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Welcoming The Bison Back To Their Land

New research has revealed that bison, also known as buffalo, are more than just an impressive symbol of the American West. Reintroducing these majestic creatures to their historic ranges can have a lasting positive effect on the environment.  

Bison’s grazing habits are known to increase plant diversity and suppress invasive species, while promoting native grass growth – providing much needed resources for wildlife like birds and insects. Even more impressively, bison revive soil health, which boosts resilience against droughts or other environmental changes. Essentially, it turns out that bringing back some old-fashioned buffalo power is nature’s way of protecting its own future. 

At 50 years old, Troy Heinert, a South Dakota state senator and director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, has a practical mission: to return bison – whether two animals or 200 – to tribes who seek them. Together these bison bring with them a deep history of cultural ties, food security and sovereignty reclaiming, in addition to a means for better land management. Already as of last fall, his organization alone has provided over 2,000 bison to 22 tribes, spanning 10 different states. 

Heinert is helping to repopulate bison on Native American lands by transferring bison from Badlands National Park to the Rosebud Indian Reservation. The bison being transferred are descendants of the animals that used to graze on the North America’s Great Plains.  

Recently, 100 bison were being transferred from Badlands National Park to the Rosebud Indian Reservation, where Heinert lives. As twilight descended, the final shipment of revered American buffalo arrived at their new home in Rosebud reservation – offering hope and renewal to those on the land. This repopulation effort is significant as it helps to restore a key species to its historic range and allows for the continuation of traditional cultural practices and ceremonies for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. 

Heinert states that it’s a struggle between man and nature. While most bison in North America are part of commercial herds and treated like cattle, many tribes have always viewed them as wildlife and something greater – a symbol of their culture, identity and spiritual connection with the land. 

From coast to coast – spanning from New York to Alaska – Native Americans are actively striving for the reclaiming of bison. With over 20,000 bison in an astounding 65 tribes, these efforts have proven fruitful, as they seek to take back stewardship of a beast that their ancestors once lived alongside and depended upon. 

For centuries, bison have been deeply ingrained in the lives of the Lakota Sioux and countless other nomadic tribes who followed their migrations. From clothing and teepees made of hides, to bones crafted into tools and weapons, horns fashioned into ladles and hair used as rope – a reliable number of bison were fundamental to their way of life. 

The Rosebud Sioux are committed to expanding their herds in order to guarantee a reliable source of food. Meanwhile, both the Blackfeet from Montana and tribes located in Alberta have proposed an imaginative solution – creating a unified “transboundary herd” that would span across two countries at Glacier National Park. Additionally, these same tribal groups aspire for a large-scale venture: establishing what has been called ‘A buffalo commons’ on U.S federal lands within central Montana, enabling tribes with the opportunity for hunting these stunning creatures once again.  

“What would it look like to have 30 million buffalo in North America again?” said Cristina Mormorunni, a Métis Indian who’s worked with the Blackfeet to restore bison. 

Deb Haaland, the first Native American U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who is heading the repopulation effort of bison on native American lands, acknowledged that it’s impossible to fully replicate the bison’s historical range due to human development. However, her agency has made significant strides in restoring the bison population by transferring over 20,000 bison to tribes and tribal organizations over the past 20 years.  

This is typically done to control the size of government-controlled herds and ensure they don’t exceed the available land. This repopulation effort is not only helping to restore a key species to its historic range but also allowing for the continuation of traditional cultural practices and ceremonies for native American tribes. 

Yellowstone National Park is beginning an ambitious project to update their bison management plan, which has remained unchanged for over two decades. Yet this endeavor faces a multitude of complexities – including the spread of bacterial disease, resistance from Montana cattle ranchers and politicians, as well as the fact that wild bison have a tendency to wander far beyond park boundaries. It remains uncertain what sweeping changes may be implemented in order to protect both humans and animals alike with such differing interests at play. 

Colonization radically altered the fate of bison and their habitat. European immigrants overexploited resources in traditional grasslands, and horses multiplied hunter efficiency among Plains tribes — all while overseas fur markets drove insatiable demand for hides. An unimaginable number of bison were slaughtered annually, as drought cycles only further diminished their dwindling territory. 

In the late nineteenth century, a dramatic shift in policy saw the United States Army driving an agenda of mass bison slaughter and forced Indigenous relocations. The intention was to clear land for westward settlement while simultaneously reducing Native American economic power through ending their dependence on bison. This campaign proved disastrously effective. by 1884, there were only a few hundred wild buffalo remaining across America’s Great Plains region after just over 15 years of aggressive pursuit from U.S forces induced herd decimation had taken its toll. 

The American bison, a symbol of significance and strength, has been brought back from the brink with the help of conservation efforts – yet its future remains uncertain. As it rebounds in numbers, ranchers fear they must compete against this shaggy-haired giant for precious resources such as grass and water that are key to their livelihoods. Others wonder what the environmental impact will be. Still others wonder about tourists and the bison, with the presence of tourist vehicles or noise from visitors could cause stress to the bison, making them more susceptible to disease or decreasing their numbers. 

The relationship between humans and bison presents an ongoing challenge, as humans continue to develop and settle in areas that were once bison habitats. This can lead to competition for resources and potential conflicts between the two. On one hand, human protection of bison and their habitats can lead to a harmonious coexistence, but on the other hand, economic hardship for humans can lead to big losses for the bison population. Ultimately, it’s a delicate balance that requires careful management and consideration to ensure that both humans and bison can thrive in their shared environment. 

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