Saving the Last Wild Bison

Thirty million bison reduced to just 1,000 - 99.997 percent of all bison perished -- a loss so great it staggered the imaginations of Americans in the 1880s. This near total annihilation of a native wildlife species left the Great Plains without wild bison for over 100 years. Saved from extinction through our country's first major conservation effort, its complete recovery and restoration to its former range remains elusive. This week, 139 healthy, genetically pure, wild bison will reclaim a small part of their historic home on the Great Plains when they arrive at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Northeast Montana on Nov. 13.

I was fortunate to witness the first historic transfer of Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck in 2012, when 61 bison were relocated there. I remember how the ground shook as the anxious bison poured out of the transport trailers. The Assiniboine and Sioux tribal members had assembled to welcome them home, and the deep meaning of the reunion of the bison and the Fort Peck Tribes was unmistakable. As the magnificent animals thundered past me, I felt a connection to the conservationists who had managed to save the bison from total extinction. Samuel Walking Coyote, one of the first on the Flathead Reservation, and later William Hornaday and Teddy Roosevelt who helped lead America's early conservation movement. I felt proud to be part of the present-day coalition extending the vision of these leaders.

This week's transfer of bison to Fort Peck ushers in yet another milestone for Montana's growing bison conservation legacy. The Fort Peck Tribes will now manage the largest conservation herd of Yellowstone bison in Montana, outside of Yellowstone. As the herds grow, the Fort Peck Tribes will be in a position to realize their goal of sharing bison with other tribes and conservation partners, hoping to start new conservation herds across the West. We now have not only a shared vision, but the means to realize bison restoration on a scale that works. That's a model that Defenders of Wildlife embraces and one we are proud to support.

Why did it take so many decades to begin restoring wild Yellowstone bison to the Great Plains? Because some of the bison within the Yellowstone population had contracted a bacterial disease from cattle called brucellosis, and wildlife officials feared a further spread of the disease if bison wandered beyond Park boundaries. Consequently, in 2005 Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) launched an experimental quarantine study using Yellowstone bison, with the goal of providing disease-free, genetically pure bison to start new conservation herds elsewhere in Montana.
And it worked.

These bison were quarantined for over five years and subjected to numerous phases of testing. Media executive and long-time conservationist Ted Turner volunteered to care for the bison throughout a legally required additional five-year surveillance period on his private ranch outside of Bozeman. Then finally, following vaccination in October, FWP announced that these bison could be safely relocated. Fort Peck prevailed over 50 other relocation applicants on the strength of their conservation commitment.

Our nation owes the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck a debt of gratitude for taking a leadership role in restoring these wild bison to the Great Plains. Now more than ever, it is our job to advocate for the establishment of new herds and expansion of existing herds of these iconic animals. We need to continue to show the world that wild bison deserve a place in our future as well as a home on the range.