Background Content

Food Insecurity

Bison bounce back in the American West, giving Indigenous nations hope for restorations of their own

January 9, 2024

Tribes and the U.S. government are reintroducing herds of native animals like never before, and Canadians who want to do the same are taking notes

Bison graze on Kalispel territory in northeastern Washington state. This tribe is one of several in the United States working toward restoration of animals that have fed Indigenous people in the Americas for thousands of years.NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


Marcus McClung steers a Toyota Tacoma down roads turned into greasy mud by rain. He scans the horizon, occasionally grabbing binoculars in hopes of spotting his quarry among the dark shrubs. But the view is obscured by thick waves of fog that roll in.

The bison have vanished into their new landscape.

Mr. McClung, a wildlife biologist for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in eastern Washington state, doesn’t know where they have gone. “Did they spread out more than we think or what?” he asks. “Has the rain pushed them somewhere?”

He brings the Tacoma to a stop on a bluff overlooking Buffalo Lake. It was here that the Colville released 33 bison in late September. “They just took off right away,” Mr. McClung said.

It was a good omen, although it took just half an hour for the first complaint to arrive at the tribal office. The bison had found someone’s cattle hay and begun to help themselves, an immediate reminder of the difficulties inherent to reintroducing species to a landscape altered first by the firearms that exterminated nearly all of the continent’s tens of millions of bison, then by the fences and farms built in their stead.

“Re-establishing them to the landscape, it’s not as easy as when there was less people,” said Colville chairman Jarred-Michael Erickson. “But a lot of it is just because it’s the right thing to do. I always think a lot of our native species that were extirpated or endangered – that was done to Native Americans. In my mind, I’m trying to right historical wrongs.”

The Colville have also brought back lynx, pronghorn and bighorn sheep.

Their bison program forms part of a growing U.S. movement to bring the native bovines back, with major conservation groups investing in tribal bison restoration, federal agencies changing laws to support bison consumption by Indigenous communities and Native American leaders embracing the establishment of herds, even in places where bison may not have traditionally thrived.

“There’s never been this kind of momentum for buffalo restoration across agencies, tribes, philanthropy or organizations,” said Troy Heinert, executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, which has 84 members in 21 states. Together, they now manage over 30,000 bison, up roughly 40 per cent from a decade ago, Mr. Heinert said. Bison roam a million acres of U.S. tribal land.

Bison programs such as the Kalispel’s have gained new momentum as the U.S. government and conservation groups look to Indigenous expertise on how to restore herds.NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The COVID-19 pandemic was a motivator, exposing vulnerabilities for tribal members in remote places, some of whom struggled to secure food during lockdowns. “Tribes used what happened in COVID to say never again,” Mr. Heinert said.

The U.S. government, too, has begun to change course. Early last year, an executive order from Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland pledged new efforts “to restore wild and healthy populations of American bison and the prairie grassland ecosystem,” and committed more than US$25-million from the Inflation Reduction Act for such work.

The Joe Biden administration has placed dozens of Indigenous leaders into prominent positions, including Ms. Haaland, the interior secretary, and Heather Dawn Thompson, the director of the Office of Tribal Relations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“You really have folks that understand the importance of these tribal lands, of tribal and Indigenous values, of Indigenous plants and animals, in a way that we’ve not seen before in the federal government,” said Ms. Thompson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Major pieces of legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act have provided flexibility to try new things like a pilot under which USDA buys bison meat and redistributes it on reservations through a federally-funded food program.

It will take more work to make such programs a core part of what USDA does, she said. But Ms. Thompson pointed to the value of bison as a resilient animal that can be ecologically beneficial and a source of considerable protein. “The restoration of buffalo plays a really key role in tribal food sovereignty going forward,” she said. “Tribes have made very clear to us that they believe returning to their Indigenous diets is a really key component in restoring tribal health.”

In 2017, Parks Canada staff watch as bison are released into Banff National Park in Alberta. A calf takes its first steps.SUPPLIED BY PARKS CANADA

The changes in the U.S. have caught the attention of those in Canada who say there is much to learn.

“To me, it would have the biggest impact ever to bring what the U.S. is doing to Canada,” said Marie-Eve Marchand, a Canadian bison advocate who is executive director of the International Buffalo Relations Institute. Relative to what is happening in Canada at the moment, “the gap is – way big.”

Canada has played its own role in helping U.S. bison restoration. Parks Canada, which manages a preserved herd at Elk Island National Park, just east of Edmonton, has sent hundreds of bison to the U.S. since 2010, including to the Blackfeet nation in Montana.

Now, the Fort Peck Tribes, also in Montana, are preparing to send roughly 50 bison that originated in Yellowstone National Park to First Nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The international transfer between Indigenous groups still needs to receive regulatory approval. But it will be a gift, said Robert Magnan, director of the Fort Peck Tribes and game department.

“Tribal nations are becoming strong again,” he said. “The buffalo, like the Native Americans, were almost wiped out. But we survive. And now we need to work together to show that continued survival.”

In the U.S., tribal involvement in bison restoration began decades ago. The 33 bison delivered to the Colville last year came from the nearby Kalispel Tribe, which received their first 12 bison in 1974 from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Today, the Kalispel manage 220 bison and operate a slaughtering operation, employing 11 people in a program that costs US$1.1-million a year. Until recently, that was funded largely by revenues from tribal casinos.

