitate extensive market and recreational bison hunts. Demand for buffalo robes and bison leather, used for mechanical belts in the early days of the industrial revolution, meant bison were driven nearly to extinction by 1884. Some northern tribes lost their supply of bison in just a decade.

"Imagine a resource that was extraordinarily plentiful, that was multipurpose, that really formed the foundation of most economic production, trade, and activity for some nations. And then to have that resource entirely decimated within a 10-year period ... it's obviously disastrous," said University of Victoria economist Donna Feir, who has studied the economic impacts of the bison slaughter. She compared the impact to modern Texas: "Take all the oil resources out of Texas in a 10-year period, then tell people they can't move and they all have to become farmers."

In a 2018 working paper, Feir and her colleagues lay out the evidence that Plains tribes were among the wealthiest people in the world before the bison slaughter. "Within less than two decades," after buffalo killing began in earnest, they wrote, "the economic and social core of the great bison nations was gone. By the early 1880s, there were no bison, little game, and inadequate or non-existent government food supplies. ... Communities resorted to eating horses, mules, soiled food, and old clothing to prevent starvation." With no ability to leave reservations, obtain capital, or vote for decades, bison-dependent societies languished. Today, Feir's team found, they have lower per-capita incomes and health outcomes than other Native American tribes.

As the bison were being decimated, Native Americans took critical steps to save the species from extinction. Sometime in the late 1870s, chiefs of the Pend d'Oreille tribe told a hunter, Little Falcon Robe, to round up some buffalo calves and bring them back to the Flathead Reservation. Those bison ended up in the hands of Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, a pair of ranchers on the reservation.

Allard's bison were sold when he died in 1896; some of them ended up in Yellowstone National Park. When the federal government opened up the Flathead Reservation to white settlement, Pablo sold about 700 buffalo to the Canadian government, in 1907. Just a year later, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside a swath of the West for a buffalo refuge. In a truly American twist, the refuge was established within the Flathead Reservation, and populated with buffalo from the displaced Pablo-Allard herd. Thus, the National Bison Range - one of the few populations of genetically pure bison left - consists of buffalo saved and reared by Native Americans on land the federal government seized from them.

Stand atop a peak in the Owl Creek Mountains, and the Wind River Reservation unfurls to the southwest like a tapestry of the region's iconic landscapes. One can see the Wind River, Washakie, and Absaroka ranges from this 10,000-foot perch; the Tetons are visible on the clearest days. Mosaics of alpine timber and bunchgrass plains spread beneath the craggy peaks. As the slopes ease, subalpine grassland gives way to sagebrush steppe. The Wind River and its tributaries sluice these plateaus, revealing iron-rich sandstone, red with a southern Utah flair. To descend the 8,000 vertical feet between the reservation's highest point, in the Wind Rivers, to the valley floor is to span glaciated wilderness (Wind River is home to the nation's first designated roadless area) and end up in one of Wyoming's milder climates, which the Eastern Shoshones dubbed Yooah Dyn, or Warm Valley.

The Wind River Valley was one of the last buffalo strongholds in the West, which made it contentious ground. Despite the Shoshone's long-standing presence in the Wind River Valley, the U.S. signed away the region to the Crow tribe in the 1851 treaty of Fort Laramie, shortly after a Crow incursion into Shoshone buffalo hunting grounds. The Crow's reign ended with a bit of Old West diplomacy: Shoshone Chief Washakie and Crow Chief Big Robber met atop a mesa for a one-on-one fight to the death. Washakie prevailed, and cut out Big Robber's heart atop what became known as Crowheart Butte. Washakie would later sign a treaty establishing the Shoshone Reservation in the valley.

The same treaty that granted the Wind River Valley to the Crows reserved much of eastern Colorado for Cheyenne and Arapaho people. But when gold was discovered in Colorado in 1859, the Arapaho reservation failed to materialize. For nearly 20 years, northern bands of Arapaho wandered the West without a formal home. At various times, it seemed they'd end up in Montana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Finally, in 1878, the U.S. Army escorted about 950 Arapaho people to Fort Washakie on the Shoshone Reservation. Arapaho people lived on the reservation for another 50 years before a Supreme Court ruling granted them title to reservation land and formally created the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Washakie wasn't the last Wind River Native American to fight for the bison. In the late 2000s, Northern Arapaho tribal member J.T. Trosper secured bison from Yellowstone National Park, and had reservation land set aside for them. Everything was in place to form a bison herd - until tribal members voted down the proposal in April 2009. "We were about four or five days away from [the buffalo] actually being here," Trosper told the Casper Star-Tribune in 2010. "I wasn't worried about it. ... I guess I should have been."

That same year, though, Wind River buffalo received a lifeline. At a forum of the Eastern Shoshone General Council - a gathering of the tribe's voting-age members - a motion for the tribe to form its own buffalo herd was introduced. Lynette St. Clair, an educator on the reservation, seconded the motion. "Overwhelmingly, membership of the tribe voted to reintroduce the bison," St. Clair told me. "People felt it was way beyond time for the buffalo to be returned back to the reservation. ... Everybody had a voice in something that was historic, and very spiritual for our tribe. It was democracy at its finest."

