Having fought for years to get bison restored to their lands, American Indians on the Fort Peck Reservation are now mourning the loss of 10 of the animals in a wildfire.
Wildfires ripped through pastureland at Fort Peck in mid-September, with winds of 40 to 50 miles an hour whipping the flames across the grasslands. By the time the fire was subdued, about 15,000 acres had burned, including the pasture containing the 82 bison—61 adults transported to the reservation last March, plus 21 calves born since then.
The fire started on U.S. Highway 13 and went east, right through the reservation’s buffalo ranch, Fort Peck Director of Fish and Game Robert Magnan told Indian Country Today Media Network.
“We have four pastures; two are for the Yellowstone buffalo,” he said. “The fire went through one pasture, the one that was 2,100 acres, and a temporary pasture we had put them in. About 90 percent of that pasture burned.”
The cow and calf never had a chance, Magnan said.
“The wind carried that fire so fast they couldn’t get out of the way,” he said. “In the following days since, we’ve been rounding them up and we finally got them all back together. Some were severely burned, and we had to put them down. The rest look okay.”
Despite the loss, it could have been worse. Magnan said several neighboring cattle ranches had their fences, old wooden pole fences, “burned down to nothing.” The tribal fences withstood the flames much more handily.
“The only things we lost were the corner posts and the braces,” Magnan said, adding that new posts made of fiberglass had been put up for an electric fence. “It didn’t even hurt them.”
New posts and braces have replaced the damaged ones, so the pasture is again secure, he said. The electric power unit was also burned, but another unit, ordered from Texas immediately after the fire, has already arrived and been hooked up. Magnan added that plans call for the bison to be moved very soon.
“We have another pasture for them adjacent to this pasture,” he said, one that didn’t burn. “We were lucky there.”
That pasture is 4,800 acres, more than double the size of the burned one.
“We’re bringing them into a bigger unit and getting them used to it,” Magnan said.
The loss of eight adults and two calves brings the current population down to 72 animals.