SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - For the first time in nearly 140 years, the Indian tribes of northeastern Montana are preparing for the return of wild buffalo that are descended from herds that once thundered across the vast American West.
The Sioux and Assiniboine tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in coming months will claim dozens of buffalo originating from Yellowstone National Park, home to the last free-roaming, purebred bands of buffalo, or bison, in the United States.
On Monday, Montana wildlife officials plan to inspect 5,000 acres at Fort Peck that have been readied for the arrival of the native buffalo, which for centuries provided food, clothing and spiritual sustenance to American Indians.
The inspection marks a milestone in a years-long plan by federal, state and tribal managers of Yellowstone bison to give Native Americans in Montana custody of an assortment of bulls, cows and calves to cultivate new herds on tribal lands.
For American Indians, whose fortunes in the 19th century declined with eradication of the herds they depended on, the buffalo’s return symbolizes fresh hope for an ancient culture.
“It’s the beginning of a whole new chapter for the bison and for us. It brings us right back to where we were,” said Robert Magnan, head of Fort Peck’s fish and game department.
Systematic hunting of buffalo west of the Mississippi cut their numbers from tens of millions to the fewer than 50 animals that found refuge at Yellowstone in the early 20th century. That population has since grown to some 3,700 head.
Unlike other bison in the United States that exist in national parks and refuges and are commercially ranched, the Yellowstone herd has not been crossed with domestic cattle and has roots dating to prehistoric times.
The planned transfer of animals is expected in coming months at Fort Peck, where $250,000 has been spent on preparing pasture and 26 miles of fencing for several dozen buffalo.
Fort Peck is to be the first of several reservations in Montana to provide new homes where buffalo can safely roam.
The bison to be claimed by the tribes are part of a Yellowstone band the state quarantined in 2005 and culled for brucellosis, a disease that can cause cows to miscarry.
Brucellosis is one of several reasons Montana’s billion-dollar cattle industry supports killing most buffalo that wander from Yellowstone into Montana in search of food in the winter and objects to relocation of the iconic animals.
The return of buffalo to Indian tribes comes at a critical time for Yellowstone bison. Roughly 700 of the park’s herd have been corralled this year after attempting to embark on their historic winter migration into Montana.
Hundreds of the captive bison were slated for slaughter when Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer granted them a stay of execution in February.
A plan that took effect last month to let Yellowstone buffalo into designated parts of Montana without facing capture or slaughter has raised the ire of ranchers. Errol Rice, head of the state Stockgrowers Association, has called on bison managers to revoke the plan.
“We continue to be faced with an array of challenges because of bison, and our family ranchers must have a voice,” he said.
In a sign of growing dissension, two buffalo were illegally shot and killed in April outside Yellowstone’s north entrance near Gardiner, Montana.
Such conflicts will not prevent Montana from keeping its pledge to tribes, said Art Noonan, deputy director of the state’s wildlife and parks agency.
“Our intent is to get them bison,” he told Reuters.
Magnan said the time was right for tribes to step in.
“Bison took care of Native Americans for centuries and provided everything we needed — food, clothing, weapons and tools,” he said. “Now they’re in trouble, and it’s our turn to take care of them.”
Editing by Steve Gorman and Ellen Wulfhorst