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Bringing Bison Back

Every once in a while there’s a day that touches you in an extraordinary way and reminds you that what we do matters. In March 2012, 71 new bison calves were released on the American Prairie Reserve (APR)—a WWF partner in the Northern Montana Prairie.

The young calves are descendents of the last bison that called this area home more than 100 years ago. With their release, these calves came home to a land they’ve never known, but a land to which they will bring new life. 

Celebrating the Circle

On March 8th, 30 of us met in an unassuming metal barn that was transformed to a place of celebration. In the group were members of the White Clay tribe from the Fort Belknap reservation, WWF and APR staff, local ranchers, supporters and Marcia Pablo and her family.

More than 100 years ago, Marcia Pablo’s great great grandfather, Michel, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, was forced to sell his herd of more than 600 bison when the Flathead Reservation was opened to homesteaders.  The Canadian government was the only buyer and, over the course of six years, Michel transferred the bison by rail to Elk Island National Park near Edmonton, Alberta.

Joining Marcia on this day was her sister Marlene, cousin Leonard Gray, and two grandchildren—Michel Pablo’s seventh generation—who brought a ceremonial blanket. Presenting the blanket as a gift, Marcia said,  “The circle is a sacred symbol for us, and the circle is finally closed. The buffalo are home.”  

And then it was time for the main event.  We moved outside to the round corral where 71 young bison were waiting to join the APR herd. The corral was opened and the first gang charged out, then a few more, and a few more. With each group a woman from Fort Belknap honored them with a powerful, high whooping cry.

Then there was a long wait as the remaining animals were reluctant to leave the corral and return to the Montana prairie. We all stood silent. Eager. Anticipating the end to a wonderful day.  

Robe Walker, of the White Clay people, then turned and said, “Shall we sing them out?” A moment later Robe’s singing filled the big sky. An ancient song pulled the emotion from everyone’s hearts as it passed by Robe’s lips. It’s hard to describe how it felt, but it evoked all of the connection, pain, hope, longing, and joy of the buffalo’s return. There wasn’t a dry eye among us.  

As the last of new calves joined the herd they were quickly surrounded by mother bison. Welcomed. Safe.

The Meaning Behind the Northern Great Plains

The Northern Great Plains is a special place. The grass rolls on from your feet to the horizon. Spring rains bring prairie flowers. Migrating songbirds share space with black-footed ferrets, golden eagles, greater sage grouse, pronghorn antelope and elusive swift fox.

So often when I talk about the restoration of bison and the other species in the region, I focus on the science and their important ecological role.  We talk about how Lewis and Clark wrote about millions of bison roaming freely with bear, elk and pronghorn. But this day, I was reminded that what we do means so much more. Restoration goes far beyond the physical to the realm of the spiritual.

  • Bison in corral

    The bison wait in the corral before their release.

  • Michel Pablos

    Marcia Pablo and her grandchildren Conner and Kaelen Cross help open the corral to release the bison.

  • bison charge

    The first of the bison charge out of the corral.

  • White Clay tribe

    Robe Walker, a member of the White Clay tribe, sings as the last of the bison return to the prairie. Robe chose the song “It’s good to be young” in celebration of the young calves, and as a reminder to us to keep our hearts young as we grow old.

  • Bison release

    The last of the bison return to the prairie.

  • Bison

    71 bison were released to their ancestral home on the American Prairie Reserve.

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