Buffalo stood near the fence, their winter coats changing to the sleeker, cooler summer coat. The golden-brown of the calves contrasted with the black and dark brown of the adults. The thriving herd had come to Fort Belknap from Yellowstone two years earlier, the animals genetically pure and long since shown to be free of any disease.
At long last, bison have been firmly established on a number of tribal lands. And the tourists are not far behind. To accommodate and attract them, tribes are capitalizing on the bisons’ resurgence.
And no wonder. They’re impressive animals, the heaviest in North America. A large bull can weigh a ton or more yet can run up to 40 miles an hour.
Fort Belknap boasts two herds, one of them transplanted from Yellowstone National Park.
Tourists flock to see them in Yellowstone, and now the curious can meet bison on the Fort Belknap Reservation as well. Tribal Tourism Director Ray Gone offers four tours, two of which take visitors to the buffalo herds. A viewing platform is presently under construction adjoining the fence where the Yellowstone herd is located. The tour to a second herd near Snake Butte also offers views of buffalo and some old teepee rings.
Another tour leads up Mission Canyon to the powwow grounds. The canyon is beautiful, a stream flows beside the road, trout are visible in the pools, and a natural stone arch above the roadway is spectacular. The powwow grounds have been described as the most beautiful in Montana, located in a high meadow surrounded by trees that offer great teepee locations. Higher mountains encircle the basin.
The fourth is an all-day tour termed the Lodgepole tour, named for one of the communities, and it circles through the reservation. Prices are reasonable at $25 for each adult and $15 for those seven through 18. Younger kids can go free, and sack lunches are provided.
Tourism is just one facet of the economic boom happening on the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Gone is pretty traditional, and listening to him describe tribal life and history is reason alone to take a tour. He spoke of his own fasting in the Sweet Grass Hills, how they ask grandmother and grandfather spirits to help them.
“These are the loved ones that went on to the other side, the Spirit World,” he told a group of travelers recently. He told of preparing holistically for the Sun Dance, how it lasts all night, and about how the buffalo once traveled through the valley toward the north in the spring and back southward in the fall.
Buffalo played a major role in tribal life in earlier times, so the return of these animals to the reservation has been a happy occasion for members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes, who share this Fort Belknap Reservation. Buffalo meat is again available, buffalo provide various jobs, and they help bring tourism dollars to the reservation.
Calf production during the past two years has added to the population, and the herd now numbers 46. The 980-acre pasture will only support about 100 animals under Bureau of Indian Affairs rules, but they would like to add additional land so it would eventually carry a herd of 400. Between 4,000 to 5,000 acres would be available to the rear of the present pasture, and additional land might also come available, said Mike Fox, former manager and fish and wildlife director for Fort Belknap.
Some small groups of buffalo might be shipped out prior to reaching the 400-animal goal, Fox said.
“One of the big things is just to provide seed stock to other tribes or state and national parks that want to have genetically pure buffalo,” Fox said.
Fox was the buffalo manager beginning in 1991 and remained in that job for about 10 years when buffalo were first reintroduced to the reservation. Those animals went to a pasture at Snake Butte, where they still remain. That herd presently numbers more than 700 on 22,000 acres dedicated to buffalo. They are not the genetically pure animals from Yellowstone, nor were they all initially tested for disease. For these reasons the two herds are kept in separate pastures, many miles apart.
The tribe quarantined those animals and took blood samples pretty much all through the ’90s, Fox said.
“We have records that everything was clean,” he said, adding that that program had been discontinued but will soon resume. “We’re going to start again just so we have proof our commercial herd is clean. The Yellowstone animals will be tested annually as part of the agreement with the state.”