Roaming once more: Bison to return to Montana reservation after 140 years

© Jim Urquhart
Bison descended from a herd relocated to Canada nearly a century-and-a-half ago are set to be welcomed back into to their ancestral lands in a Montana Indian reservation.

The animals are being moved to Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation from the Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. The relocation is the result of a 2014 treaty among 11 tribes in the US and Canada to reinstate bison in the wild in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains regions, according to AP.

Blackfeet tribal leaders are welcoming the 89 bison to roam the 4,000 square miles of their ancestral lands as a symbol of their traditions.

Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes told AP that the Blackfeet people want to see the animals return, since they were part of the tribe’s “spiritual being.” The Blackfeet people relied on the bison for food, clothing and shelter for thousands of years.

Tens of millions of bison had populated large swaths of North America before being hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century by European settlers.

Some bison still survive today, but are mostly raised in domesticated herds for the sale of their meat, and have interbred with cows. The animals that the Blackfeet are receiving are, however, free from cattle genes, and can trace their lineage back to bison that were captured on Blackfeet land 140 years ago.

The shipment of bison to Blackfeet lands is part of a larger push to restore genetically-pure bison to the reservations in Montana, and the state’s Sioux, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes are signatories the 2014 treaty.

Ranchers near their reservations, however, are opposed to the plans to reinstate the bison herds to the grasslands, concerned by the prospects of spreading disease and competing with cattle for grass. However, Elk Island bison are free from diseases associated with herds from Yellowstone National Park, the Canadian park’s superintendent Stephen Flemming told AP.

The Blackfeet will lend 20 of the new bison to California’s Oakland Zoo for an exhibition in the fall. Any offspring produced by the animals would be sent back to Montana.