Congress is considering supporting tribal buffalo recovery

A bipartisan bill proposed Friday would require the Interior Department to create a permanent program to support ongoing efforts by tribal governments to restore wild bison herds.

The bill proposed by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Oka.) would be an important step toward addressing one of America’s most glaring conservation failures.

The program would provide $14 million annually for efforts to transport wild buffalo from federal public lands to tribal reservations. It would also offer grants and technical assistance to support tribal efforts to expand buffalo habitat.

“Bison has been an important part of our culture for many generations, in New Mexico, throughout the West and especially in Indian Country,” Heinrich said in a statement. “The growth of tribal buffalo herds in recent decades is both a symbol of the continued resilience of this iconic species and a major opportunity for economic development…I hope that in my lifetime, thanks to a broad coalition, we will see the return of the bison “the prominent place they once occupied as a keystone species in the American shortgrass prairies.”

Leaders of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, an 82-member coalition that advocates for the return of wild bison to tribal lands, welcomed the bill.

“It is simply impossible to overstate both the importance of the buffalo to the Indian people and the damage caused when the buffalo were driven to near extinction,” ITBC President Ervin Carlson said in a statement. “By helping tribes restore buffalo herds on our reservation lands, Congress will help us reconnect with a cornerstone of our historic culture and provide jobs and an important source of protein that our people truly need.”

This is the third time the bill has been introduced in Congress. Former Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who died last year, first proposed a version of the law in 2019.

Bison graze on a Cherokee Nation ranch in northeastern Oklahoma on September 27, 2022.
Bison graze on a Cherokee Nation ranch in northeastern Oklahoma on September 27, 2022.

Audrey Jackson/Associated Press

Over the past three decades, tribal governments have increasingly sought to reintroduce wild herds onto reservation lands, often working with Yellowstone National Park to transport animals that would otherwise be culled by federal officials.

For tribes that historically lived alongside wild buffalo, the animal’s return has launched a unique movement that combines social justice, cultural restoration and wildlife protection.

In July, the Blackfeet Nation won the historic step of releasing wild bison on tribal land, where they will almost certainly hike toward Glacier National Park, laying the foundation for one of these hikes most far-reaching buffalo restoration efforts over decades.

But the attempt to bring buffalo back into the tribal area also faces major obstacles.

The Yellowstone buffalo population has a high incidence of brucellosis, a bacterial disease that causes miscarriages and hinders weight gain. Relocating the animals or expanding their range often faces strong opposition from ranchers, a major political force in this country western states like Montanawho fear the disease could spread to cattle.

Most reservations also lack the land base to rebuild large herds — largely a result of federal land privatization policies dating back to the Dawes Act of 1887. The law introduced a homeland-like system on tribes called “allotments,” then opened unallocated tribal lands to white settlers.

Given this heritage, expanding buffalo habitat often requires purchasing new land or working with ranchers to eliminate cattle grazing rights.

It is estimated that before European colonization, North America’s wild buffalo herds numbered 30 to 60 million animals. Today, fewer than half a million remain, the vast majority of them living on commercial ranches. Only over There are 20,000 bison left today in wild conservation herds.

“Buffalo are as ubiquitous on the land as the indigenous peoples who have lived here for thousands of years,” ITBC board member Jason Baldes said in a statement. “The species is necessary not only to heal the land, but also to revitalize and protect our culture and maintain connections to our ancestral heritage.”

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