The tribe later named Jason Baldes its bison representative. In bringing buffalo back to Wind River, Jason was piggybacking on the work of his father, Richard, who as a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist helped restore wild game on the reservation in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite its phenomenal habitat, unregulated hunting had virtually decimated elk, deer, pronghorn, and moose populations by the time Richard Baldes arrived at the USFWS's Lander field office in the 1970s. Richard and his colleagues proposed hunting restrictions and received severe blowback. Baldes would receive anonymous threats on the phone, and once found his camper trailer littered with bullet holes.

In 1984, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in a first-of-its-kind decision, implemented hunting restrictions in Wind River. Four years later - after two appeals by the Northern Arapaho Tribe were rejected by federal judges - the tribes agreed to jointly manage game on the reservation. Richard led successful transplants of pronghorn and bighorn sheep. Game populations have grown substantially on the reservation since 1982, and tribal members can hunt every ungulate species.

"It worked fast," Richard told me in his home near Fort Washakie. "I told Jason back then, once we start transplanting these antelope, we're going to be hunting them within 10 years - we have the best habitat in the world. We were hunting within eight."

"Yeah," Patti chimed in from the kitchen. "Now they're eating out of our garden."

Richard was unable, though, to bring bison back to the reservation - that task would fall to his son. Jason, in addition to being the tribe's bison representative, serves as the tribal bison coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, and is a regional director for the InterTribal Buffalo Council. These two organizations teamed up with the USFWS to coordinate the transfer of genetically-pure bison from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Some $230,000 in costs were covered by the NWF.

Some 250 people watched 10 buffalo return to the Wind River Reservation on November 3, 2016. St. Clair, instrumental in their return, visited the herd later. "My husband and I went out and privately welcomed them back," she said. "It's a homecoming for them. It's very personal. Because of that strong connection that we share with them - they're our brothers and relatives. To welcome them back is to welcome them home."

Recalling that day, Richard said it paralleled his own work to re-introduce pronghorn some 30 years earlier. "Some of the elders [at the buffalo release] said, 'Well, when are we going to take the fence down and let them do their thing?'" He grew animated: "That's the goal. That's the big picture. That's what we're looking for. What are we waiting for? We have buffalo we can get right now. ... We have hundreds of thousands of acres in the Wind Rivers. Hundreds of thousands of acres in the Owl Creeks. We have better habitat for buffalo than Yellowstone National Park. We have it all. Why aren't there more buffalo, and why aren't we turning them loose?"

The answer, just as it was for the Arapahoes in 2009, is cattle. Across the West, efforts to expand the number and range of wild bison have been vociferously fought by ranchers and cattlemen's associations fearing the spread of brucellosis, an infectious disease found in bison that causes cattle to spontaneously abort. The worry is stronger than the science; brucellosis, after all, was introduced by cattle, and there has never been a documented bison-to-cow transmission of the disease. Elk also carry brucellosis, but ranchers treat them more as a nuisance, not an existential threat to their livelihoods and culture as they do bison.

Fear of brucellosis makes bison conservation as much a diplomatic exercise as an ecological one. Managing Wind River buffalo as wildlife, as Baldes wants to, will require both tribes to sign off on a game management plan. That issue is even more acute for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, which owns the 595,000-acre Arapaho Ranch, one of the largest cattle operations in the country. As to buffalo, "I'm out of touch as far as that goes," Arapaho Ranch manager Ransom Logan told Wyoming Public Media's Savannah Maher. "'Cause we can say that this is where we came from, but we can't say that this is how we lived. 'Cause I've never lived off of buffalo."

That doesn't mean there isn't support among Arapahoes for bison. Last year, the tribe's Treaty and Historical Preservation Office established its herd of 10 bison donated from the National Bison Range. Clarinda Calling Thunder, a member of the tribe's Business Council and herself a rancher, supports bison on the reservation. When we spoke, she chuckled at the notion bison spread brucellosis to cattle, and said Baldes' plan for managing buffalo as wildlife is a sensible idea. The stars would have to align, though, for both councils to support it, as members serve just two-year terms.

Baldes, meanwhile, has written up a game management plan for buffalo, and the NWF's Tribal Partnerships Program has committed to funding the herd's management. Nonetheless, Baldes is awaiting responses from both councils. "We have the habitat, and we can get the buffalo," Baldes said. "It's politics that's the issue."

The most recent expansion of the Eastern Shoshone herd was a historic one. In 2019, five bulls were delivered from the Fort Peck Reservation, in northeast Montana. Those buffalo originated in Yellowstone, and in earlier years likely would have been slaughtered to maintain the park's carrying capacity. But these bulls were quarantined for a time at Fort Peck. Once the bulls were deemed brucellosis-free, the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes sent them to Wind River, marking the first intertribal transfer of bison in the modern era. In 2020, another 40 bulls were shipped out of Fort Peck to various reservations.