But in early December, the Kalispel were added to a USDA purchasing program. It will put nearly 550 kilograms a month onto the plates of tribal members. “We’re going to start getting paid for what we already do. That’s a win-win for us,” said Derrick Bluff, the director of agriculture for the tribe, whose reservation lies not far from the Canadian border in eastern Washington.

In addition to harvesting bison, he is also managing the animals for distribution to others. “We’re hoping to start more herds,” he said.

Such transfers underscore “the growing autonomy of the indigenous bison restoration effort in which First Nations possess sovereignty to restore a keystone species of paramount cultural importance,” said Kenneth Zontek, an instructor at Yakima Valley College and author of Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison.

But the Kalispel have also been part of a realignment of powerful conservation groups toward tribal bison efforts. Some of the bison sent to Mr. Bluff have come from The Nature Conservancy, or TNC, which has managed several herds since the 1970s and now has 6,000 bison.

“What we didn’t understand originally was that they’re not only an ecological keystone, they’re also a cultural keystone for Indigenous peoples,” said Corissa Busse, TNC’s buffalo restoration program manager. The Nature Conservancy has traditionally sold off excess bison. Since 2020, it has worked with Mr. Heinert’s group to transfer them to tribal nations: 70 in 2020, 200 the following year and another 1,500 in the past two.

“The reality is that buffalo were driven to near-extinction to force Indigenous peoples onto reservation,” Ms. Busse said. “Working to bring buffalo home is an act of healing and restoration.”

By the time this coloured lithograph of a buffalo hunt was made in 1897, settlers had already badly depleted stocks of game animals in the American West, hampering Indigenous people’s ability to feed themselves.MULLER, LUCHSINGER & CO., LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
Mass slaughters, like this one on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, were a common practice by railways that saw roaming animals as a nuisance that could block their routes.WOOD ENGRAVING BY W. MEASON AFTER ERNEST GRISET, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Height data collected by anthropologist Franz Boas has shown that mid-19th century bison-hunting societies on the Great Plains were the tallest people on Earth. The disappearance of that nutritional bounty has left a deep imprint. Those who were once arguably the best-off have been left in dire circumstances. Native Americans who once relied on bison have incomes that are 20 to 40 per cent below the average for U.S. tribal nations, a group that is already among the most impoverished in the country. “Arguably, the decline of the bison was one of the largest devaluations of human capital in North American history,” University of Victoria researchers wrote in 2018.

“When they lost the buffalo as native people, they have been dealing with scarcity ever since,” said Dennis Jorgensen, bison program manager for the World Wildlife Fund, or WWF. At the same time, Indigenous groups have been largely overlooked by donors in the U.S., receiving just 0.4 per cent of philanthropic dollars, despite representing 2.9 per cent of the population.

Tribal wildlife restoration programs have offered an avenue for change. Last year, 40 per cent of the projects awarded by the America the Beautiful Challenge, a public-private grant program for ecosystem work, went to tribal groups.

The WWF worked with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota to develop a plan to restore bison to 28,000 acres. They raised US$6-million and now have 1,200 bison, the largest Native-owned herd in the country. As the herd grows, their business plan suggests considerable profit is possible from selling animals for meat.

“It’s about getting tribes to a place where they have land committed to restoring bison,” said Mr. Jorgensen, a Canadian who lives in Bozeman, Mont.

The Kalispel reservation hopes to start more herds to supply other Indigenous nations to restore bison in their territories.NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Doing so is not straightforward. Millions of acres of tribal land are leased for cattle grazing. Ranchers often resist introduction of a species that can spread disease.

But there is potential to elevate the status of bison and the grasslands they inhabit to a global conservation priority, “where it’s more on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than what everyone has done in the past,” said Mr. Jorgensen.

“There are so many corporations and NGOs that are working with developing nations around the world, but they haven’t been realizing there are developing nations that need their support right here,” he said, pointing to the impoverished state of many tribal nations.

The bison now grazing Colville land constitute only a small part of that broader ambition. Much remains unknown about how the animals will adapt. It’s not clear how many bison inhabited this area in the past. Some historical records suggest they were hunted in the area two centuries ago, but the Colville have struggled to identify the proper term in their language for the animals.

“It’s going to be a research winter to see how well [the bison] deal with the habitat. Are they going to survive? Do we need to supplement more hay?” said Mr. McClung.

Still, the mere presence of the animal has already set in motion the possibility of other work to restore local ecosystems.

“Now that we have them, do we need more shrub steppe? Do we need to start propagating grassland for these guys?” said Mr. McClung.

“You are putting the puzzle pieces back together of the habitat,” he said.

Conservation and First Nations: More from The Globe and Mail

In Canada, the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area is often touted as a success story in First Nations-led conservation. In 2022, one of the negotiators behind it, Addie Jonasson, spoke with The Decibel about what the park’s creators hoped to gain for future generations. Subscribe for more episodes.

‘Salmon parks’ in traditional First Nations territory aim to save Vancouver Island habitats from old-growth logging

Ottawa, B.C. and First Nations Leadership Council agree to invest up to $1-billion on conservation

Ken Coates and JP Gladu: Slowly but surely, Indigenous Peoples are gaining control of traditional lands