A Native American tribal organization is shipping 40 Yellowstone buffalo to new lands this month in a first-of-its-kind set of transfers aimed at saving bison from slaughter and sustaining bison herds around the country.
The InterTribal Buffalo Council is sending the bison to 16 native tribes across 19 states. The relocations are the result of decades-long efforts begun in 1992, when conflict surrounding the growing Yellowstone bison population began escalating between the National Park Service, state of Montana and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The transfers are a victory of Native American tribes, which represents the culmination of nearly 30 years of advocacy by ITBC (formerly the InterTribal Bison Cooperative) on behalf of its Member Tribes to prevent the needless slaughter of Yellowstone buffalo,” the organization said in an Aug. 6 press release.
Since the early ‘90s, more than 10,000 Yellowstone bison have been captured and slaughtered or shot as they wandered beyond Yellowstone National Park boundaries, due to concerns they could spread the disease brucellosis to cattle. The controversial federal and state policies have been particularly troubling for Native American tribes working to restore the species across the U.S.
Also called North American buffalo, bison once numbered in the tens of millions across the plains but were brought to near extinction in the 1800s when U.S. Army policies supported killing them en masse. They now number in the tens of thousands on tribal lands, according to the council, whose membership includes 69 federally recognized Native American tribes.
Yellowstone bison represent the only population to have survived in their traditional grounds since prehistoric times, making them significant historically, culturally and genetically.
“These transfers will help develop and sustain Tribally-managed buffalo herds while preserving the unique genetics and lineage of the largest and continuously free-roaming buffalo herd,” council members said in the release.
The relocations have been a long time coming. In 1994, the ITBC presented a quarantine proposal to Yellowstone National Park, with two tribes offering land and resources for quarantine facilities. Quarantining the bison has been well-supported by the public throughout the last 25 years, but it did not come to fruition until 2018, when the quarantine facility in Montana built by the Fort Peck Tribe was approved for use in post-quarantine assurance testing, according to the press release.
The 40 bison being transferred to other states have been through the quarantine program, which begins with capturing bison along Yellowstone’s boundary during the winter. Those that test negative for brucellosis may enter a quarantine protocol, which varies by age and sex. After a final negative test result, they are declared brucellosis-free by the state of Montana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and cleared for travel.
The buffalo managed by Yellowstone National Park have never been interbred with cattle and will be important to increase the long-term health of many herd populations across tribal lands, the council said.
”To reestablish healthy buffalo populations on Tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people,” the council wrote. “Returning buffalo to Tribal lands will help to heal the land, the animal, and the spirit of Indian people.”