HOME AGAIN: WCS and Blackfeet Nation Partner to Bring Buffalo Back to Their Original Homeland

Historic bison translocation brings 88 Animals from Elk Island National Park, Canada to Blackfeet Reservation in Montana

Oakland Zoo to be new home of 20 “Pablo-Allard” herd descendants  

WCS, which runs the Bronx Zoo, has been involved in bison conservation for more than a century

BROWNING, MT (April 5, 2016) – The Blackfeet Nation,  Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada (Elk Island), the Oakland Zoo and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) announced today that 88 plains bison have been transferred from Elk Island to the reservation of the Blackfeet Nation near Browning, Montana. This historic event cannot be overstated in its significance to the Blackfeet people and all tribes and First Nations in their quest to restore bison to native lands and re-establish ties to this cultural icon.

The bison calves transferred are descended from those captured on Blackfeet land in 1873 that became the noted “Pablo-Allard” herd.

“Today marks the long-awaited return of these buffalo to their original homeland,” said Ervin Carlson, Bison Program Director and President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council. “The Elk Island Buffalo originated from Blackfeet territory and their homecoming enhances the restoration of Blackfeet culture. These animals are culturally and spiritually connected to our people and I believe their homecoming will begin a healing of historical trauma to the Blackfeet people. These buffalo will begin the longstanding efforts to restore buffalo to their historical mountain front rangelands.” 

“This project has tremendous ecological, economic and cultural impacts to the Blackfeet Nation,” said Keith Aune, WCS Senior Conservationist. “It has been a great model of international cooperation and the melding of people from different cultures. We have been planning for this day for five years and are excited to see them finally come home. There is a lot of work to do yet to grow the herd and eventually place these bison on large landscapes along the mountains in the Blackfeet Reservation.”

Elk Island is a national park in Canada that has made lasting contributions to wildlife conservation for over a century. Biennially, Elk Island evaluates its bison herd to determine the number of animals they can keep without exceeding the capacity of the park. In late 2015, the Blackfeet Nation and WCS began a dialogue with Elk Island managers about repatriating some of their bison to the Blackfeet Reservation. The 88 transferred animals were considered surplus. In February, all the bison were tested according to federal regulatory requirements and found to be free of tuberculosis and brucellosis. Following a further 60-day quarantine, the bison were ready to be sent to their ancestral homeland.

“As a leader in conservation, Parks Canada recognizes the role of Indigenous Peoples in conserving, restoring, and presenting natural and cultural heritage and is honored to play a role in this special initiative,” said Stephen Flemming, Superintendent of Elk Island National Park.  "In providing plains bison to the Montana Blackfeet Nation Bison Reserve, we are contributing to the global survival and wellbeing of an iconic and majestic animal."

The calves were transported to the reservation by truck on April 4.th A stop was made during the six-hour journey for ceremonial blessings given by the tribe. Upon arrival, the bison were unloaded at the 9000-acre Buffalo Calf Winter Camp on the Two Medicine River in Montana. Here, they will be kept for another 30-day quarantine and retested to ensure they are disease-free. This herd will form the source stock for future restoration efforts on larger landscapes along the Rocky Mountains once final land arrangements are completed.

“The Blackfeet People were a buffalo people for thousands of years,“ said Harry Barnes, Chair of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “The buffalo provided everything the people needed in the way of food, clothing, and shelter. It provided for so much of our physical needs that it filled our spiritual needs. It connected us to our animal and plant relatives in a way nothing else could provide. The elders have long believed that until the buffalo returned, the Blackfeet would drift. We have started the return.”

Buffalo to Roam at Oakland Zoo

While all the bison will initially be brought to Blackfeet land, approximately 16-17 females and 3-4 males will be moved to Oakland Zoo this fall as part of the zoo’s ‘California Trail’ expansion. The project, more than doubling the zoo’s size, will consist of 56 acres and exhibit several animal species native to California, including the iconic bison. The newly arrived bison will be allowed to breed naturally, and each year the yearling offspring will be returned to the tribal lands in Montana.

Both the Oakland Zoo and Blackfeet Nation will share in educational programs and support each other’s interest in promoting bison conservation and culture preservation.  This mutual relationship will include youth exchange for education, fundraising for projects, and promotion of eco-tourism programs.

President and CEO of the Oakland Zoo Dr. Joel Parrott said, “We are excited to be part of the Iinnii Initiative, to bring bison back to historic tribal lands and to provide the opportunity for buffalo to be free-ranging wildlife. This is a great opportunity for the Oakland Zoo to support conservation in the field, provide education programs about bison to our youth, and to expose the people of Northern California to the Blackfeet Nation effort to return buffalo to Blackfeet land.”

Zoos have played a key role in bison conservation; WCS’s Bronx Zoo was pivotal in restoring bison to the Great Plains more than 100 years ago.

Iinnii Initiative

The bison continues to sustain and provide cultural value to Native Americans and Indian tribes. More than 60 tribes are working to restore bison to over 1,000,000 acres of Indian lands in South Dakota, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Montana, and other states. Today, bison remain integrally linked with the spiritual lives of Native Americans through cultural practices, social ceremonies and religious rituals.

Leroy Littlebear said, “Two decades ago… a decade ago, who would have thought that the Buffalo would be coming back to its rightful home? Our Elders told us that its numbers may be few but the spirit of the Buffalo never left Blackfoot Territory. That spirit continues to manifest itself in our songs, stories, and ceremonies, so much so that a treaty between First Nations on both sides of the Canada – USA border was signed on September 23, 2014 called “The Buffalo Treaty: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal, and Restoration.” The Iinnii Initiative, a major proponent behind the Treaty, is realizing its dream unfold through this transfer of buffalo from Elk Island National Park to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. It is a good day for the Buffalo; it is a good day for us, and it is a good day for Blackfoot Territory.”

Beginning in May 2010, WCS invited members of the Blackfeet Confederacy to a series of transboundary dialogues among elders and tribal members—resulting in the Iinnii Initiative vision. The vision is to ecologically restore bison (or “Iinnii” in the language of the Blackfeet) to key lands adjacent to Glacier and Waterton National Parks in Montana and Alberta.