Such transfers are organized by member nations of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, an organization of 69 tribes bent on returning buffalo to Indian Country. The group was formed in 1992, and has helped coordinate the relocation of some 20,000 head of bison to Native land across the United States. Funded by membership fees and appropriations from the Department of the Interior, the ITBC works with tribes and federal agencies to assess the suitability of bison habitat on tribal lands, and then acquire excess bison from federal or tribal herds. It also lobbies for legislation that would fund bison conservation on tribal land.

Some tribes, such as the Eastern Shoshone, have goals of establishing conservation herds that roam across thousands of acres, while others with smaller land bases just want a few animals to provide food for tribal members. The ITBC helps tribes establish programs at any scale - so long as they're seeking out genetically pure bison. Beyond that, the group doesn't favor a management regime.

"ITBC is really insistent on protecting the idea that all buffalo are wild," Megan Davenport, a wildlife biologist with the ITBC, told me. "A lot of people say, well if we're eating them or producing them for agricultural purposes, then we're not considering them wild any more. But that's just not how most of the ITBC membership sees it. The human interaction has been there for thousands of years."

These programs have grown increasingly sophisticated. Earlier this year, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's economic development arm announced a partnership with Interior and the World Wildlife Fund to build up a herd of 1,500 bison on 28,000 acres of the South Dakota reservation. If realized, it would be the largest buffalo herd on tribal land in the country. Fort Peck now has about 400 bison on 15,000 acres. On the Fort Belknap Reservation in central Montana, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes manage both a commercial herd of about 600 animals as well as a separate herd of quarantined Yellowstone bison.

"We wanted to bring the animal back for cultural purposes - to provide robes, and meat, and skulls for sun dances," said Mike Fox, a Gros Ventre tribal member and one of the founders of the ITBC. "We still use buffalo for those purposes, but also to help out our economy."

To ITBC members, the work not only addresses sovereignty over tribal land and food, but also the mending of a cultural wound. "Interaction with the buffalo, it goes back thousands of years," said Arnell Abold, an Oglala Lakota member and the ITBC's executive director. "To us, they are our ancestors. We grew together, and took care of each other. The whole purpose of ITBC ... was not only to bring buffalo back to the tribes, but to also bring a healing across the nation."

In 1997, when Jason was 18, he and Richard traveled to Africa and made a circuit of the Serengeti region's national parks and preserves. "One of the most memorable experiences with my dad was when we were in Serengeti [National Park], and we drove for over 100 miles on dirt roads like this, and as far as you could see in every direction was wildebeest," Jason told me as we rattled down back roads on the reservation. "That was incredible. And that's less than 5 percent what the buffalo was here less than 200 years ago." Upon his return from Africa, Jason dedicated himself to bison conservation and learning more about his Shoshone lineage. I wanted to know why - after all, many people learn about the collapse of bison or salmon or any number of other species, yet continue on with their day-to-day lives.

"You get to the nitty gritty of why they were eliminated," Jason said of buffalo. "It was a direct assault on my people, on Native American buffalo people. And it was in the name of Manifest Destiny, in the name of expansion of settlers into our territories ... that's unjust. It's a violation. It's a crime."

The restoration of bison to places like Wind River isn't conservation in the traditional sense. The subjugation of Indian nations and decimation of bison went hand-in-hand, which means buffalo returning to tribal land has an inherent element of societal renewal. "My whole intent was restoration," Rick Williams, a founder of the ITBC, told me. "I believed that we were not going to be able to restore ourselves as people of the plains unless we were able to create a contemporary relationship with the buffalo."

Buffalo advocates I spoke with operate with sovereignty - of government, food, and culture - in mind, and they have a keen sense of the generational impact of their work. I saw that in Richard Baldes, who teared up as he considered his son's buffalo work. St. Clair, who is the Indian education coordinator at Fort Washakie School and a Shoshone language teacher, told me that buffalo are intertwined with any effort to pass language and culture to the next generation. To Crystal C'Bearing, director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office, buffalo could supplant cattle on the reservation and re-establish a food source that harkens back to a time before Native Americans suffered disproportionately from diabetes, heart disease, and substance abuse.

"We're forced to do away with our traditions, do away with our language. That's the problem with white supremacy," Devin Oldman, a central figure in establishing the Northern Arapaho herd, told me. "And the biggest middle finger I could give to white supremacy is bringing bison back. I did it for my kids, for my children's children. What are they going to have when they come into this world?"

During my visit, Patti, who is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, spoke often of the therapeutic effects buffalo have on her. "I truly met a part of myself when the buffalo came back that I didn't know was there," she said at one point. "You feel like you're whole ... this being, it introduced me to a part of me that's tough and strong. That's how buffalo are."

As we drove around the reservation, Jason would sarcastically mock cattle we came across in unfenced areas. "There's no room for buffalo," he'd joke, "but there are cows everywhere. Fourteen-thousand feral horses on the reservation, but we can't have 1,000 buffalo."

Patti saw things a bit differently. "It all feels possible to me now," she said. "I see buffalo everywhere. When I see cows, I can picture them as buffalo."

Jake Bullinger wrote this article for Bitterroot Magazine.

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